Flat White

Just what’s going on in Queensland politics?

14 May 2020

5:00 AM

14 May 2020

5:00 AM

Queensland’s recent local government elections, combined with two state by-elections, provide a window into what might happen at the next state election, due on October 31 this year. 

State-wide polling is rarely done in Queensland, and when it is, generally misses the regional nuances. But on March 28 this year, at the height of the COVID-19 panic, Queenslanders went to the polls all over the state at least once, and in the case of voters in the state seats of Bundamba and Currumbin, twice. 

While most councils are not contested by the major parties, often candidates have known loyalties allowing some party-based analysis.  

This has to be done carefully.  

Take the Brisbane City Council area for instance, where the ALP, LNP and Greens field candidates. The LNP safely controls the council with 19 seats out of 26. Yet out of the 24 state seats in the same area it is reversed with the ALP controlling 19 and the LNP four. In each case the Greens have one seat. 

Voting habits do not appear to translate directly between local and state governments. 

But there is some valuable intelligence we can draw from the recent elections that will bear on the next state election. 

From the council elections we might draw the conclusion that there was little appetite for change.  

Take Brisbane City Council. The council had been in power for 16 years and its current Lord Mayor, Adrian Schrinner, was relatively unknown, having been in office for less than a year. 

The ALP mounted an expensive campaign, spending $2,154,110.32 to the LNP’s $1,529,628.60. They “owned” TV and radio, bombarding the electorate with a relentlessly negative message based on the slogan “Rates, not rorts”, and their candidate was a relatively well-known former TV journalist. 

Despite this there was only a 3.19% swing on a two-party preferred basis towards Labor. On first preferences there was actually a 1.02% swing against Labor. All their negative campaigning boosted the Greens first preference vote by just under 5%, 80% of which came back to Labor after distribution of preferences. 

So maybe Labor’s negative campaigning style no longer works. 

Another way of looking at it is that there is no enthusiasm for either of the major parties, with a 5% protest vote going to the Greens.  That suggests in a state election, rather than choosing stability, voters may be prepared to give their votes to minor parties. 

Or it could have been a reward for competent governance. Despite the ALP slogan, there was little evidence of LNP rorts, and a solid track record of steadily improving the city. 

There is some support for all these theses in the two by-elections.  

Bundamba is a seat based on Ipswich where the popular member Joanne Miller abruptly resigned in protest against her own government. Currumbin is a seat at the south of the Gold Coast where an arguably popular member Jann Stuckey resigned in protest against her side – the opposition. 

In Bundamba the party organisation shoe-horned a left-wing apparatchik Lance McCallum into the seat against the wishes of the departing member, and in an area that tends to vote right-wing Labor. 

In Currumbin the party organisation vetoed the former member’s choice to replace her and pre-selected   Gerber, who had only just joined the party, had no factional ties, and is a young well-presented mother who works as a litigation lawyer. 

Very similar circumstances, with one big difference – Bundamba was the third safest Labor seat with a 21.55% margin to Miller, while Currumbin was the seventh most marginal LNP seat with a 3.31% margin to Stuckey.  

Bundamba was a bad result for Labor. There was a 2PP swing against them of 11.75%. It was also a bad result for the LNP – they won 16.58% of the vote, up from the 15.17% of the previous election, but 12.57% less than One Nation, which was the ultimate runner-up. 

What this tells us is that the LNP has no traction in conservative working-class territory, and is not judged even good enough for a protest vote, while Labor’s heartland is not happy with it 

These results are a major smackdown for both Annastacia Palaszczuk and Deb Frecklington. 

Currumbin was likewise a bad result for both, although this time the LNP did better than in Bundamba. There was a swing against the LNP, but small at 2.08%.  

However, there was an element of luck here. In the last week or so of the campaign Premier Palaszczuk closed the Queensland/New South Wales border. Coolangatta and Tweed Heads share that border and are so close they call them the Twin Towns. LNP candidate Gerber would have appreciated the irony more than most. She’s local having grown up in Bilambil, just south of the border, and now living in Elenora in Queensland. 

The decision was poorly implemented and hugely unpopular locally, suggesting to voters Labor really had little interest or understanding of that part of the state, and the LNP ran a heavily negative campaign on it. That probably saved their candidate. 

While Palaszczuk performed poorly, the LNP is not performing well enough. A competent opposition this close to an election should have established a clear campaign theme that can motivate voters. That they only fell over the line in Currumbin and came a humiliating third in Bundamba shows they haven’t done this. And it was compounded by poor management that in each case saw an MLA resign and bag her own party. 

Queensland’s parliamentary majority stands on a very jagged knife’s edge. Out of 93 seats the ruling ALP holds 48. After providing a speaker that is 47 — one more than is required for a majority on the floor without requiring the speaker to exercise a casting vote. 

Labor will lose one of their seats to the Greens. Jackie Trad, former Treasurer and powerbroker, under investigation by the  CCC, occupies a seat represented by the Greens in the council which party the LNP has decided to preference at the next election. 

But on the other side the LNP opposition still seems a long way from power. If it wanted an absolute majority it would need to increase the 38 seats it holds by 9, because there are 6 minor party members and one independent holding the two sides apart. 

With the current climate favourable to minor parties and independents, none of those nine are likely to be won from them. 

Two of the minor parties – Katter’s Australia Party and Jason Costigan’s North Queensland First Party – could be expected to support the LNP in government, but the remaining cross-benchers a One Nation member, and an Independentcould be problematic, while the two prospective Greens would side with Labor. 

One Nation would be problematic because of the LNP’s need to win seats in Brisbane where Aspley and Mansfield are real possibilities on the margins. A sniff of a deal with One Nation could cruel their chances here.  

The Independent, Sandy Boulton from Noosa, could be in an interesting position. While she appears to be more Labor than Liberal, Noosa is basically an LNP area. She could find herself in a similar position to the one Kerryn Phelps held in the last federal parliament, and Phelps showed what a tightrope that can be. 

Further complicating issues is that other winnable seats are in Central, North and Far North Queensland – areas that swung heavily to the Coalition at the last federal election. But these are areas where independents and third parties are doing particularly well, and where the state LNP doesn’t really “get” the culture.  

It may also find itself wedged on the issue of coal mining. It plays well with regional voters, but is poison in Brisbane. 

So where that leaves us is a real possibility of a minority government after the next election with the options being Labor in alliance with the Greens against the LNP with both blocs trying to sort out arrangements with Katter, North Queensland First, One Nation and at least one Independent. 

And that’s at a minimum. The two major parties are on the nose. It’s a good time to be anything but, so the number of independents could be swelled particularly from seats in the north of the state and the periphery of Brisbane. 

Graham Young is Executive Director of the Australian Institute for Progress and founder and editor of On Line Opinion.

Illustration: jackietrad.com.au.

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