CAMPBELL NEWMAN’S WORST NIGHTMARE emerged from a meeting of ALP members in Ashgrove yesterday, with the announcement that former member and Bligh government minister, Kate Jones, will recontest the seat for Labor at the looming Queensland state election. With Jones’ preselection virtually guaranteed and Newman adamant he will not seek a safer seat to contest, the Premier’s brief parliamentary career looks to be over.
Shortly after the watershed state election in Queensland in March 2012 that swept the LNP under Campbell Newman to power, virtually eliminating Queensland Labor in the process, I wrote in this column that if Newman ran a capable government and provided effective representation as a strong local member in a marginal electorate, he would stand a very good chance of doubling the margin of the victory he recorded over the ALP’s popular Kate Jones, an effective MP whose “Keep Kate” campaign in Ashgrove drastically limited the swing to the conservatives in that seat.
Yet as readers know, I’ve had a niggling — and unpleasant — feeling that the unmistakable whiff of a one-term regime has emanated from the Newman administration since about six months after it was first elected, and whilst it ought to be a theoretical absurdity that a first-term government elected with nearly two-thirds of the two-party vote should be contemplating its electoral mortality less than three years later, this is the position in which the merged LNP in Queensland finds itself.
As any watcher of politics, polls and electoral behaviour knows, nothing is ever certain until the final votes are tallied; yet just as the LNP may or may not continue in office after the imminent election, it now seems all but certain that it will be under a new leader unless it does something — and quickly — that it has thus far avoided like the plague.
The news yesterday that former Ashgrove MP Kate Jones will recontest the electorate she lost to Newman all but seals a Labor win in a key seat, in a contest as symbolic as it is a simple race for one of the 45 seats required to form a government in Queensland; I have long thought it likely that Labor would recover this electorate, and have said as much in this column that were Jones to nominate, an ALP gain in Ashgrove would become a formality.
I have never been able to warm to Jones, for the rather cruel and superficial reason that she looks virtually identical to an individual from my past whom I will simply describe as “the wrong girl.”
But I know quite a number of people who live in that particular electorate — some of whom are conservative voters of decades’ standing — and aside from the most abjectly partisan LNP adherents, nobody has anything bad to say about her. In fact, she is seen as “their Kate:” the nice girl making her way who, regrettably, had to be sacrificed on the altar of electoral expediency in the interests of ensuring Queensland got rid of its despised Labor government once and for all in 2012.
In some respects it doesn’t matter how effective or otherwise Newman has been as the member for Ashgrove.
This electorate was always going to be the number one target for Queensland Labor; despite there being 15 more winnable LNP seats on the electoral pendulum below Ashgrove, eliminating Newman from this district was always going to be the ALP’s top priority. And Kate Jones, if she stood, was always going to be an unbackable favourite to beat him.
Despite winning Ashgrove with a 12.8% swing in 2012, Newman’s margin after preferences was just 5.7%; this was at the absolute zenith of LNP support, and a buffer of 5.7%, in the absence of the goodwill required to consolidate it, is unlikely to be adequate to withstand any statewide correction that placed the electoral contest on a more even footing.
There is an argument to suggest that Ashgrove — with its pockets of high affluence and middle-class core — should be the kind of natural conservative state seat that should never have been lost to the Queensland Coalition in the first place, and I too have made that argument in this column in years past.
But the seat also contains a disproportionate number of public servants, teachers, nurses and emergency service workers — the very constituencies the ALP, and its cronies in the union movement, have spent three years whipping into an unbridled frenzy: sometimes with good reason, but mostly just because they can.
Newman has led a government that has become deeply unpopular and, despite his own personal approval numbers collapsing in virtually every published opinion poll, remains competitive overall more by an accident of circumstance than by good management; the existence of the Palmer United Party drains primary vote support from the LNP tally, and notional preference allocations for the purposes of generating opinion poll findings return more than half of these to the LNP on the two-party measure.
Labor, too, has recovered some of the support it lost in 2012, which partly underpins the movement against the LNP as well.
