A SLEW of poor opinion polls has conservatives in Queensland pondering what should be an unthinkable question: could the LNP, under Campbell Newman, lose office in Queensland next year? The proposition — in the face of a colossal election win two years ago — ought to be ridiculous, but stubborn poor polling dictates it be considered. The smart money says the LNP is safe, but it has a “get out of jail” card if things appear to become truly dire.
Like many readers — and as an old Brisbane boy — I follow the political goings-on in Queensland very closely; whilst opinion polls are simply snapshots in time that often bear no resemblance to a subsequent election result, the determinedly downward trend in the Newman government’s numbers, in light of the huge win it scored just two years ago, is a warning that should only be ignored at its peril.
I’ve been reading The Australian this morning and thought I should make some comments on the story it is carrying, dealing as it does with the latest quarterly Newspoll in Queensland showing a swing against the LNP of nearly 11% after preferences based on the 2012 election result: a swing, to be clear, that could see the government not just lose its majority but lose an election outright depending on where the votes fall.
Nobody can say, 12 months from an election, whether this kind of finding will translate into actual votes; it could very well be that Queenslanders — confronted with the reality of the choice between re-electing the LNP or returning to the train smash that was 23 years of almost unbroken ALP rule in their state — swing back to Newman in droves, and that the LNP holds office with the loss of a relatively small number of seats.
I opined after the 2012 election that the gain of 15 additional seats in 2015 (on top of the 7 out of 89 the 2012 election saw it hold) would be a highly credible result for the ALP, and a small but definitive step along the road to political recovery. In some respects, it still would be.
Yet whilst opinion polling has its limitations, sustained polling heralding the same outcome — in this case, a massive swing against the LNP — must be taken seriously.
To be clear, Queensland Labor has neither made the case to resume government, nor refashioned itself into a political outfit deserving of being taken seriously; as recently as this morning this column has had something to say about its joke of a leader, who would rather split hairs over a business class airfare for the Premier than focus on the huge potential benefits of the trade deal that airfare carried him to the negotiating table for. This charade alone pretty much sums Labor’s — and Annastacia Palaszczuk’s — limitations up.
The Queensland ALP received a free bonus of sorts in February, winning the seat of Redcliffe in a by-election swing of some 16%. But it would be dangerous to read too much into it; Redcliffe had been vacated by an utter grub who should never have been preselected, and whose actions had him in line for expulsion from Parliament before he took the coward’s option of slinking out the side door. And Scott Driscoll, whose questionable financial transactions might yet see him face criminal charges, probably accounted for at least 10% of that 16% swing.
Even so, the poor headlines for Newman’s government continue; despite the wishful thinking of some within the ALP, the LNP’s cuts to public expenditure have not resonated with the broader electorate: in the sense that they might have there is a broad understanding that the government has been doing what it was elected to do, which is to clean up the mess Labor made of its budget (like Labor makes a mess anywhere that it is foolishly entrusted with the management of taxpayers’ money).
But the Driscoll fiasco damaged it, as did the embarrassing spat centred on Bruce Flegg and his sacked advisor 18 months ago; and the cavalier machinations of Clive Palmer — who stomped out of the LNP because it refused to do exactly as he wished in government — are, where Queensland is concerned, designed with the almost singular objective of rendering as much damage upon the LNP as possible.
The episode that seems to have done the most damage, however, is the crackdown on outlaw bikie gangs the government has pursued, and laws around the right to associate and assemble that are worryingly reminiscent of some of the excesses of the Bjelke-Petersen era.
Not that a strong-arm, arrogant, autocratic style is a bar to governing Queensland, mind; Bjelke-Petersen wasn’t the first Premier in the Sunshine State to exude those tendencies and he wasn’t the last, and nor was his purveyance of them confined to the conservative side of politics. The name Wayne Goss springs vividly to mind. In some respects, that of Peter Beattie does, too.
But the crude noise makers at the ALP (and its cohorts in the union movement) are putting a more concerted effort into tearing the Newman government down than they are in perhaps any other conservative-controlled jurisdiction in the country: given the lengths they went to demonising the Prime Minister — ultimately failing to prevent him winning an election — that’s a big call.
And momentum — that intangible force in politics that can be with you one moment and against you the next — seems to be running against Newman if not, perhaps, explicitly in the favour of his opponents.
So could he lose?
The first point to make in any consideration of this question is that Queensland’s electoral boundaries are rigged in Labor’s favour; like its counterparts interstate who overcame electoral boundaries weighted toward rural voters to win office, Labor replaced gerrymandered boundaries in 1992 with “fair” electoral laws that contain a bias of 2-4% toward the ALP.
If anyone doubts this, a revisitation of the 1995 state election — at which the Coalition won 53.6% of the two-party vote and failed to win a majority — should dispel those doubts.
And having scored 63% of the two-party vote in 2012, there are different opinions on exactly what movement against the LNP would reap what consequence, chiefly on account of the number of contests not fought out between the LNP and Labor. Even so, the best guess I can make is that a uniform swing of 10.3% will cost the LNP its majority, and a uniform swing of 10.7% will elect the ALP in its own right: 2.4% less than what, on paper, would see the LNP vote fall below 50% after preferences.
And Labor has presided over every state redistribution in Queensland since the notorious one undertaken by Bjelke-Petersen and his crony, Russ Hinze, in 1985: even if it wanted to, the LNP can’t undertake a redistribution under Queensland law until after next year’s election, and the spectre of the gerrymander would simply hand Labor a sledgehammer with which to campaign if it attempted to do so.
