January 8, 2015

A reversal of fortunes

By Mark Bahnisch
A reversal of fortunes
Why nothing can be taken for granted in a Queensland election campaign

I spent the night of Queensland’s 2012 state election, Saturday 24 March, at a party in inner-city Stones Corner, on the fringes of then premier Anna Bligh’s seat of South Brisbane. The day had been punishingly hot, and the evening brought little relief from the heat. It was an improvised gathering, with snacks hurriedly purchased at the 7/11 and grog from the Brunswick Hotel bottlo.

During the campaign, I’d been researching the impact of coal seam gas development, particularly on the rich farmlands of the Darling Downs. An exercise in mixing social science research and public interest journalism, the project had been conceived as a way to highlight a complex issue on which the positions of the major parties were largely identical. As it turned out, perhaps partly because of that bipartisanship, the Greens and Katter’s Australia Party failed to gain momentum at the polls, and CSG only simmered rather than burned as an election issue.

That election night, I watched the telly as Bob Katter rained on Campbell Newman’s parade. I can’t remember his exact words, but the man in the big white hat warned Newman and the LNP that they could just as easily find themselves the subject of the drubbing Queenslanders had just given Anna Bligh and Labor.

Fast-forward not quite three years to the calling of the first mainland election in January since 1875 (a fact I owe to William Bowe), and Katter may well be proven right. When 2014’s Commission of Audit was still but a gleam in Tony Abbott’s eye, Campbell Newman provided an object lesson in how quickly a modern conservative government could destroy its own stocks. Thousands of public servants sacked one year, wars on bikies, bats, doctors, lawyers and courts the next. Then came two resounding by-election defeats, “Operation Boring” heralded in the era of “Strong Choices”, and now, with 2015 only a few days old, the dash to the polls.

Any rumour retailed by Clive Palmer loses credibility by dint of its messenger, but the small world of Brisbane was awakened from its post-G20 holiday slumber by tales that the LNP, not the most united of “strong teams”, was about to jettison its leader. But it doesn’t really matter precisely why Queenslanders are facing a snap election. We may be as ignorant as the several senior ministers who were relaxing on holidays when the premier’s office leaked the news of the impending campaign to the Courier-Mail. What we can infer is that far from the orderly progress towards a triumphant second term, the Queensland conservatives fear defeat.

In part, it’s a tribute to ALP leader Annastacia Palaszczuk and her (now) eight parliamentary Labor colleagues, who have refocused the shattered ALP, and held the government to account despite the very limited opportunities available to an Opposition in both a unicameral parliament and a state with a one-paper town as its capital.

But, even more so, it’s a commentary on how hard it is for right-wing parties to govern in Australia – or anywhere – in the mid 2010s. It’s hard for left-wing parties to govern, too, but that’s another story.

Queensland is, of course, prone to lopsided election results. Witness the two Peter Beattie landslides of 2001 and 2004, and Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s demolition of Labor in 1974. If we go back to 1996 and 1998, though, we can perceive another pattern that’s increasingly common both nationally and internationally (just ask anyone in the United Kingdom): victories that are anything but, knife-edge majorities and hung parliaments. The consummate politician of his era, I’d argue, Beattie played minority government for all it was worth. But the meltdown of the Borbidge coalition government in 1998 over the issue of One Nation preferences, and the subsequent electoral showing of One Nation (outpolling both Nationals and Liberals counted separately and electing 11 MPs) points not just to the need for Nats and Libs to unite but also to much more.

The electoral system in the federal house of representatives discourages all but rural independents, but a significant number persists, across the gamut of contests they are asked to adjudicate on, in casting their votes for populist or splinter parties of the right – PUP, the LDP, the DLP, KAP, country independents, Shooters and Fishers, on and on – with a frequency that suggests this is the new normal.

