The Queensland result confirms things we already knew
So, yes, the Queensland election result is interesting, it really is, but it’s interesting in quite a boring way. Despite all the talk of votes spraying everywhere, psephologists having enough for umpteen PhDs, and shock results – all of which are fair observations – when you get down to it the main take-outs are confirmation of things we knew already.
But before we get to those take-outs, let’s begin with an affirmation of political common sense. State elections are fought on state issues. Malcolm Turnbull is right when he says Australians “know the difference between a state election and a federal election”. Bill Shorten – like George Christensen – is wrong when he tries to connect Labor’s victory (whether in minority or majority) to the travails of Turnbull’s government. Some focus group research supports this [$] (admittedly focus group leaks, like all leaks, are made with an agenda in mind).
Not only was the election fought on state issues, the results are unlikely to be replicated at federal level. There are a lot of quasi-prognostications around about what the Queensland results would look like if translated to the next federal election. They’re useful to demonstrate the scale of the swings, but is anyone seriously suggesting that this is likely to happen? In fact, as Peter Brent points out, having a party of one stripe at state level tends to adversely affect that party at federal level. In other words, a Queensland Labor government may end up being quite helpful to the federal Coalition’s chances of survival.
(Close readers may see a contradiction between this paragraph and the one before. There is a difference between saying the ideology of the party in power at one level may affect the party elected at the other level, and arguing that their policies or abilities have an impact.)
So what did we actually learn? Well, if by “learn” you mean “something new”, not much. A first-term government was returned in Australia, which has long been the rule for most jurisdictions. It’s true less at state level than at federal, and less watertight in the past few years, but it still should not cause anyone a heart attack.
Another confirmation: major parties are really unpopular right now. Roughly a quarter of voters voted for minor parties or independents at the last federal election. At this Queensland election it was almost one-third of voters. A more emphatic result than federally, but then Queensland tends towards the emphatic. We knew this already.
Finally, we come to One Nation. All of the progressive Queenslanders out there who have been hoping this election would demonstrate that their state is not quite as in love with Pauline Hanson as other states think: it did not. In the seats where it ran, it averaged one-in-five voters. As Tim Colebatch pointed out, on Saturday’s figures, “it will finish in the top two in fifteen to twenty seats”. So voters do not like the major parties; they are open to One Nation as a protest vote; and common sense would suggest race is still a powerful factor in elections.
But One Nation didn’t win many, if any, seats, and that also tells us something we already knew: this is a hopeless party run by incompetents. Pauline Hanson and her chief of staff, James Ashby, cannot organise their way out of a paper bag. And thank goodness for that.
Now, whatever your feelings on the above, the analysis of what this means for the federal government is simple and clear, whether fair or not: trouble. Whatever my feelings on the relation of the election result to the prime minister, the fact that debate is happening as loudly as it is brings havoc.
In particular, the fact that it is enabling an enlivened conversation about the relationship of the Nationals to the Liberal Party, at just the time when rogue Nats are planning on bringing a banking commission bill with the power to bring down the government, is unhelpful.
If you ask me, the Nationals are overreacting to the result. There’s a lot of talk of the need to differentiate from the Liberals in order to reach those voters drawn to One Nation. This may be true, especially at a state level. But, as Barnaby Joyce and co keep reminding us, the Nationals actually picked up a seat at the last federal election, while the Liberals lost about 15. Surely that differentiation is already working pretty well?
Which of course just points to the trouble here, which these days is the trouble everywhere for the prime minister. Rational arguments don’t cut it in this government. People do what they want to do; whatever has just happened is merely marshalled as the latest excuse to do so.
Finally, the idea that a strong showing, votes-wise, for One Nation means the Coalition needs to move closer to the far right is not sensible. On preferences, in Bernard Keane's words, “Twice now, in Western Australia and Queensland, conservatives have flirted with One Nation”; they lost both times. Malcolm Turnbull’s government has worked to befriend Hanson; Michaelia Cash hugged her at the conclusion of Hanson's maiden speech; when George Brandis spoke against Hanson's burqa stunt in the Senate he was applauded only by non-government MPs.
Isn’t it just possible that by continuing to cuddle up to One Nation, the Coalition is sending a message to conservative voters that the party is somehow acceptable? Isn’t it at least plausible that if the two major parties sent a bipartisan message that her racist policies are not OK, that might actually have an impact on public debate? On the willingness of media organisations to give Hanson a platform? On the willingness of voters to proudly throw their weight behind her?
But that would require a belief from Malcolm Turnbull, at a time of very low ebb, in his ability to shape public opinion, rather than contorting himself into whatever shape he believes it demands of him.
Turnbull was asked today about the LNP preference deal with One Nation. He responded by warning voters very strongly not to vote for Hanson’s party. And what was his reason? Because Hanson isn’t fit to govern? Because her candidates are terrible? Because her policies are nonsensical? Because of her blatant use of race as a political tactic?
No – because voting for One Nation “has only benefitted Annastacia Palaszczuk and the Labor Party”. The best reason not to vote for Pauline Hanson is, apparently, Labor. This came from a man who yesterday said that the voters of Bennelong should not vote for Kristina Keneally because she’d bring asylum seekers to the electorate. In other words, it too merely told us something we already knew.
In other news
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