THE STATE ELECTION on Saturday — even if the LNP wins — is likely to prove a torrid affair for Queensland’s conservative forces, with Premier Campbell Newman now virtually certain to lose his seat of Ashgrove, and the LNP government as a whole facing the potentially existential threat of a double-digit swing after preferences to Labor. As unbelievable as it may yet prove improbable, a change of government is a distinct possibility.
Before we get started, I’d like to address the growing number of Liberal-aligned readers (and it’s in double digits, in case anyone thinks I am singling them out) who have taken issue with me privately for “damaging the government” or “harming Liberal Party interests” or similar by calling issues as I see them; can I just remind everyone that whilst I am a rusted-on political conservative and this column presents itself as “conservative comments,” it isn’t a sycophantic propaganda exercise: where I want to advocate or promote things being done by the Liberals at various levels I will, and if I see error, or make a call on foreseeable adverse consequences as I perceive them, I’ll do that too: and whilst the odd call made in this column may go awry, the overwhelming majority of them actually come to pass.
Whilst I try to keep the tone suitable for everyday people whose knowledge of or interest in politics isn’t as intricate as that of some readers or myself, at the bottom line this is an analysis and comment forum, not a campaign cheer squad. And whilst I’m reluctant to blow my own trumpet, I’ve been on the money in this column far too often not to be justified in backing my political instincts and judgement.
I would like nothing more, at about 11pm on Saturday night, to sit back down at the computer in my office with a red face (and a bottle of good red wine) and write an article proclaiming that I got it wrong, that Queensland’s LNP government had been re-elected by a healthy margin, and that Premier Campbell Newman had held off the challenge in Ashgrove from former Labor MP Kate Jones.
But as things stand, Saturday night will be a long evening indeed for LNP insiders, as they contemplate the defeat of Newman in his own seat, heavy losses across the state, and — quite possibly — a return to opposition just three years (and a single term) after winning the largest victory in Australian political history.
I would have liked to spend more time on the state election campaign in Queensland, short as it has been; but between being otherwise occupied for portions of it — as I’ve let readers know — and most of the time otherwise available for posting comment taken up by the foibles of the federal government, there have only been a few articles I have been able to post.
Even so, little has changed in the course of a snap election campaign. Campbell Newman’s federal colleagues would be well advised to heed the signs if they crystallise into a debacle on Saturday in Queensland.
Dealing with the electorate of Ashgrove first, long-term readers know I have been certain the Premier faces the loss of his own seat for at least the past year; the subject has arisen many times in our contemplation of the seat of Moggill and what the LNP ought to do with the incumbent there, who was finally (and belatedly) disendorsed once and for all late in 2014.
I have always thought — even after the kerfuffle Flegg kicked up three years ago, claiming he was offered “inducements” to vacate this bluest of blue-ribbon electorates in Brisbane’s west — that some way had to be found to get Newman transplanted into Moggill for the simple reason there was no way he was going to hold onto Ashgrove.
But that opportunity (hard earned as it was) has been and gone, and whilst the new candidate in Moggill is excellently credentialled, it left the problem that the insecurely seated Newman was always going to be pushing “it” uphill to stay in Parliament even in the event his government won re-election.
In addition to talking to LNP insiders, talking to a number of diverse contacts I maintain in the electorate, and sifting through the seat polling for Ashgrove — such as it is — it does rather seem that barring a miracle, the 7-8% swing to Labor that looked likely in Ashgrove to begin with has barely altered, and it appears certain now that Campbell Newman will not be returning to Parliament after Saturday. The vote shares for individual candidates might vary a bit, but I think the 54-46 finding in Jones’ favour published by ReachTel on Wednesday is probably on the money.
There has been some talk — should the LNP win the state election, but Newman lose in Ashgrove — of a by-election being engineered in a “safe” LNP electorate to parachute the Premier back into Parliament; I say such a scenario will not eventuate, and should the LNP attempt it under those circumstances, it could result in the loss of another seat to the ALP.
The reason, very simply, is that as fat as the margins of LNP electorates might appear on paper the day before an election, after tomorrow these are going to look like someone has embarked on a slashing spree with a machete; many of the “safe” LNP electorates today will be marginal Labor seats tomorrow night, and those that remain in the LNP column will not appear anywhere near as impregnable as they might seem now.
It will be untenable to try to put Newman into a seat outside the south-east corner of the state; the Premier’s underlying claim to legitimacy as Premier, brutally distilled, is his record as Lord Mayor of Brisbane. For the same reason, a seat on the Gold and Sunshine Coasts is probably out of the question as well.