Some of the most colourful characters of the populist push are Queenslanders, starting with Joh and his quixotic campaign for Canberra in 1986 and 1987. Traditionally, and this has held true for the distinctive Queensland Nationals’ style of politics and politicians too, this variety of personality-centred populism had decreasing electoral returns the further south of the Tweed you travel along the east coast. That remains true, I think. PUP at its height was a largely Queensland-based phenomenon, or so the polls told us. Most people would struggle to name any of the new Victorian right-wing upper house MPs, and Nick Xenophon and David Leyonhjelm aside, few of the senate crossbenchers who aren’t PUPs or ex-PUPs could be described as charismatic. The argument is, however, that, aside from the well-known sociological reasons that underpin eccentric politics in the Sunshine State, something broader is going on across the nation as conservative parties fail to contain an increasingly free-floating, discontented vote. Remember, like Campbell Newman, the former Coalition government in Victoria and Tony Abbott federally won mainly by virtue of being “not Labor”.

In 2012, it would have been difficult to accuse the Queensland LNP of being policy-free, if the number of documents posted on its website was anything to go by. Once, though, you discounted such gems as “legalise the playing of two up on Anzac Day”, most of them boiled down to slogans – “More Jobs, Better Services”. Newman, leading the party from outside parliament, had been relatively non-political at the time, his image shaped by his “can do” style in Brisbane City Hall. The Mr Hyde to Can Do’s Dr Jekyll was the combative and thin-skinned figure who was to become highly recognisable to Queenslanders until his reincarnation as a Zen message machine last year. Still, the LNP won largely on the grounds that it was a competent and “adult” party, that it would be a “no surprises” administration, and that it would fix the mistakes Labor made. Sound familiar?

So, conservative parties can certainly win government, particularly if they do the small-target thing, and focus almost exclusively on Labor’s alleged sins. Sound familiar?

Holding an electoral coalition together in government, and governing cohesively and in the public interest, rather than throwing raw steak to the dogs of the “base” and the conservatariat, though: that’s a different, and more difficult game. Sound familiar?

Queensland, it’s often claimed, is a naturally conservative state. I’m not sure what to make of this claim, at least at the level of electoral and party politics: consider that the state was the first anywhere in the world to elect a Labor government, that it was the first anywhere in the world to see a general strike, in 1912, that it had (albeit decreasingly radical) Labor governments from 1915 with only one interruption until 1957, and then again from 1989 with only one interregnum until 2012. You could argue the converse, of course, on the basis of the Joh hegemony and Queensland’s distaste for federal Labor, but the point is that this doesn’t prove the state is a conservative bastion in the face of Labor’s record at state level for much of the last century.

Campbell Newman won, not by projecting an ideological face, but the exact opposite. Yet he leads a government that seems obsessed with humiliating its enemies, with starting fights, with indulging in flights of fancy, such as removing the requirement for water fluoridation and dressing imprisoned bikies in pink jumpsuits. The government disdained both evidence and consultation as it careered from crisis to crisis, and from absurdity to absurdity. Unemployment has surged, jobs have disappeared, and the economy tastes increasingly sour. Sound familiar?

I’ve said it before enough myself, and so have others: nothing much can be taken for granted in a Queensland election campaign. I don’t think I’d wager any money on Labor prevailing, but the fact that you could reasonably place a bet on that result shows the turnaround in the LNP’s fortunes. Anyone looking for light, colour and movement will find much of it, not least from Clive Palmer. Tony Abbott will no doubt stay away. The campaign won’t just be a referendum on the federal Coalition, though its unpopularity won’t help Newman. Nor will the Queensland election be simply a referendum on the state’s incumbent government (again, Labor cannot count on positive enthusiasm for its positions and values per se). It’s also a referendum on the ability of conservative administrations to govern and to give people what they want. It will be a fascinating campaign, and that will be one of the more fascinating questions tested.

Mark Bahnisch

Dr Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist, writer and consultant. He founded the popular progressive blog Larvatus Prodeo, and has analysed Australian politics across a variety of media since 2004. He is currently writing Everything You Need to Know About Queensland But Were Afraid to Ask for NewSouth Publishing, forthcoming in May this year.

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