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National Affairs

Campbell Newman and the ghost of Joh Bjelke-Petersen

30 January 2015

The Liberal National Party forgot it was governing in the twenty-first century, writes Brian Costar. The results have been disastrous

Right:

Queensland premier Campbell Newman on the campaign trail earlier this week. John Pryke/AAP Image

Queensland premier Campbell Newman on the campaign trail earlier this week. John Pryke/AAP Image


Campbell Newman’s decision to run an unusually short election campaign entirely during the holiday month of January – the first time this has occurred anywhere in Australia for over a century – has no doubt posed a challenge for polling companies searching for reliable samples. Some of them have been distracted, too, by the contest in premier Campbell Newman’s seat of Ashgrove, where his chances of defending a margin of 5.7 per cent against a popular opponent have always been slim.

The recent statewide polls (the latest from ReachTEL on 20 January) have the Liberal National Party on 52 per cent to Labor’s 48 per cent. Although this is a big swing from the 2012 election result, when a split of 63–37 gave the LNP seventy-eight seats out of eighty-nine, those figures suggest that the government will just hang on.

But Queensland is different, and two factors mean that statewide polls based on two-party-preferred figures may not anticipate the final result as accurately as they do in other jurisdictions. First, Queensland’s electoral geography is highly regionalised, which means this election will be won in Brisbane and the northern coastal cities of Townsville and Cairns. Second, since 1992 Queenslanders have had the option of simply numbering one square on their ballot papers, and 70 per cent of voters have chosen to do exactly that. This renders the concept of the two-party-preferred vote almost meaningless.

How did a government that won such a large victory less than three years ago come to be fighting for its life? In brief, it’s because the LNP and the premier have behaved as though they were elected in 1982 rather than 2012.

An indifference to government accountability, a trampling of civil liberties, dubious judicial appointments, questionable campaign fundraising methods, the weakening of the Crime and Corruption Commission, and a blurring of the distinction between the executive and parliament – all these are reminiscent of the reign of Joh Bjelke-Petersen. So much so that the government earned a public rebuke from Tony Fitzgerald QC, the man who led the commission of inquiry into that earlier period of corruption, in the last few days of the campaign.

The premier’s personal style, meanwhile, has been aggressive and arrogant. (The Electrical Trades Union is full of “grubs and liars,” he said in June last year.) While he has toned down his language in recent months, Newman’s election mantra of “Strong team. Strong plan. Stronger Queensland” can easily be interpreted as authoritarian and backward-looking rather than positive. This is because the Queensland electorate of today is very different from the one that gave Joh and his “strong” regime their memorable victories. It has doubled in size, is more urbanised and metropolitanised, is more ethnically and culturally diverse, is better educated (the proportion of bachelor degree–holders has doubled since 1991) and is better served by a more critical (largely online) media.

The government has downplayed its earlier agenda to the extent of banishing the controversial attorney-general, Jarrod Bleijie, to the electoral backblocks. It is now stressing its “strong” economic credentials, but more as promise than performance. Queensland’s trend unemployment is 6.6 per cent, significantly worse than the 5.5 per cent rate when Newman came to office, and better only than Tasmania’s performance. Regional variations could be influential, too, with unemployment running at 8 per cent in the key cities of Townsville and Cairns (and youth unemployment at a very high 21 per cent in the former), where the high dollar has hit the tourism industry.

Other measures are also worrying. Gross domestic income fell 1 per cent over the 2013–14 financial year, the second-highest decline in the country. Overall, the CommSec State of the States January 2015 report rates Queensland fifth for economic performance among the eight states and territories.

Undeterred, the government promises a rosy economic future based on coal seam gas exports, but its predictions on that front seem overly optimistic. It claims, for example, that new coalmines in the Galilee Basin will directly create 27,000 new jobs, but an Australia Institute analysis puts the likely figure at 9280.


The result tomorrow? Electoral arithmetic is heavily weighted against the possibility that Labor can harvest the thirty-six extra seats it needs to form government, but let’s see how they might do it. There are forty seats in Brisbane, of which the party holds only four; given that the swing against the LNP is likely to be strongest in the southeastern corner, that tally could increase to a total of thirty-five. Of the seven seats in the far north, Labor could take five, bringing the total to forty, still five short of the magic forty-five.

The climb from the last base camp to the pinnacle is always the toughest, so here we must venture into the mists of preferences. In what looks like a polarising election, the minor and micro parties will not do well. The Katter caper has run its course and the PUPs have rarely ventured out of their kennels. Some polls have the Greens on 9 per cent, undoubtedly an exaggeration, but given that 50 per cent of the party’s voters allocate at least some preferences, its increased support will assist Labor in very close contests.

To win, the opposition must gain a swing in the order of 12 per cent. Impossible, I hear you say, but the LNP gained a swing of nearly 17 per cent in 2012 and Labor gained 17 per cent and 19 per cent in two by-elections in 2014. The current Australian electorate is grumpy and volatile and Queenslanders have a history of being among the most volatile of all.

Federal issues played a part in the defeat of the Coalition government in Victoria last November. A Courier-Mail Galaxy poll published on 12 January 2015 reported that “almost one in three voters are poised to vote against the LNP… because of federal factors” – especially suggestions that the GST be broadened – and this was before the prime minister’s mad monarchist moment sparked unhelpful leadership speculation.

So, while the cautious prediction must be that Labor will fall a little short of victory, there’s just a chance of a very nasty surprise for the LNP this weekend. •

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