The Queensland election campaign has started in earnest, but perhaps the only thrill so far has been the rumour that the premier went early to avoid a spill. The state remains in a sleepy summer mood. On the bus between Brisbane’s King George Square and West Ashgrove yesterday, I noticed that “for rent” and “for sale” yard signs were in much greater numbers than corflutes supporting either the local member, Mr Newman, or Kate Jones, his predecessor as MP, who is tipped to retake the seat of Ashgrove, or at least run a close race.
While Katter’s Australia Party MP Robbie Katter joined veteran Sunshine Coast hinterland Independent Peter Wellington and other crossbenchers to denounce asset sales and bikie laws, Clive Palmer seems to have faded away as quickly as a monsoonal downpour. John Bjelke-Petersen, son of Joh, has been anointed by Clive to contest Deputy Premier Jeff Seeney’s seat of Callide, but Palmer must be staying in the bush as far as the broader campaign is concerned.
Both Newman and Labor leader Annastacia Palaszczuk have pledged not to negotiate with the crossbench in the event of a hung parliament, though it’s a matter of opinion how much wiggle room each has left. In a joint radio interview, number of crossbenchers, some former LNP MPs, judged Newman's character and leadership qualities harshly. There were echoes of comments made on the former soldier's military record back in 1985:
One of the first assessments of Mr Newman after he graduated warned that the young officer “must be careful not to alienate people by being too abrasive” and “must take care not to distance himself too far from his subordinates”.
Perhaps the crossbench MPs feel not much has changed in 30 years. If the premier were to send Queenslanders back to the polls in the event of a hung parliament, citizens might prove as unforgiving as Newman's former parliamentary colleagues.
The Greens have been mostly invisible, but the premier has nevertheless taken to warning the public that a vote for them, for an indie or any third or forth or fifth party would be tantamount to ushering in a Palaszczuk government, suggesting that the Labor leader was sympathetic to “those sort of crazy, different, diverse interests”.
The first few days of the campaign, in the mind of LNP strategists, were all about defending and communicating the government’s record – a continuation of “Operation Boring”, initiated after the Stafford by-election defeat to detoxify the government’s combative image. But Newman has felt compelled to utter dire warnings about Labor and its leader. His problem is that the ALP, after the disaster that was the tactic of concentrating on the Newman family finances last time around, has not gone on the attack, and the prospect that “Annastacia Palaszczuk might be premier” is not actually scary. The Opposition leader’s image is undefined, but her ability to talk to folks from all walks of life has been a contrast to the stage-managed appearances of the premier, speaking only, it seems, to LNP supporters. Safety, in this case, carries its own risk for Newman.
Week one was, by design, a policy vacuum from the governing party (though announcements about roads to be part funded by the feds are now rolling in), and politics abhors a vacuum. Labor has not had to highlight what a large number of Queenslanders hate about the government: its wars on everything and everyone and its austerity regime. If anyone needed reminding, direct mail from unions is doing the job. So the ALP made a few – just a few – policy announcements: more nurses and guidance officers, and, intriguingly, a reduction in the number of ministers from 19 to 14, and linking MPs’ pay to public service wage increases. Focusing on the state’s appalling unemployment levels (bad all over, but really bad in some regions and outer metropolitan areas) has served not just to remind electors of the bloodbath of public service cuts but also of Newman’s apparent indifference to his own employment target throughout his term (“Strong Plans” not withstanding).
Newman is fighting on multiple fronts: not just a general election but also the election for Ashgrove (held by a slim margin of 5.7%, and thus a seat whose good burghers have received about $18 million in state largesse). He’s shadowboxing against a Labor opponent who resists demonisation, and fighting his own past as an abrasive and divisive figure. Not so easy to do.
Short though the campaign may be, there is still a long way to go. The polls have moved a little in the government’s favour (the best guide being psephologist Dr Kevin Bonham), but as they now stand, Labor could win around 30 seats and the LNP could sneak in with a small majority, or perhaps might just fall short. The key to the rest of the campaign is whether Labor can increase its vote. Its primary has been holding well, and there are still rich fields of minor party and undecided voters to harvest. Heading into the campaign, the ALP had the LNP at 50–50, but this was always more about distaste for and disillusion with the government than anything else. Labor now has the chance to define itself more positively, while, conversely, the LNP has to at least hold its current position. Really, though, it needs to improve its vote, as the ominous warnings about the evils of hung parliaments signified.
Perhaps the thrills and spills still await us as Queensland awakes from its summer slumber.
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