Which leaves, of course, Brisbane itself; and in considering pushing someone over the cliff to create a by-election vacancy for Newman to contest, it bears remembering that with the exception of Moggill, every seat in Brisbane has been held by the ALP at some point in the past 10 years.
Even Indooroopilly. Even Clayfield. Even if only for a little while, as was the case in Aspley and Clayfield, and even if Labor should never have won them in the first place let alone held them for several terms (Mount Ommaney, Mansfield). Nowhere in Brisbane is really safe from a savage lurch to Labor if the underlying conditions are conducive to it.
And right now, those conditions seem very propitious indeed. If Newman loses Ashgrove — as expected — we won’t see him in George Street again. Moggill aside, there isn’t one seat in Brisbane from which a freshly re-elected member could be pushed out of Parliament to make way for him with any confidence that the ensuing by-election would not be won by Labor.
It brings me to the question of the wider election result; losing Newman is one thing, but the permutations for the statewide outcome could still be anything.
I think the likeliest result is that the LNP will just fall across the line, with somewhere between 46 and 49 of the 89 seats in state Parliament; it could be 50 or so, or the LNP could end up in the nether zone of being a couple of seats short of a majority.
If the LNP goes into minority with less than 43 seats (the two Katter MPs, if re-elected, the only Independents likely to support it), then Labor will form government one way or the other.
Some weeks ago we looked at what a 10% swing against the LNP might look like, and I think a 10% swing — leaving the LNP with a shade under 53% of the vote after preferences — is about right; the average of available opinion polling during the campaign puts the LNP at 52%, although a late survey yesterday from Essential put the ALP in front, 51-49.
I don’t think the campaign as a whole has done all that much to alter the eventual result, and to the extent it has, it has probably helped the ALP. We will have to wait on Newspoll (and any other final polls) to see whether Essential is an outlier or whether these final few days have indeed seen an acceleration of the movement away from Newman’s government.
If those late polls do show the LNP bleeding more support than most believe, the making of election promises conditional on individual MPs being re-elected to mostly marginal or at-risk seats is the likeliest culprit: this is as good as blackmail, and the LNP was and is wrong to have explicitly targeted its commitments this way. People do not like to feel bullied, and by making such a silly campaign error it merely reinforces the stereotype Labor has tried to create of a Premier who is a bully and a thug.
But if we split the middle and call it 51-49 to the LNP, people need to keep in mind that a disproportionate number of those conservative votes are going to be locked away in a swag of country seats (and a tiny handful on the coasts) that are almost always won with huge margins by conservative parties irrespective of whether they hold government, and excepting historic Labor landslides like 2001 that dislodge some of them.
And if I guesstimate this factor to apply to, say, 20 LNP electorates — mostly in the bush, plus places like Moggill, Surfers Paradise and Kawana — it means the other three-quarters of the seats in the state would record a result that favoured Labor by (I’m guessing) about 51.5-48.5%, give or take a few tenths of a point.
It’s this factor that enabled Labor to win a one-seat majority (later overturned in the Court of Disputed Returns) in 1995 with just 46.4% of the statewide two-party vote, and whilst it all comes down to where the votes fall in individual seats (after all, voting patterns in no two electorates are the same), you’d expect Labor to get closer than the 37 seats a 49% statewide result would produce on a uniform swing.
Whilst the campaign itself mightn’t have changed much, there have been plenty of factors influencing the likely behaviour of Queensland voters for some time.
The obvious one is the Abbott government and its goings-on, and whilst I’m not heading down that track again today, the effect — whilst unquantifiable — is undeniable, and this particular campaign period has been bookended by the humiliating contortions over Medicare at one end, and the embarrassment of “Prince Sir Philip” at the other.
The LNP’s problems with preselections, endorsements and walkouts, which see it enter this campaign with five fewer seats than it carried away in 2012, and with two disendorsed candidates in Bruce Flegg and Peter Dowling (Redlands) who have both caused the party enormous embarrassment and bad press, albeit for vastly divergent reasons.
The wildly irresponsible and dishonest rhetoric of the ALP — a phenomenon apparently now a permanent feature at Australian elections — replete with denials of any real debt crisis in Queensland at all, despite $80 billion in red ink added to the books on its watch prior to 2012.
