The Queensland Election: Where Too Much Politics May Prove More Than Enough

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They do things differently in Queensland, and this year’s state election campaign is no exception.

The election pits the rampant Liberal-National Party of Campbell Newman against a tiny Labor opposition led by the relatively inexperienced and untested Annastacia Palaszczuk. The poll will be held on Saturday, after a truncated and chaotic campaign called by Queensland Premier Campbell Newman just after Christmas.

Newman is seeking re-election after a turbulent first term in government. His Liberal-National Party government won office in 2012 from Labor’s Anna Bligh, in one of the largest landslides in Australian electoral history. Labor was almost wiped out, winning just a handful of seats. The LNP enjoyed one of the largest majorities in history, occupying a whopping three quarters of the parliament.

Given this background, it’s astonishing that the election race is as close as it is. The LNP appears to have squandered much of the political capital it enjoyed on winning office. Current polls are lumpy and difficult to interpret, but they all point to a huge swing back to Labor. While the LNP is still expected to win, the ALP could pick up as many as 30 seats on Saturday night. Newman himself is in deep trouble in his own seat of Ashgrove.

The swing against the government is undoubtedly partly of its own making. The massive mandate it won in 2012, and Queensland’s lack of an upper house, meant that the LNP enjoyed unprecedented power to pursue pet projects and ram through unpopular policies.

But that huge victory also gave Newman plenty of opportunity to indulge his headstrong tendencies. Always combative, his government’s style has been abrasive, even vindictive at times. Those that found themselves at odds with his government have been relentlessly hounded and vilified, whether they were outlaw motorcycle gangs or mild-mannered Brisbane doctors and lawyers.

Newman came to office promising to restore the Queensland government’s shaky finances. But he gave no hint of the chainsaw he would wield on the Queensland public service. In Treasurer Tim Nicholls first budget, billions were slashed from public spending. All told, more than 14,000 public servants lost their jobs.

The scale of the job shedding – with much of the cost cutting coming at the expense of good, middle-class jobs in middle ring commuter suburbs – caused real pain in the Queensland economy, particularly in Brisbane. Employment fell a full per cent in a quarter. In suburban Brisbane, there are few voters who don’t know a friend or family member affected by the austerity. Ironically, Newman’s own seat of Ashgrove, with its high concentration of health and education workers, was one of the hardest hit by the retrenchments.

Whether that pain will be remembered, or whether voters will reward the Newman government for its subsequent budget repair, is one of the big unanswered questions of this election.

Queensland is still in deficit, but the 2014 budget papers project a surplus next year. However, the state’s economy is not exactly in rude health. Growth is moderate at best, with the coal and gas booms of the past decade having run their course. Unemployment is above the national average, at 6.9 per cent – the highest of any mainland state. Brisbane’s housing market, always a useful leading indicator of economic confidence, is languishing compared to southern capitals.

But the economy is only half the story of the Newman government’s troubles. If the economy is treading water, the Sunshine State’s political climate has turned very sour indeed.

Part of the problem is Newman himself. A tremendously successful politician, Newman was a two-time Lord-Mayor of Brisbane before winning government for the LNP without even holding a seat in Queensland Parliament. He’s never lost a major poll, and this self-belief underpins his aggressive style.

Newman relishes political combat, and has spent much of his first term at war with his perceived enemies. After a spree of violent crime on the Gold Coast, Newman declared war on motorcycle gangs, ramming through a series of tough new laws intended to crack down on the bikie menace. In the process, the government also restricted centuries-old political freedoms, such as freedom of association and the presumption of innocence.

When lawyers and civil libertarians raised understandable concerns about the new laws, Newman and his high-profile Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie went to war with them too, alienating much of Queensland’s legal fraternity in the process. The absurdity of the new VLAD Act was highlighted when one of the first people charged under the legislation turned out to be a librarian with no criminal record who had been ‘associating’ with her motorcyclist boyfriend. 

Doctors also felt the ire of the Premier. New contracts introduced by Queensland Health were intended to improve waiting times and free up specialists to perform more elective surgery. But the government bungled its consultation with doctors, who threatened to walk off the job. Rather than sit down and negotiate, Newman and his health Minister Lawrence Springborg attacked the doctors – Newman even threatening to replace them with overseas specialists.

This kind of over-reaction has been characteristic of Newman’s reign, as has an authoritarian style. The LNP has methodically wound back environmental protections and regulations, loosened political donation laws, attacked the independence of the Crime and Misconduct Commission and politicised the appointment of Chief Justice Tim Carmody.

So noticeable has the trend been that the state’s famous corruption fighter, Tony Fitzgerald, has become a fierce critic of the Newman regime. In recent times he has written a number of negative opinion articles. On Friday he wrote a devastating opinion article for the ABC.

From behind a populist facade, [the Newman government]engaged in rampant nepotism, sacked, stacked and otherwise reduced the effectiveness of parliamentary committees, subverted and weakened the state's anti-corruption commission, made unprecedented attacks on the courts and the judiciary, appointed a totally unsuitable Chief Justice, reverted to selecting male judges almost exclusively and, from a position of lofty ignorance, dismissed its critics for their effrontery.

How much of this will matter come Saturday?

Not much, perhaps. In keeping with Queensland’s checkered political history, the LNP looks likely to retain government, albeit with a massively reduced majority.

After looking decidedly ropey late last year, the LNP has rediscovered a modicum of political discipline since the election was called. The government’s strategy of sticking to a repetitive message of jobs and the economy, dubbed “Operation Boring,” is credited with clawing back a lead in opinion polls and righting a listing ship.

The campaign itself has also played to the LNP’s strengths. And strength is very much the operative word: the LNP’s campaign material is almost obsessed with power adjectives, using the word “strong” more times than a weightlifting commentator. Newman’s “Strong Choices” plan is superficially about using asset leases to fund an ambitious $8 billion infrastructure spending plan, but in a deeper sense is about presenting Newman and his government as organised, efficient and pro-development.

Asset sales and privatisation have thus become the key issue in the campaign so far: the clearest point of difference between the major parties. There's history here. It was a decision by Anna Bligh to backflip on privatising state assets in 2009 that proved the turning point for Labor's chances in its final term. Understandably, the ALP is now (again) promising not to sell any state assets. But it also means Labor has no credible way to fund new promises. The party has made relatively few big ticket spending commitments. 

This election has also been characterised by markedly different campaign styles. The LNP has flooded the airwaves, spending up big on paid advertising. A diminished ALP opposition has struggled to keep up. Caught off guard by the early announcement of the poll, Labor has yet to announce a full suite of policies, or any election costings. While Opposition Leader Annastacia Palaszczuk has shown herself to be a dogged and persistent campaigner, she hasn’t been able to land a killer blow. Labor has instead worked on its ground game, concentrating on old-fashioned door knocking and word of mouth. 

In truth, outside of Palaszczuk's inner circle, most in Labor do not expect to win the state election on Saturday. The ALP will be content to win enough seats to challenge in 2018. With the left faction of the party recently winning control of the state party apparatus, there are plenty of behind-the-scenes machinations afoot. Despite her apparent success as an opposition leader, Palaszczuk is expected to be dumped sometime after the election.

But this is Queensland, where anything can happen, and often does. One scenario that is exciting political observers is the possibility of the LNP winning the state-wide poll, but Newman losing his seat in Ashgrove. That would pose unprecedented constitutional puzzles, with some even suggesting Newman could attempt to retain his job as Premier from outside the Parliament ,while a safe seat is found for him to parachute into.

New Matilda will be on the ground in Ashgrove on election night reporting on the race. It promises to be a fascinating night. 

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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