The question of the fairness or otherwise of boundaries shouldn’t even come into the equation, given the scope of the win two years ago; a swing to the ALP as a correction is a certainty, and a swing of 5% or thereabouts would probably be a reasonable expectation as a starting point: no matter how well Newman and the LNP governed, there are seats it holds that by rights should never have been lost by the ALP (and no, I am not going to specify which ones they are :) ).
To me, the question of whether the LNP might lose office has less to do with statewide considerations than it does with the political atmospherics within greater Brisbane; from the Goss victory in 1989 until the LNP triumph in 2012 Brisbane was an impermeable ALP citadel. Even in 1995, when National Party leader Rob Borbidge would have led the Coalition to a romping win had the boundaries been fair, the Liberals could muster just seven of the (then) 30 seats in the capital.
Stripped of the silly LNP structures that I still maintain should never have been entered into, Queensland has a Liberal-dominated government for the only time in its political history; that 2012 win saw ex-Liberals storm the citadel, along with a clean sweep in most of the coastal and regional electorates they contested. Of the 74 continuing LNP MPs, more than 40 are ex-Liberals; the fate of the government hangs on their fortunes, for the ex-Nationals sitting in country seats are far likelier, proportionately, to hold onto seats they have held for many years.
An interesting feature of the coming contest is the Premier’s electorate of Ashgrove; once a traditional Liberal seat, it was won by Labor in 1983 and held by the ALP for most of the time since, and usually quite comfortably.
Newman has indicated he will not transfer to a safer seat for next year’s election: this is a great shame, with Moggill MP Bruce Flegg — who holds the safest LNP electorate in Brisbane — having arguably reached his political use-by date almost a decade ago, if not years before even setting foot in state Parliament. The switch of “yesterday’s man” for the Premier would be a logical one to make, although I appreciate such a move is fraught with the kind of internal hari-kari only Queensland Liberals are capable of either engaging in or comprehending.
My sense is that the LNP will be re-elected next year, come what may, although it might not be by a great margin; a messy scrap resulting in a swing of, say, 8% (and the loss of about 20-25 seats) could be worse than losing altogether, especially if the epicentre of the movement against the LNP is in Brisbane. The recriminations — and the infighting — could get well out of hand, to say nothing of the fillip such an outcome would provide to a demoralised Labor Party in desperate search of a change in its fortunes.
Intangibles lurk in the form of the Katter Australia Party and the Palmer United Party: in the case of the former, much of its primary vote in 2012 was drawn off the LNP, which might otherwise have scored 55% of the vote; and whilst polling consistently shows Katter support collapsing to near non-existent levels, in the crudest sense the quantum of its 2012 support is likely now tied up with Palmer’s crowd.
Palmer, for his part, seems hellbent on the destruction of the LNP, which makes me shake my head each time it becomes evident he has won something by drawing support off the conservative parties: the man is, by his actions, an asset to the ALP, which should have even the most disenchanted LNP supporter questioning whether a flirtation with Palmer is worth the bother.
There is ample evidence he heralds little appeal in the larger southern states, and was decisively rebuffed at the state election in Tasmania last month. Yet just when it seemed safe to anticipate the Palmer tempest might be passing, its attention-addicted figurehead aped his way to a 13% primary vote in WA and the easy election of a Senator last weekend. Yes, it was a by-election in all but name. But even so…
Along with the unknown behaviour of Brisbane voters, Palmer is the single biggest threat to the LNP government. Yet his gripe with it seems primarily aimed at Newman personally, despite his penchant for firing off verbal rounds at other LNP figures whenever he sees fit.
I return to Newman’s seat of Ashgrove, which with a 5.7% margin is in the big scheme of things and considering it was acquired at the crest of an electoral tidal wave, insecurely held — and this brings me to the “get out of jail” card I mentioned at the outset.
Ashgrove could become an unwinnable seat for the LNP simply on account of its past member, Kate Jones, acceding to the pressure being piled onto her in ALP circles to stand again. Jones is no world beater, and she could decide that her two small children are more deserving of her time than the rigours and frustrations of politics. But she is (by all accounts) a lovely girl who retains the affection of her former constituents, and forged a reputation as an effective local member. Newman got lucky against her once, but whether he would do so a second time is yet another variable that must be sifted from the mix.
If it becomes clear there is no way Newman can hold Ashgrove — and he’s already ruled out another seat — it may be that at some point toward the end of this year, he announces he’s retiring: resign the LNP leadership, and allow Tim Nicholls to become Premier.
It would need to be a Brisbane MP; country bumpkins such as three-time election loser Lawrence Springborg and the deeply unpopular Jeff Seeney simply won’t cut it with metropolitan voters, although the current fracas involving doctors in state-operated hospitals has probably terminated Health minister Springborg’s viability as an alternative LNP leader for good.
If Newman really has become the root cause and figurehead of the LNP’s woes and Ashgrove is beyond salvation, a leadership switch could be a panacea, but it’s a double-edged sword: if the move is miscalculated it will leave the LNP looking little better than NSW Labor, and only hasten its electoral demise.
Tricky times in Queensland. Not for the first time since heading south 16 years ago, I’m glad I’m no longer part of the membership body which must chart a course forward.