WHATEVER THE RESULT of the state election called for 31 January this morning by Queensland Premier Campbell Newman, his LNP government is set for a mauling so vicious it might — incredibly — land the conservatives in opposition three years after scoring the biggest election win in Australian history. Newman is all but certain to lose his seat. Even if the LNP survives in office, the coming bloodshed might make opposition seem preferable.
Over the next few weeks — because, really, that’s all we’re talking about — this column will closely monitor goings-on in the campaign ahead of the snap state election in Queensland on 31 January announced today by Premier Campbell Newman.
For those anticipating a second term for the LNP, or the re-election of Newman in his seat of Ashgrove, the early signs are very ominous indeed.
The election announcement — coming a day after the wide circulation of a red herring (that I received by SMS before 8am yesterday, Brisbane time) that Newman would leave for an overseas trade mission on Friday, with the state election on 28 February — is dangerously suggestive of a siege mentality among LNP strategists.
They may indeed have sprung the surprise they sought, with some media observers even now continuing to wonder aloud whether Newman will get on a plane on Friday. Yet when the dust settles in a day or two, this morning’s events will probably end up doing the LNP’s prospects far more harm than good.
For one thing, calling voters to the polls in the middle of the silly season, with kids on summer school holidays and amid Queensland’s searing and volatile January weather, is virtually unprecedented; far from Newman’s story that he couldn’t “allow” the ALP to engage in a “long, drawn out period of electioneering,” this looks like the desperate and fearful stampede to get to the polls as quickly as humanly (and legally) possible that it is.
For another, reputable opinion polling has been virtually unanimous in finding the LNP on track to lose around 30 seats and with them, possibly government; the LNP’s numbers have followed a gradual but ceaseless downward trajectory for well over 18 months, punctuated only by occasional ripples of support for the government that appear — in the context of polling over its lifespan — suspiciously like rogue results.
And it doesn’t take much to conclude that against this backdrop, the decision has been taken to get the election out of the way as fast as possible lest the LNP bleed even more of its support base, with the task of engineering an election win moving from “difficult” to “impossible” as a consequence.
Even so, this is going to be a tough fight for Queensland’s conservatives.
Regular readers of this column know that as early as late 2012 — barely six months after the stunning election win that delivered the LNP 78 of Queensland’s 89 seats — I detected the whiff of a one-term administration around Newman’s government; the catalysts I presented here were the fallout from Bruce Flegg’s departure from Cabinet and squabbling between ex-Liberals and ex-Nationals, but the real basis for my judgement was instinctive.
In the time since then, little has changed, and even if the LNP hangs on by just a seat or two, I think my reading of its predicament will have been vindicated.
We have of course spent a great amount of time discussing Queensland politics — especially through the prism of the Newman government’s problems — and those not across these conversations can access a selection of articles through the LNP tag in the tag cloud to the right of this one. I’ve had a quick flick through the first dozen or so whilst drafting tonight’s piece and the themes in all of them are constant, consistent, and incessant: nothing, in our comment on Queensland politics over the past three years, stands out as unjustified, or kneejerk in nature, or an overreaction to something that might have blown over in the fullness of time (and most of those “somethings,” of course, didn’t).
A government with the determination to enact tough measures in fulfilment of its mandate — which the LNP has done — owes itself the discipline and political fortitude to behave like a professional operation, not an amateurish rabble; consequently, for all the good that has been done in beginning to redress the legacy of 20 years of Labor rule in Queensland, it has been compromised and imperilled by the LNP’s inability to conduct its own house on an orderly basis.
Scandals over access by lobbyists, preferment, and the debacle over how to bring the career of former Liberal leader Bruce Flegg to an orderly (if involuntary) end are mere examples of the kind of thing I am talking about; regrettably, the merged conservative party has behaved in office exactly as the factionalised beast I foresaw many years ago, and if there’s one thing voters simply can’t stomach, it’s political parties — especially in government — fighting among themselves and squabbling over the spoils of their exploits.
Add in the vicious noise that now seems a permanent feature of the ALP playbook, with Campbell Newman portrayed as little better than Satan; Labor knows that if it yells the loudest, and makes the most outrageous allegations whilst doing so, people listen: it has done the same thing to Tony Abbott, tried it in Victoria against Denis Napthine, and would employ the same approach against Mike Baird in NSW if it thought it could get away with it.
