Saturday, September 16, 2006

Queensland goes with status quo

The dust has settled in Queensland and nothing much has changed. Peter Beattie, as expected, has won his fourth term as Labor Queensland premier. It was another landslide win to Labor. The Opposition conceded defeat at 8pm local time barely two hours after polling booths closed. The result follows the narrow state election win in 1998 and two landslides in 2001 and 2004. With three-quarters of the vote counted, Labor (with 47% of the primary vote) seems likely to take 58 or 59 seats in the 89-seat parliament, a drop of four or five from the 63 seats won last time out. The four biggest parties (Labor, Liberal, Nationals and Greens) all saw their primary vote increase due to the implosion of post-Pauline Hanson One Nation and the fact that the Democrats seem to be no longer interested in keeping the bastards honest.

Though results are not yet certain, it looks as if only eight seats changed hands. In the Sunshine Coast, fallout from the Traveston Mary River dam project meant that Labor lost Noosa and Kawana to the Liberals, the Doctor Death scandal saw Bundaberg fall to the Nationals and in Brisbane, the Liberals only succeeded in winning the knife-edge marginal seat of Clayfield after a particularly bitter and dirty campaign. On the positive side for Labor was the three seats they won back in the South-East (Chatsworth, Redcliffe and Gaven) having lost all three in bye-elections during the height of the Bundaberg and related health scandals. The eighth to swap hands is the intriguing seat of Gympie in the heart of the dam proposal which the Nats regained from a troubled independent.

Beattie is gaining the reputation of a Teflon premier having improbably survived the fallout of his health and water issues. He is now in the top job for eight years. Only Scottish-born William Forgan Smith has been a longer-term premier on the Labor side. Smith was the depression era state leader from 1932 to 1942. Smith shares many traits in common with Beattie. He too was premier and treasurer. He was pro-development and put the state ahead of Canberra. And like the self-proclaimed ‘media tart’ Beattie, Smith too was an effective media performer and the first politician in Queensland to make effective use of the new medium of radio. Beattie will surpass Smith's time in office if he stays till the end of his fourth term though he has indicated he will pass power to deputy Anna Bligh at some stage.

The Queensland opposition remains in disarray. On the positive side they avoided the spectacle of three-sided contests (Lab, Lib and Nat) in this election and the partners took 38% of the Primary vote. On the negative side, their campaign was poorly run and the leadership issue took pressure away from Labor problems. The parties had an attempt to create a merger spectacularly torpedoed by the Prime Minister earlier this year. The Liberals dumped their previous leader Bob Quinn one week before the election was called. There was tension between new leader Dr Bruce Flegg and National leader Lawrence Springborg as to who would lead the coalition if it was elected into government. The Nationals continue to have the more seats in parliament than Liberal (likely 16 to 10) and therefore maintain the ascendency. However the problem is that the Liberals primary vote now exceeds the Nationals (20% to 18%) and with Brisbane and the Gold Coast now the most populous area in the state and growing immensely, it is likely that the coalition will never again form government with a National majority. Until the two parties accept this reality, they will be out of power in the state for many years to come. On Thursday Springborg indicated he is resigning as party leader after two heavy defeats to Beattie. And now National powerbroker David Russell has put the Coalition merger back on the table, arguing that the Queensland conservative parties must unify or face being unelectable.

Queensland is not an easy state for the smaller parties. It is the only state without an upper house and the Optional Preferential voting system favours the larger parties. The Greens campaigned strongly on water issues and vigorously opposed the Traveston dam development with leader Bob Brown (pictured) joining the protests. They ran in 71 seats and gained 8% of the vote. They subsequently called for proportional representation to be introduced in Queensland before the next State election claiming they would have had six or seven MPs elected under a fairer model. The pentecostalist party Family First made their debut in Queensland elections and received just under 2% of the primary vote. But because they only ran in 26 seats, that represented 7% in each seat they contested. They have shown they will be a force to be reckoned with in the next federal election.

Federal Labor leader Kim Beazley claimed that Beattie’s victory was a strong message to Prime Minister John Howard about his industrial relations changes. Beazley said Labor's campaigning in Queensland emphasised the government's workplace changes. Although Howard predictably rejected this claim, it may have had some merit given Beattie’s own problems with State issues. Within federal polling fairly even, Howard cannot afford to take this threat lightly. The next election is likely to be some time next year though Howard has until 19 January 2008 to call it.

Beattie doesn't have to worry about that now. But if the polls don't change much and they win, Labor may well try to persuade Beattie to make the national jump. That case could also be put if they lost. Beattie himself claims no interest in making the jump into the federal arena. But if Arch Bevis retires in Brisbane, a safe federal seat in his own constituency becomes available.

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