Labor Wins Queensland: LNP Should Not Challenge Ferny Grove

ROUNDING OUT Labor’s stunning state election win in Queensland, Annastacia Palaszczuk has been invited by Governor Paul de Jersey to form a government; the resulting administration will have a narrow mandate, and no public consent to deviate from the few policies it presented to voters. It may not see out a three-year term, and it would be imprudent for the beaten LNP to act on plans to challenge the result in the disputed seat of Ferny Grove.

I had intended to take a day off posting today, and not least to take a breath from the endless Liberal leadership spill fiasco, the problem of Peta Credlin, and all the other contortions these events have thrown up over the past week; given they continue to resurface, however, here I am: although I want to talk briefly about Queensland to begin with.

We will be revisiting the Liberals in Canberra later this evening or tomorrow, which is quite soon enough.

But first things first: belated congratulations are due to Queensland Labor leader Annastacia Palaszczuk, who two weeks after producing the political upset of the century to date at a state election was invited earlier today to form a government by Queensland’s Governor, Paul de Jersey; whilst I wish the ALP no goodwill whatsoever at any level it is critical, in the interests of Queenslanders, that Palaszczuk’s government makes at least a modestly competent fist of the task it is now to be entrusted with.

The signs are hardly promising.

I was reasonably certain more than two years ago, as readers know, that the LNP — despite the biggest election win in Australian political history in 2012 — was unlikely to survive its initial re-election attempt, and so it has eventually proven; its defeat (which was obvious on election night) is outright, clear, and should not be mistaken by the LNP as amounting to a stint as a “government in exile” or any similarly dangerous delusion about the result.

At time of writing it nonetheless appears that Labor has managed to amass some 51% of the two-party vote, which in turn represents a swing of a shade less than 14%: almost exactly reversing the belting it suffered at the hands of the LNP in 2012.

The difference — and the fact Labor is re-entering office one seat short of a majority — can be attributed to the LNP’s retention of a swag of seats (especially in Brisbane) on paper-thin margins that were won by the ALP in 2009, and should not be construed as proof my assertion that the boundaries in Queensland are skewed toward Labor is wrong: the fact Labor is in a position to form any sort of government at all is in part a by-product of that bias rather than something achieved despite it.

And the reality that a further uniform swing to the ALP of 2% would net it an additional eight seats ought to be a sobering one for LNP hardheads, who are now confronted by the memory that every Labor state government that has taken office in minority in the past 15 years or so — Queensland in 1998, South Australia in 2001, Victoria in 1999, and NSW (admittedly by one seat) in 1999 — went on to score landslide wins at the subsequent elections they faced, almost annihilating the Coalition in Queensland in 2001 and in Victoria in 2002.

The Palaszczuk government arrives in office with a very narrow mandate; light on solid policies or specific initiatives, the ALP based its campaign against the LNP squarely, in effect, upon not being Campbell Newman: the strategy has obviously reaped great dividends, but it opens Labor to a number of uncomfortable problems that have likely laced the road ahead of it with political land mines.

Having made so few specific undertakings, Labor will expose itself on its foreflank to charges of harbouring a sinister secret agenda if it springs any surprises: exactly the kind of charge it freely made against the Newman government, and not least when it came to the small matter of attempts on the LNP’s part to clean up the abject disaster into which Queensland’s last Labor government unceremoniously dumped it.

On the aft flank, should it abandon those pledges it did in fact spell out, it will expose itself to the same vicious retribution it engineered against the Newman government for doing the same thing although again, I note the mess Labor left behind in Queensland last time, and the flexibility that was needed to deal with it but which has now been made to inflict a fatal consequence on the LNP at the ballot box.

And some of the measures Palaszczuk takes into office are now going to require some serious explaining: how, for example, Labor can repay the mountain of debt it racked up last time it was in government without a privatisation program of some kind? Its plan to use dividends from state-owned enterprises (such as the electricity network) might be worth listening to if the monies weren’t already committed — a fact Labor well knows.

The fact any such dividends, short of sabotaging the commercial operations of those enterprises, would be insufficient to do more than cover interest repayments (leaving the debt bill intact) is another nicety her government will have an interesting time trying to explain away.

And Labor has exposed itself, by the methods it used to return to power, to two potential consequences.

One, that Independent Peter Wellington will have to be more rusted on than “independent” if he is to be expected to turn a blind eye to some of the somersaults and backflips the ALP will need to perform against its stated agenda; a government delivering unheralded nasties and U-turns is inevitable if the ALP is remotely serious about turning in a responsible performance this time around.