Add in the determination of Clive Palmer — enraged by the LNP’s refusal to show the preferment to the mining baron’s business interests he clearly believed they deserved — and his ruthless crusade to destroy Newman, his government, the LNP, and anything else to do with the Coalition; in practical terms Palmer is going to accrue votes, and those votes could be lethal to the LNP’s prospects. More on that later.
Add in the uproar Labor, and their mates at the unions, have sought to provoke and stoke over virtually every legislative measure introduced by the LNP from the so-called VLAD laws to asset sales and debt retirement; it’s the same approach being used against Abbott, and because there are enough gullible people who fall for it, Labor knows the method works.
Add in the embarrassment of Scott Driscoll — who should never have been preselected in the first place — being forced out of Parliament and the 16% swing against the LNP that cost it the seat of Redcliffe at the resultant by-election.
Add in the resignation of Stafford MP Chris Davis, in protest over health policy, and the 18% swing (and loss of another seat) at that particular by-election.
Add in the embarrassment of the so-called “penis plonker,” Peter Dowling, disendorsed in disgrace from the seat of Redlands for sending pictures of his dick in a glass of red wine to his mistress via text message.
Add in all the other self-indulgent, undisciplined, ill-advised or downright stupid things the LNP at the organisational level can be legitimately fingered for, and it’s not difficult to see exactly how it arrives at its re-election hurdle staring stonily at the possibility of an unprecedented and humiliating defeat.
Newman’s claim that if he loses in Ashgrove, the LNP would have lost the state election “and vice versa” is disingenuous; sitting on a 5.7% margin, Newman’s electorate would fall on a swing of about half that required to cause the overall defeat of the government, and many voters are smart enough to work out they’re being played as fools with rhetoric of this nature.
His refusal to answer questions around whether another seat might be vacated for him if he loses in Ashgrove merely adds to the uncertainty and the fear of chaos surrounding a potential replacement as Premier.
And the LNP’s ongoing refusal to level with Queenslanders about a successor if Newman loses his seat but the party scrapes back into office without him has the potential to scrub tens of thousands of votes from the LNP’s tally, as those in the south-east in particular react to the possibility that the vastly unpopular deputy Premier Jeff Seeney might be the anointed favourite.
A lot of noise is already being made by LNP types about the risks of returning to Labor; that the ALP has no policies and no plan, and I simply point out that people bent on removing a government are not going to care less about such arguments, however valid they might be: they didn’t in Victoria in 1999, they didn’t federally in 2007, and they almost certainly won’t now.
As I said at the weekend, common sense dictates a narrow win for the LNP at this election, with a new Premier selected by its surviving MPs after the votes are finalised, but I’m not confident enough to make any firm predictions at this time beyond being certain Newman will lose Ashgrove.
I do think a huge swing is about to hit the LNP; possibly as much as 12%, and certainly enough to tip it out of office depending on where the votes fall.
If the party survives in office, however, it will be by a margin so narrow — and probably with most of the contingent of ex-Liberals holding Brisbane seats defeated — that internal recriminations and infighting will almost certainly consume what’s left of the government in its second term.
I do think the LNP has performed well enough in office to merit a second term, but its confrontational approach — combined with destructive forces beyond its control, some of which we have recapped here this evening — and its inability to present as an astute and disciplined party machine all now stand to contrive to inflict a heavy blow on the LNP that might yet see it lose power.
I think it’s going to be close enough for Clive Palmer’s preferences to prove decisive; if these are directed to the LNP and flow accordingly, they will probably be enough to get the government across the line, although in what kind of condition remains a point of conjecture.
But if Palmer directs his preferences to the ALP or declines to direct preferences at all — and especially if the Palmer votes simply exhaust — then Labor and the Greens would have to be regarded as a mild favourite to win a surprisingly early return from the political wilderness.
Tonight’s post is merely to get some opening thoughts on the table, and we will track the campaign as it progresses.
But a rush to the ballot box in the middle of people’s family time belies the very real — and existential — threat the LNP government faces, and whilst it’s certain there will be a new Premier of Queensland next month, the question this election will really resolve is whether Queenslanders also throw Newman’s party out onto the George Street pavement with him.