The snarling, obsessive hatred of Campbell Newman personally that has been propagated by the wider Left and which, for the gullible, the unthinking and the stupid, has enabled common-or-garden simpletons to take a firm stand on political matters that just happens to advance the ALP cause with neither the understanding nor the conviction of what it is they’ve allowed themselves to get so wound up about.
The wild, noisy, abusive campaign of opposition to the Newman government’s legislative program that has more than amply set the backdrop for a massive movement against the LNP, and the government’s failure (and this too seems to have become a familiar story at election time) to adequately communicate and sell its achievements to reap the electoral dividend it deserves.
Supposedly impartial figures like Tony Fitzgerald QC wading into the election campaign to directly accuse the government of inadequate standards of probity.
The asset leaseback issue, which seems to have been a mild positive for Labor: people seem to have grown immune to big gestures to repay government debt — even if it keeps taxes down by doing so — and the ALP is to blame for that. But perception is half the battle, and Labor’s “plan” to rip dividends out of government-owned enterprises as an alternative to the $25 billion lump sum debt retirement earmarked by the LNP from privatisation proceeds seems to have neutralised whatever advantage the government proposal might have given it at the ballot box.
The flinging of defamation actions like confetti: Alan Jones is being sued by multiple LNP MPs, his legal bills to be funded by federal MP and political wrecker Clive Palmer, who is not only sworn to destroy the Queensland Premier personally and his government at all costs — and who has defamation proceedings of his own on foot against Newman — but who has also announced he’ll sue Lawrence Springborg after the election too, although over exactly what remains unknown.
People don’t like the look of politicians suing each other and fighting and bickering in court; not coincidentally — with Palmer in the middle of all of it — this is only occurring on the conservative side of the ledger. One way or the other, Palmer is determined to bring the LNP to its knees and to that end, all I would say of the abundance of libel actions emanating from George Street is that every bit helps.
The collapse of voter support for Palmer’s Party and the Katter crowd, at face value, would seem to favour the LNP.
A big recovery in the ALP primary vote and a much tighter arrangement on preferences with the
Communist Party Greens, however, would seem to favour Labor.
The issue of who might replace Campbell Newman if the LNP wins and he loses Ashgrove: and this one, perhaps more than anything else, will hurt the LNP badly tomorrow; it now looks like it will indeed need a new leader, and should the party retain enough seats, that leader will be Premier. But Lawrence Springborg is a three-time loser, Scott Emerson and Ian Walker are not ready, and the prospect of “Premier” Jeff Seeney is probably worth an extra couple of percentage points for Labor in its own right.
Logic, electoral geography and political reality dictate Treasurer Tim Nicholls is the only suitable replacement. But the LNP has flatly refused to expend so much as a syllable in contemplation of the subject. The direct result of this is that some Queenslanders, expecting Newman to lose Ashgrove but the LNP to win overall, will probably vote Labor when some kind of so-called “plan B” might have persuaded them to keep their allegiance with the conservatives.
Of course, there are so many things we haven’t talked about: how Far North Queensland votes; how heavily Brisbane swings to Labor; how strongly the coasts hold up for the LNP; whether Labor can steal a couple of unlikely regional gains in Toowoomba, on the Gold Coast…
Even if this Saturday’s result is confined to the realm of a 10% pro-Labor swing, the loss of some 30-odd seats from 2012 and its Premier with them will fulfil my predictions of “a belting” for the LNP, although the scope for it to lose altogether is certainly there.
It has existed since just a few months after the 2012 election, when the first signs of real trouble broke out around then-minister Bruce Flegg and his dismissal of a long-serving LNP adviser.
Queensland will certainly have a new Premier next week; it may or may not have a new government. Either way, it’s going to be a damned close-run thing.
As recently as Wednesday, I was receiving suggestions from within the LNP that it was telling anyone in the organisation who cared to listen that the government was on track to win as many as 65 seats — its huge majority barely suffering a dent — and with Newman beating off Jones in Ashgrove.
If that’s what LNP hardheads are saying, then tell ’em they’re dreaming…
I will be back again this evening — perhaps on the Queensland election again — but if not tonight, then I will be posting on the subject again tomorrow.
Unlike 2012 I am not heading to Brisbane this time; a little “pizza party” with Antony Green on ABC24 Online, along with a fully charged (and probably well-used) mobile phone, will keep me in the midst of developments as they happen this time from my home office in Melbourne.
Unlike 2012, this election will not be resolved by 6.45pm Queensland time.
And unlike 2012, the winner — in more ways than one — is far from being a certainty.