And two, if it does that, its own tactics have given a green light to the LNP to engage (if it so chooses) in the kind of savage, vicious dishonesty and abusive megaphone politics Labor has proven so adroit in executing over recent years, and just as Campbell Newman’s obvious unpopularity was magnified by these tactics from Labor, so too can Labor be a victim of them in due course if its opposition opts to respond in like kind.

Of course, a third possibility is that Labor will simply sail through three years in office doing very little at all and no care for the consequences, content simply to seek re-election in three years on the pretext its minority status prevented it from governing properly (its claim in Victoria, at least, in 2002). After all, Labor these days doesn’t stand for much more than simply being in power wherever it contests elections, and there is every chance Queensland will prove no different.

I think the LNP, in the ordinary course of events, would stand an excellent change of winning office at the election likely at the end of 2017, although I note a snap election in, say, 18 months to capitalise on any sustained positive polling and/or LNP disunity cannot be ruled out.

Yet the signals emanating from the LNP are ominous, if Labor governments are not your cup of tea.

It has endorsed three-time election loser Lawrence Springborg to return as its leader, and “yesterday’s man” — however decent or affable — is unlikely to win on his fourth attempt.

The return to a Darling Downs-based rural leader runs the very real risk of alienating a huge chunk of the LNP’s remaining support in Brisbane and surrounding districts, and the additional terms in opposition this gamble may yet inflict on Queensland conservatives would be a hell of a price to pay for ex-Nationals reclaiming what they arrogantly believe is their birthright.

(I would note, too, that of the LNP’s 42 remaining MPs 23 are ex-Liberals, but I digress).

And in re-selecting Springborg it appears to have chosen a leader it thinks the two Katter party MPs will somehow make Premier of Queensland despite the fact Labor’s MPs, plus the Independent Wellington who is pledged to Labor, add up to a majority.

With all of this in mind, the LNP would be certifiable to proceed with its stated intention of challenging the result in the northern Brisbane seat of Ferny Grove in the Court of Disputed Returns.

I’m not going to bog down in the constitutional arguments tonight — although they don’t shine benignly upon the LNP’s plans either — but the fact the Palmer United Party candidate was an undischarged bankrupt (and thus ineligible to stand) does not, in itself, invalidate the election conducted in that district.

The LNP would need to prove the status of the candidate affected the outcome (which, given it was publicly unknown until several days after the election, it obviously didn’t) and that another Palmer candidate’s preferences may have flowed differently to those from the 993 Palmer votes actually cast, overturning a 466-vote win by Labor’s Mark Furner (which there is no way on Earth it actually can).

But the real argument for the LNP to refrain is less complex: as it stands, Labor won Ferny Grove and now requires a swing against it of 0.8% to lose it; the political tide in Queensland is running strongly in Labor’s favour; the machinations and goings-on of the Abbott government federally — an undeniable factor in the state election result — continue apace; the LNP would seek to win back a highly suburban electorate as the first test of a rural leader who on three occasions could muster no more than four seats in Brisbane (with Ferny Grove never one of them); and if the challenge actually succeeded, the LNP would face the additional campaign hurdle of justifying sending the 32,500 voters in Ferny Grove back to the polls five minutes after they clearly returned a Labor member.

Based on the ability (or lack of it) of conservative governments anywhere in the country to sell anything to voters at the moment, the dangers of forcing a by-election in Ferny Grove should be readily apparent to all but the exceedingly stupid and the retarded.

Yes, the LNP could win the seat: and three years of rural-dominated government in an unhappy alliance with the Katter party and with Springborg as Premier would almost certainly end in heavy defeat, and the LNP could be confident of a return to near-obliteration in Brisbane at such a defeat.

The likelier outcome is that Labor would romp home in Ferny Grove on a further significant swing, legitimising Palaszczuk as Premier and wounding Springborg, probably fatally, triggering bitter recriminations and infighting within the LNP, and destroying whatever tiny nugget of political authority on which ex-Nationals in the LNP thought it appropriate to base his return as leader.

Played correctly, the ALP will survive in Queensland for a single term only. The problem is that yet again, the LNP has illustrated the sheer present political ineptitude of the conservative side of politics.

Unlike Labor, however, the LNP’s eventual fortunes are in its own hands: and in a storyline that seems depressingly familiar in the context of Queensland’s conservative political forces, the portents are anything but good — far from it.