Ill Portents: LNP Thumped In Stafford By-Election

THE BY-ELECTION in the Brisbane electorate of Stafford has seen a huge rebuff for Campbell Newman’s LNP state government; with a swing of almost 20%, Labor won on primary votes, more than reversing the swing in 2012. The ALP will celebrate the result and the conservatives will endeavour to explain it away, but the unthinkable — the return of Labor to office after a single term, and after a near-wipeout — must surely now be contemplated.

Unlike the by-election in Stafford today, the LNP had an excuse some months ago when confronted by another in Redcliffe: a disgraced MP who jumped before the Parliament pushed him, who in his brief term had by all accounts been a poor local member, and who faced serious questions of financial misappropriation to boot.

Added to growing fears about a looming federal budget, the cacophony of typical Labor politicking and the standard mid-term protest factor, the LNP was always going to lose in Redcliffe.

But in Stafford today, it has lost the kind of mid-tier, middle suburban Brisbane electorate that simply must be retained at any state election if the LNP is to prevail, and in that respect there is no definitive “factor” for the LNP to blame this time around.

Vacated by first-term MP Dr Chris Davis over a disagreement about contractor arrangements for GPs in state hospitals, Stafford had been won from Labor by the LNP with a 7.1% margin, after preferences; this in itself had represented a swing to the LNP of some 14.5% in the wipeout Labor suffered in 2012. Today’s result more than reverses that outcome, with replacement LNP candidate Bob Andersen sustaining a swing against him that, depending on further counting, looks like settling somewhere in the order of 18% to 20%.

With a state election now due in just eight months, Campbell Newman’s government ought to be entering a phase in which it support is consolidated and marshalled in readiness for its initial re-election bid. Instead, one must begin to wonder whether the LNP experiment is destined to come to an involuntary end whenever the looming election is held.

It goes without saying that having scored two extra seats in less than six months — both in swings approaching 20% at by-elections — Labor will proclaim to be invigorated and “ready to govern.” That might be a little strongly put, but with a slew of ex-ministers set to re-enter Parliament at the coming election, one thing it won’t be is devoid of the experience with which to do so if the numbers were to fall its way.

I seriously think the LNP’s welcome might be just about worn out in Queensland, and I have intermittently thought so — and said so in this column — since an embarrassingly short time after it was first elected.

Were this to be the eventual outcome, it would short-change Queensland; Newman’s government has, after all, been mostly competent, and has gone some way toward starting to repair the mess it inherited from Labor.

But as much as it can blame others, it must also blame itself, and in this sense I have to wonder what the merged LNP has achieved that made the abrogation of the Liberal and National parties so compelling. After all, three election starts for one win and two losses would hardly represent proof of the merits of such an undertaking, but I digress.

It is no secret that Newman’s government has not been popular, and there are a raft of reasons and potential justifications for this; Newman himself likes to characterise soft polling as the collateral damage of making “tough decisions” and, to some extent, he is of course right.

But the LNP has been faced with the same noisily and flagrantly dishonest Labor opposition that has been rolled out everywhere else the ALP has lost government in the past few years, and I have to say — bluntly — that it is a lot easier to make shit stick to something than it is to explain and sell the merits of a complex policy case. Labor excels at the former enterprise, and readers know I have my doubts about the ability of my own party to undertake the latter. This result would seem to offer further vindication of that assessment.

It has faced opposition on its other flank, with Clive Palmer determined to tear down the Premier he believes he installed in office, and to destroy the bastard lovechild the amalgamation of the Queensland Liberal and National Parties — which Palmer largely bankrolled — created.

It has kicked more than its fair share of own goals; the fight about the employment terms of doctors, which Davis ostensibly quit Parliament over, is but one example. There are plenty of others.

And as unpopular as Newman might be today — again, largely as a result of a highly personal Labor campaign unprecedented in its vitriol and its savagery — the LNP is going to have to formulate some kind of position on the leadership of the party in the event Newman loses his seat at the election, and to stick to it.

Based on these numbers (especially remembering Ashgrove is a mere throw of the stone from Stafford) it is almost inconceivable to expect Newman can or indeed will retain Ashgrove when the state election rolls around. The LNP is either going to have to move him to a safer electorate (a proposition on which I have four words to say: Bruce Flegg, get out) or anoint a successor so Queenslanders will know who they may ultimately elect.

This is too important to sweep under the carpet on the basis of it posing “a hypothetical;” Labor will raise merry hell over this issue right up until polling day, and if the LNP wins — but is forced to appoint a new leader after the election — then three years’ abuse over an “unelected tsar” or similar will be the starting point of its next term in power.

There really isn’t too much more to say.

Some will mutter that Newman should quit now; I’m not prepared to say any such thing. But I will say that if Newman intends to make a defiant stand in Ashgrove and without any form of contingency in place for when he loses his seat, it might be better if he were to do so, and to do so sooner rather than later.

Yes, it’s a by-election we’re talking about, and a lot of funny things happen at by-elections.

There is however nothing amusing about today’s result, which can hardly be dismissed as a piddling protest in view of the wider circumstances.