From Hero To Zero: Queensland Turfs Out Campbell Newman


When I arrived in Brisbane on Thursday to cover the 2015 election, I had no idea the Liberal-National government of Campbell Newman was in so much trouble. From my southern vantage point in Melbourne, it was unclear whether the snap poll called by Premier Newman would come off.

As voters returned from holidays to turn their minds to an election few had given much thought to, sentiment started to turn against Newman and his government. Polls were certainly picking up a level of discontent. But the Premier and his inner sanctum were slow to realise just how savage the mood was turning.

By the time I hit the hustings, it was clear that the Premier was in deep, deep trouble. Just a few hours in and around Ashgrove and The Gap were enough to confirm the intensity of the sentiment. The LNP was seriously on the nose, that much was sure. But the Newman hatred was something else again. The Premier’s name had become almost a dirty word. The animosity was palpable.

The LNP's internal polls must have picked up the tsunami too. Newman flew back from north Queensland late on Thursday the 29th for a desperate last swing through his home electorate. It proved futile.

Almost no-one predicted a Labor victory. If the ALP does indeed form government next week, it will be one of the most remarkable results in Australian political history. The scale of the upset tonight dropped jaws across the state and the country. Just three years ago, the LNP won an unprecedented landslide. The vast majority that the LNP enjoyed made a Labor victory at the 2015 election seem unimaginable.

How was it that the LNP squandered so much support, so quickly? As I argued on Thursday, the abrasive style and unpopular policies of the Newman government made a big difference. But other factors, peculiar to the Sunshine State, also played a part.

We’ve always known Queensland is a volatile electorate. The state has a history of swinging, and swinging hard. In 1995, the supposedly popular Labor government of Wayne Goss was dispatched with little compunction; in 1998, the National government of Rob Borbidge was thrown out in a landslide. When the electorate turned against Anna Bligh’s Labor government in 2012, the result was the worst defeat in Australian electoral history. 

Why does Queensland swing so hard? In part, the tendency is due to the state’s relatively homogenous electoral geography. Although a highly regional state with many provincial cities, the state’s south-east is an almost uninterrupted mortgage belt of middle class voters. There are fewer blue ribbon strongholds and safe Labor seats – instead, even supposedly safe seats can remain in play with margins of eight, ten and twelve per cent.

Queensland also lacks an upper house. Many observers have lamented the lack of a second chamber in terms of checking the power of the executive, but it also plays a role in electoral psychology. Voters can’t hedge their bets with different votes in the upper and lower house: instead they get just a single vote to cast where they see fit. When a mood for change takes hold, it can prove decisive.

Finally, Queensland’s voting rules allow optional preferential voting. This means many voters “just vote 1”, placing only a single preference on their ballot papers. This allows voters to register their approval or disdain in an unadulterated expression of democratic preference.

Even so, the scale of the ALP swing tonight was mind-bending. Experienced political observers, both inside the major parties and in the media, repeatedly expressed shock and astonishment at the tidal wave sweeping LNP members from office.

In blue-ribbon Indooroopilly – as close to a lock for conservative politics as you can get – the swing was 13 per cent. In upmarket Clayfield, held by state Treasurer Tim Nicholls, the swing was 12 per cent. In Ashgrove, the Premier’s own seat and the seat he himself said would prove the bellwether for the broader election, the swing was 10 per cent.

Any way you looked at it, this was a massive repudiation of the LNP’s first term. Swings against first-term sitting governments are generally expected. Double-digit swings to throw them out are almost unprecedented. In Victoria last year, for instance, the swing to Labor was only 1.8 per cent – enough to win government, but a stubbed toe compared to the bloodbath experienced north of the Tweed.

Of course, much of the swing can be interpreted as a correction, considering the massive swings against Labor in 2012. Even so, this remains a stunning result. It yet again underlines the sheer irascibility of the Queensland electorate.

The message for politicians everywhere should be clear: voters can no longer be taken for granted. The old playbook doesn’t work anymore. The old verities – that incumbency conferred a natural advantage, that voters would give most governments a chance at a second term – no longer hold.

Caution must be exercised in trying to judge the new paradigm. This is, after all, simply another moment in the ongoing pageant of democracy. Queensland delivered an unbroken string of victories to Labor in the 2000s. But the magnitude of the shock, and the stunning downfall of the LNP government, surely has implications across the nation. At the very least, it has ended the career of Queensland's most successful conservative politician, Campbell Newman.

If we turn from the shock of the result, towards an examination of the policies that may have driven it, it is clear that voters agreed with Queensland Labor’s anti-privatisation message.

The Newman LNP government was one of the most neoliberal in Australia’s history. Pre-election promises to maintain public services were cynically broken. A trumped-up debt crisis was used to justify a classic neoliberal program of sweeping public service job cuts in an attempt to restore Queensland’s AAA credit rating. In a word, this was austerity. The LNP slashed health and education spending and removed environmental regulations, making it easier for businesses to pollute and to develop. Its signature policy in this campaign was privatisation – selling off state assets with the fig leaf of a 99-year lease.

As Jason Wilson observed in the Guardian, these policies have never been popular. Hard-line austerity has never enjoyed a popular support base in this country, and if anything, the Queensland result underlines the leftward shift of an electorate that only a few years ago seemed firmly conservative.

As tonight's result makes clear, voters don't like cuts to health and education, the sacking of public servants or the sale of public assets. These policies are loathed, in state politics and federally. 

Nowhere will the aftershocks be felt more keenly than in Canberra, where the Prime Ministership of Tony Abbott looks suddenly terminal. State issues, of course, were paramount in tonight's verdict. But the contribution of an immensely unpopular federal leader surely contributed to the result. After all, the Newman and Abbott governments share much in common in style and substance: their combative nature, their neoliberal policies and their disdain for public assets and the public good.

The repudiation of the Newman government can only add to the pressure on Tony Abbott's leadership. His days in office are now surely numbered. 

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