But as I have often reminded readers, 53.6% after preferences was insufficient to secure the Coalition a majority at the state election of 1995; today, the LNP is recording about 52%. It might win an election on that level of support, or it might not.
Whether it does or doesn’t, it still amounts to a swing against the government of 13%: more than double the margin Newman currently enjoys in Ashgrove. And whilst published individual seat polling is relatively sparse, the most recent to be conducted in Ashgrove — by ReachTEL — sees Newman trail Jones, 36-51, on primary vote support (having not seen its two-party findings, I’d guesstimate that particular picture would look something like a 59-41 ALP win if a
Communist Greens candidate is also included). Such an outcome is consistent with the bulk of other polling conducted in Ashgrove over the past year or so.
Campbell Newman has been insistent that he will not countenance the transfer to a more winnable seat.
Perhaps this is posturing; perhaps he — and those in the LNP’s inner sanctum — feels that by simply standing firm, Jones and Labor can be worn down, the voters grudgingly won back, and the seat held, if even by a whisker.
Perhaps Newman is resigned to his fate, and content to leave Parliament ignominiously after a single term as Premier, although I highly doubt it: anyone who knows anything about the man would know this is not how he operates.
Yet for whatever reason, Newman appears to be boxed in, and whilst I appreciate that some of those in control of the LNP will not be amused for me putting this so bluntly, the strategy of battening down the hatches and trying to ride out the imminent tornado that is Jones in Ashgrove is a recipe only for defeat.
I have made the case a few times in relation to where I see Newman’s personal election prospects sitting and the scenarios they conjure; this piece in June ostensibly tackled the unforgivable rise in support for Clive Palmer in Queensland, but what I had to say on Newman, Ashgrove, the LNP leadership and Bruce-bloody-Flegg in Moggill is even more pertinent now than it was then.
Any claim that Newman will beat Jones in Ashgrove is ridiculous. It is not going to happen. This is not political denialism or some hare-brained pronouncement.
If the LNP proceeds on the basis Newman will hold his seat and be re-elected to office in Queensland, then election night will be an unpleasant event indeed for that party.
It’s time for a few hard calls.
Is Newman leaving Parliament anyway at this election? If the answer is yes, the LNP has to work out — now, not a month from polling day — who it is presenting as its new candidate for the Premiership, and close ranks around that individual. To me, the only credible replacement candidate is Treasurer Tim Nicholls. If this is the intended course of events, the LNP has to get its story straight, and stick to it.
If the answer is no, it must find a way to get rid of Flegg once and for all in Moggill, and run Newman as its candidate in his place; Flegg passed his political use-by date on the first day of the 2006 state election campaign, was a disaster as a Newman government minister, and it is an indictment on Queensland’s conservatives that he is still the endorsed candidate for their safest and most secure seat in Brisbane.
Any other position announced by the LNP I’m afraid simply doesn’t cut any ice. But very quickly, if a “third option” is to find someone else to push out of their seat instead of Flegg, here’s a very sobering thought for the LNP hierarchy to consider.
There is a huge swing against Newman’s government on its way; nobody knows whether the government will survive, what the distribution of the swing will look like geographically, or how much of the new territory won three years ago will be lost.
But just six years ago, the only seats the party held in Brisbane — apart from Flegg’s seat of Moggill and Nicholls’ seat of Clayfield — were Aspley and Indooroopilly, both of which are natural conservative electorates, but which had both just been reclaimed after multiple terms in the hands of ALP MPs.
There is no guarantee that any other seat Newman transferred to in Brisbane is a certain LNP win in the prevailing climate; and moving him to, say, Surfers Paradise on the Gold Coast opens a whole other can of worms (Newman. Brisbane. Imposter.) for the ALP to raise merry hell around.
Either Flegg gets the flick at the hands of his own party, or Newman gets the flick at the hands of Ashgrove’s voters.
Some choice? This is the consequence of Kate Jones’ announcement that she will return to Parliament at the coming election.
And “return” she will. It would be foolish for anyone in the LNP to think otherwise.