A DISTURBING NEWSPOLL from Queensland has been released today, showing the ALP within striking distance of winning the state election due in the next nine months, and Newspoll’s findings — published in The Australian today — bear an ominous degree of similarity to the votes cast in Queensland in 1998. Labor, on merit, is a dubious alternative indeed to the prospect of the Palmer United Party tearing governance in Queensland to shreds.
I have been around politics and elections for long enough — after almost 30 years — to know the ultimate cardinal sin is to tell voters “you got it wrong;” even so, once in a while, the electorate registers what can only be described, to put it very nicely, as a balls-up.
The politics of protest are an enterprise that has found fertile ground in which to germinate in recent years, and for all the headaches this causes Labor by having the overall Left-of-centre vote permanently rent asunder by the insidious presence of the
Communist Party Greens, when that protest materialises on the Right its capacity to cause incalculable damage on its own side of the spectrum tends to dwarf anything the Greens have inflicted on the ALP.
With this in mind, we’ll go through the Newspoll figures; then I want to talk about the infamous state election in Queensland of 13 June 1998, at which Pauline Hanson’s One Nation scored 23% of the primary vote and opened the door to 14 years of Labor government under Peter Beattie and Anna Bligh.
The parallels are stark. But first things first.
Newspoll paints a horror picture for the first-term government of Campbell Newman, with just 32% of respondents nominating a first preference vote for the LNP; this is a decline of 8% since March, and a whopping 17% since the state election in March 2012.
It finds Labor recording primary vote support of 34% (-2% since March, but +7.3% since the last election); the Greens on 8% (unchanged from March, and only slightly up on the 2012 figures); Bob Katter’s crowd with 2% (+1% from March, but down 9.5% on the last election) and “Others” with 24%: an increase of 9% in three months, and up a massive 19.4% since 2012.
There are few prizes for guessing what “Others” is mostly a euphemism for.
I’m not really concerned with whose approval numbers are up or down, or who’s preferred over whom as Premier, because to some extent this poll paints an overall picture that makes such silly questions redundant.
Suffice to say Premier Campbell Newman is now recording the kind of numbers Tony Abbott has for years, whilst opposition leader Annastacia Palaszczuk continues to be regarded as the latest uninspiring mediocrity Labor is attempting to foist on voters as it languishes on opposition benches across most of the country. Readers can access the Newspoll table here if these numbers are of particular interest.
I don’t deny that the LNP is unpopular in Queensland: in part because it has taken the tough decisions required of most Liberal governments following long-term ALP administrations into office, in part because some of the “shit” thrown relentlessly by a Labor Party utterly devoid of principles other than its lust for power has stuck, and partly because some of the Newman government’s legislative adventures (like its anti-bike gang laws) have touched a nerve in the electorate that has helped to siphon away support.
And whilst I stand by my usual position that this Newspoll is just a poll, the general polling trends coming out of Queensland of late dictate that it must be taken seriously.
Which is why I want to cut through what every analysis of opinion polling — whether here or in a newspaper — tends to do, projecting how many seats each party might win and how shocking/surprising/pleasing this is, and talk in terms of a straight comparison with the 1998 state election.
Newspoll’s numbers provide a chilling contrast with that event, the consequences of which were to tear conservative politics at the state level in Queensland to pieces, opening the door to almost a generation of insipid Labor government and an ill-advised merger of the Liberal and National parties. A 1998-style outcome, after a single term in office, would surely doom the relationship to end in divorce.
At the 1998 state election, the Coalition recorded a primary vote of 31.2% (-0.8% on this Newspoll), with the ALP scoring 39% (+5%), the Greens 2.4% (-5.6%), the Australian Democrats 1.6% (who? 🙂 ) and “Others” 3.2%.
The argument can be made, with some credibility, that variance in the ALP/Greens numbers cancel each other out, given the division in the vote of the Left has become more entrenched in the years since; the point is that the then-Coalition result is very similar to the LNP figure in Newspoll today, whilst the combined ALP/Greens numbers are almost identical.
So, too, is the level of support recorded by One Nation at the 1998 election (22.9%) and what appears to be the level of support identified by Newspoll for Clive Palmer’s Palmer United Party, which is tucked away in a vote for “Others” that Newspoll puts at 24%, and which — with the Katter numbers already split from it — can only, mostly, be Palmer’s.
The 1998 state election returned 44 ALP, 32 Coalition, 11 One Nation and two Independent MPs; provided they renominate it’s quite conceivable those Independents (Liz Cunningham in Gladstone and Peter Wellington in Nicklin) could, yet again, be re-elected.
And whilst it is premature to claim this Newspoll would see 11 PUP MPs elected — the spread of the vote, its concentration, the precise level of support (which is unknown) and the conduct of an actual election campaign are all variables — the risk is readily and soberingly apparent.
It has to be remembered that the Palmer United Party is, at its root, a protest vehicle born from Palmer’s dissatisfaction with the Frankenstein LNP creature he funded, helped to create, and found refused to do what he wanted it to do when elected to government.
Unlike One Nation — which was fuelled by redneck prejudices, irrespective of whatever basis in reason its founder insisted the party rested upon — PUP is promoted as a showy and populist avenue through which to “kick the bastards” by voting for someone “different.”
And the spectre of Palmer flexing his muscles in Canberra has already shown that despite the trashy rhetoric and silly stunts he’s prepared to engage in to win attention and votes, the wish list of his business interests remains very much foremost on the Palmer United Party’s agenda.
