Thursday, February 19, 2009

Queensland election watch: Here for a long time not a good time

Led by feverish prognostications from the Opposition and News Limited journalists, Queensland has been on early election watch since the start of the year. As the only state in Australia to mirror the federal three year term, ALP Premier Anna Bligh must call an election by September. Though Bligh’s formal position is that she will not call an early election, most parties (Labor included) are already campaigning as if an election was imminent.

Despite the volatility of three year terms, Queensland has had remarkably stable government for almost a century. If Bligh wins, as the quantitative and qualitative opinion polls still predict, it will be Labor’s fifth successive victory in eleven years. And aside from Borbridge's two year hiccup 1996-1998, Labor have ruled Queensland for 18 of the last 20 years. Before that was the 31 year rule of the Nationals whose length in power was dragged out by the larger than life Sir Joh and his clever media adviser Allen Callaghan. Looking back even further, Labor ruled the state for 40 years from 1917 to 1957.

These results show that Queenslanders are conservative because they dislike change not because they dislike Labor. In 2007 the state played a two-hander with NSW in getting Labor (and their own Prime Minister and Treasurer) over the victory line. At a state level, most of their decade in power was under Premier Peter Beattie. Beattie was a consummate media performer who glided his way effortlessly through crisis after crisis to claim victory after victory. But by September 2007 his crash or crash through philosophy was taking its toll. Premier Pete could be tarted up no longer and he stepped aside to let Anna Bligh take over.

Bligh had two years to create a new image for Queensland Labor before she would have to face the voters. As she told the audience at last year’s ALP state conference, “I knew when I took on this job that the next election would be tough”. Surprisingly, this was the only reference to her date with destiny in the speech. But if she wins, she will create history as Australia’s first elected female Premier (both Lawrence in WA and Kirner in Victoria were defeated at the first time of asking). She remains favourite to do exactly that.

At the very beginning of 2009, psephologist Malcolm McKerras was one of the first to openly predict this outcome when he wrote in The Australian that “Labor will hang on in Queensland” He predicted that result even though he thinks the two-party preferred vote is likely to be tied 50:50 which represents a five percent swing to the opposition. The problem is that they need a swing of 7.6 per cent to get an equal number of seats.

McKerras says that thanks to a major exercise in seat abolitions and re-distributions last August, Labor should fall over the line to win the election. The conservative parties have lost out more in the Electoral Commissions rejigging of boundaries (pdf). One interesting re-distribution example that may not work for the government is Clayfield. McKerras noted that a redistribution of notionally Labor voters in Clayfield has made LNP’s sitting MP Tim Nicholls vulnerable. While I was directly affected by this re-distribution – and resent being typecast as a Labor voter – I agree with McKerras and expect Nicholls to hold just about hold on, mostly due to his high public profile after an unsuccessful run at Liberal leader in 2007.

But the LNP could do even better still if Bligh does not adhere to McKerras’s prediction caveat. “She will call an early election at her peril,” he warned, pointing at Labor’s shock loss last year in WA and near defeat in the NT. In both elections, large Labor majorities were lost when over-confident state leaders went to the polls early. But most observers now think that a late wet season election is exactly what Bligh intends to have (though Mark Bahnisch believes the window of opportunity for an early election is just two more weeks). If Bligh is gambling that Queenslanders won’t judge their government harshly by going early, it can only be because she thinks things are going to be a whole lot worse if she waits till September.

Whatever the date, the phoney war has started. Bligh dipped her toes into the digital election with the launch of last week. Neither Andrew Bartlett nor Graham Young were impressed by the site. Says Young, “the site pretends to be Web 2.0 when it is so slick and spin-heavy that it shouts 'phony'". In my own view, the crucial point about the site was the re-branding of “Anna”. You had to look deep onto the homepage to find the word “Labor” in small font.

Meanwhile Lawrence Springborg is playing with his own shiny new brand. The Liberal National Party sprung into being last year and this election is its first electoral test. How will the new party perform? Behind the rusted-on marriage of Nationals and Liberals is the old Nationals party machine backed up by the cash of Clive Palmer. BRW says Palmer is worth $1.5 billion but the man himself thinks he has $6.5 billion which would make him the richest man in Australia. Whatever it is, it makes him wealthy enough to support vanity projects such as his son Michael’s tilt at a safe Labor seat and his fondness for defamation suits. However, it is also extremely likely he will also provide a strong war chest for LNP’s upcoming media campaign.

The problem is, as The Poll Bludger quotes Paul Williams: “Brisbane’s progressive Liberals will not vote for a party headed by a National.” Queensland’s own psephologist Scott Steel at Pollytics also succinctly defined Springborg’s problem as “Brisbane”. He says Springborg will face a third defeat as leader because he is unable to jump over the “rather large chasm that separates the Liberal and National party constituencies.” Steel believes Springborg’s anti-green attitudes will scare off urban Liberal voters who also have environmental sympathies.

Antony Green
also calls Springborg’s task “Herculean”. Majority government for the LNP requires 22 seats and a swing of 8.3 per cent. The last time Queensland saw uniform swings of that scale was in 1989 when the disgraced Nationals were turfed out of power. But Green also notes that 2006 was an overwhelming election victory at an election that should have been much closer. And also, perhaps more pertinently, he points out that the LNP has so far avoided serious internal dispute.

While Labor has no scandal on its conscience the size of the Fitzgerald Inquiry, it is looking tattered away from the shiny Anna brand. There are several members retiring and possibly more to follow. Tonight, the MP for the marginal seat of Chatsworth, Chris Bombolas gave his former employees at Brisbane Channel Nine news an exclusive to announce he was not seeking re-election due to health reasons. That same Channel Nine news used the story of the long-running flood in North Queensland to point fingers at the “inaction” of the government and show grumbling locals unhappy with the speed of a rescue operation. Last night the same station quoted Opposition frontbencher Ray Hopper who compared it to Bush’s Katrina moment.

While Bligh was quick to denounce Hopper’s statement as bad taste, the jibe may have served its purpose. The LNP might well capitalise on ennui and electoral distaste for an early election. Bligh aside, Labor are beginning to look like a tired government that are simply out of answers. They may also be victims of a reverse zeitgeist that sees Labor entrenched federally, and on the way out in the states. In some respects it doesn’t matter; Queensland is unlikely to be served well by a new government of either persuasion. The ALP and the LNP are both too consumed by a love of the state’s copious coal reserves. Either government will need to be dragged kicking and screaming into the new 21st century greenhouse realities.

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