January 23, 2015

Strange alliances

By Mark Bahnisch
Not-so-friendly fire from traditional allies is wreaking havoc on Campbell Newman’s campaign

On a hot summer afternoon in February 2012, just before the Queensland state election that saw erstwhile Labor leader Anna Bligh’s worst nightmares realised, I stood among a few hundred farmers at Jondaryan, just near the Acland coal mine, listening to Alan Jones rail against the mine and coal seam gas development on the Darling Downs. Jones helicoptered in, and was joined on the stage by uneasy allies – Lock the Gate Alliance founder Drew Hutton, Greens senator Larissa Waters and Bob Katter. Some members of the crowd, fired up by the rhetoric, tried to storm the gates of the Acland mine. I retired to the nearby pub for a cold beer to escape the 39-degree heat, and chewed the fat with some of Katter’s Australian Party candidates.

Bob Katter hasn’t been very visible in this Queensland election (his symbolic place being taken perhaps by new Palmer United Party state leader John Bjelke-Petersen, the Only Son of the Father). Nor have the Greens, despite their best efforts – polarising elections aren’t fertile territory for third parties. Alan Jones and the Acland mine, however, have featured prominently, with the veteran shock jock launching daily missiles at Campbell Newman from a guest radio gig courtesy of Fairfax. Strange bedfellows, indeed.

The LNP campaign launch on Sunday was “overshadowed”, as they say in the media game, by Jones’ accusations that Newman had betrayed his trust. Campbell Newman’s uncharacteristically calm display also had to compete with the PUP launch, where the Clivester (apparently confined to bed with the flu) ceded the limelight to Bjelke-Petersen fils. JBJ – who has run unsuccessfully for parliament thrice before, for the Nats, LNP and then PUP in the federal election – promised the abolition of payroll tax, support for solar energy, and an international airport for Maroochydore. It’s curious that the unabashed populists are talking up renewable energy, but Bjelke-Petersen’s platform is probably less important than the fact that PUP and KAP are not preferencing the LNP.

Campbell and the LNP, it’s said, are copping more flak from traditional allies (including former Assistant Health Minister Chris Davis) than from Labor. Maybe this partly explains the low-key vibe of the LNP launch, though the incongruity of surrounding the premier with both Jeff Seeney, sans Akubra, and hijab-wearing family members of Yeerongpilly candidate Leila Abukar – a former refugee – did not go unnoticed, just as the spectre of the absent Tony Abbott attracted a Bill Shorten Zinger or two.

The premier promised, as is now his wont, all manner of good things provided voters swallow the bitter pill of privatisation. Youngsters were to get teaching scholarships (well, some of them) and free drivers’ licences (if they behave). Key to the premier’s appeal, though, was his plea to punters to “just vote one”. The reasoning behind this is well explained by Antony Green, so suffice to say here that the governing party and their allies at the Courier-Mail are still living in fear of a hung parliament. Galaxy polls taken last week of eight key electorates point to a swing to Labor averaging 10%, and that was the spin in the local News Limited Government Gazette. Given that Labor doesn’t need much more to win outright, some more statewide polling after the Labor party’s launch could prove very interesting indeed.

Maybe Tony Abbott’s on-again, off-again GP co-payment didn’t help much.

So to Ipswich, traditional heartland for both Labor and Pauline Hanson (who’s standing just up the road in Lockyer, and who doesn’t appear to have yet launched a policy), where Labor leader Annastacia Palaszczuk launched her campaign and attempted to address criticism about her party’s absence of a fiscal strategy. Labor is trying to restore its tarnished reputation as economic managers, pledging to pay down debt with income from state enterprises, and contrasting its measures with the LNP’s spendathon.

Despite a Courier-Mail splash, there was no Anna Bligh, but Peter Beattie was there – despite his claim that he’d be absent because of his new status as a political commentator. The party faithful, as with the LNP troops, were dressed in civvies rather than campaign shirts, were receptive to the presentation, particularly in its peroration – a plea to voters who might have been thinking again of voting Labor not to be distracted by the past.

That’s something Queensland voters are considering, if not in enough numbers to put Labor back into government so soon after its record loss in 2012. But should the feds continue to drop bombshells, and not-so-friendly fire from Jones and Palmer continues to capture attention, we might still have a contest on our hands.

Rather bizarrely, Newman spent a couple of days blaming Labor for Jones’ accusations, claiming that it was the Anna Bligh politics of smear revisited. Refusing to sign on to a Fitzgerald charter of honesty and accountability, the premier railed against fictitious Labor attacks, and then upped the ante by suing Jones for defamation. This move might allow Newman and the LNP to avoid legitimate questions about the Acland mine, but it's most unlikely to silence Jones. It’s also hard to see it otherwise than the actions of a man with his back up against the wall.

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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