Unlike One Nation — which contested the 1998 election with no MPs — Palmer has two MPs that defected from the LNP, and a “parliamentary leader” in Alex Douglas who, in reality, isn’t a leader’s bootlace. Yet in the turgid world of Palmer politics, this is no obstacle; the only apparent prerequisite to be a “leader” in the Palmer United Party is a capacity to execute instructions from Palmer himself, a task even Douglas should find few problems in discharging.
Yet just like One Nation, the PUP is big on the rhetoric of unity, with its slogan of “Unifying All Australians.” The reality, of course, is that like Hanson’s outfit in the 1990s the objective is destruction: for One Nation, the task was to bring gun-toting bigotry into the mainstream; for Palmer, it is exacting revenge on the conservative parties for not delivering the outcomes he sought.
Clive Palmer likes to claim the Abbott government was only elected on PUP preferences, a dubious contention at best (and one we might examine at another time). But the arithmetic of Newspoll’s numbers suggests that whatever the claim, PUP support in Queensland is leaking fairly strongly toward the ALP — hardly an outcome a genuine conservative would seek to perpetrate if his motives were based in anything other than extracting vengeance.
The variable now — as it was for One Nation in 1998 — is Queensland’s Optional Preferential Voting (OPV) system, and whilst I remain a staunch supporter of OPV (or, even better, First Past The Post) it throws up a quandary for the LNP to which there is no easy answer.
Does it deal with Palmer? The turncoat billionaire has already demonstrated in Canberra that his support invariably comes with endless strings, conditions and qualifications, and to entertain it runs the risk that like any exercise in appeasement, doing deals with Palmer will eventually run up against a demand the LNP cannot or will not agree to. At that point, the destruction of order on the Queensland Right will be atomic in scale and effect.
Or does it put Palmer last, and attempt to cut him out? This was the strategy pursued to disastrous electoral effect by the Coalition in Queensland in 1998, and which played a substantial role in delivering 11 mostly Coalition seats to One Nation on a plate. Yet negotiating preference deals with Palmer would merely perpetuate the sense of obligation that he clearly wishes to foster — and to fester — and the price of accommodating the obsequious Douglas is one LNP hardheads should rightly baulk at paying.
Today’s Newspoll in Queensland is a stark warning to the LNP that unless it does something dramatic — and quickly — there is a real risk Labor could slip through the middle and back into office, as it did in 1998 when 39% of the vote was enough to give it 44 of 89 seats as support for the Right splintered between the Coalition and One Nation.
Should a repeat ensue, there is no guarantee Labor couldn’t inflict the same damage on the LNP at a subsequent election as Beattie did in the wipeout election of 2001. Palaszczuk may not be popular, but she isn’t stupid, and Beattie — initially no more popular than Palaszczuk is now — had the resources and smarts around him to entrench Labor in office once it had its fingernails on the precipice in 1998.
Interestingly, the combined Coalition/One Nation vote in 1998 of 54% is virtually identical to the combined LNP/PUP vote today’s Newspoll records and again, the parallels are too stark to ignore.
Despite OPV, the flow of Greens preferences to Labor will be stronger at a state election than the 50% exhaustion rate in 2012 might otherwise suggest.
To compound matters, the LNP has an additional (and urgent) problem in what it does about Newman in Ashgrove; to run a line that is tantamount to Newman claiming that if he loses his seat, he loses his seat is simply not good enough, and will only fuel any spillover to Palmer by disaffected LNP voters who can’t even be certain of who they’re voting for.
Should former member for Ashgrove Kate Jones nominate against Newman, I think any slim prospect he would retain the seat would instantly disappear.
This column has, historically, been scathing of the member for Moggill — former Liberal leader Bruce Flegg — and his continued presence in the safest conservative seat in Brisbane when, on purely political criteria, his career should have ended after the debacle he presided over in 2006, a judgement reinforced by his ill-fated stint as minister for Public Works and Housing in 2012.
One way or another, the LNP has to get rid of Flegg, and if not to make way for Newman then to preselect a better candidate who, in time, might play a prominent role in the next generation of conservative leadership in Queensland.
And if it declines to find Newman a more solid electorate to contest, it needs to work out — quickly — who its replacement leader will be after a state election, and build his profile as a credible Premier in short order.
To me, the only plausible candidate is the member for Clayfield and Treasurer, Tim Nicholls; if the LNP experiment has taught Queensland’s conservatives anything, it must be that despite the government’s problems, they will only win with a “Brisbane Liberal” (or a similar identity from the urban south-east) leading them: the days of cow cockies winning elections in Queensland ended almost 30 years ago.
The alternative is current deputy Premier Jeff Seeney, so unpopular that making him leader would render any re-election campaign next year pointless.
I think Queenslanders need to ponder whether they want the ALP restored to office; to do so would give the green light to a resumption of everything they hurled it from office for last time. Putting Labor into government in Queensland would be to renege on the defeat inflicted upon it in 2012. It would be much harder to make the case for its removal a second time over the same list of alleged misdeeds.
Central to this consideration is support for Palmer, which is dangerously misguided at best and potentially cataclysmic to the interests of sound government in the Sunshine State at worst.
As I said at the outset, it is a politically dangerous pastime to tell voters they got their decision wrong.
But in spite of the faults of both the LNP and of Queensland Labor, there is absolutely nothing to merit support for Palmer on any objective criteria apart from a desire to stir up trouble and watch the fallout.
The example of the 1998 election provides a timely reminder of exactly how that fallout is likely to look.
And if today’s Newspoll is in any way representative of how Queenslanders will vote come polling day, then their judgement will amount to nothing more than one big mistake: just like the election of 11 One Nation MPs 16 years ago has indisputably proven to be.