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Losing Campbell Newman: The LNP's risky Ashgrove strategy

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The results from a Channel 7 / ReachTEL poll published January 28 shows Queensland Premier Campbell Newman on course to lose his own seat tomorrow (Image via @EAtkinson7)

Rather than giving Campbell Newman marks for contesting a hard to win marginal seat, voters could well turn on the LNP for having a leader whose tenure in his own seat is so insecure, writes David Topp.

ON THE ABC’s 12 October 2014 Insiders program, conservative commentator Gerard Henderson and host Barrie Cassidy discussed Campbell Newman’s decision to re-contest his seat of Ashgrove in the then yet to be confirmed 2015 Queensland election.

"He’ll get marks for that," Cassidy opined, with immediate affirmation by Henderson.

Will he though? Queenslanders face an election in which the incumbent Liberal-National Party government, by dint of its massive parliamentary majority, is very likely to be returned. So much so that a uniform statewide anti-LNP swing of 12 per cent would be required to return the ALP to power. An enormous ask in anyone’s language.

Whereas the swing required for the ALP’s Kate Jones, the previous member for Ashgrove, to wrest it back is a touch under one half of that, at 5.7 per cent.

Hence the many predictions of Newman losing Ashgrove yet his party retaining enough seats to command a majority on the floor of parliament.

State and Federal elections in this country invariably become leader v leader contests. Phrases like "Howard's battlers" and the "Beattie liberals" entered our lexicon after John Howard federally and former Premier Peter Beattie in Queensland — two of the most canny retail politicians of the recent era, who comfortably won many elections by drawing support, not just from their own sides of politics, but also those nominally bracketed under either Labor or Liberal, whose preferences for the individual leader overrode their usual ideologies.

The Newman persona was palpable in the lead up to the 2012 election. So marked was the swing, by 7pm on election night, it could safely be called for the LNP. The ALP that had governed since 1989, save for a 2.5 year hiatus between 1996 and 1998, but was left reeling with a mere seven seats in an 89 seat parliament.

However, that was then — this is 2015.

Contrary to the thesis mutually voiced by Cassidy and Henderson, this author's view is that the voters who flocked to the Newman-led LNP three years ago, far from giving him ‘marks’ for re-contesting Ashgrove, could well turn against the LNP this time around entirely due to the lack of security of Newman’s tenure as an MP.

After all Newman and the LNP have consistently repudiated any notion of a ‘Plan B’ if he loses his seat. So who succeeds to the corner office of the Executive Building if Jones re-takes Ashgrove?

The present Deputy Premier, Jeff Seeney, might seem obvious, but he would carry no more of an electoral mandate than anyone else within the LNP party room.

A country versus city divide would soon emerge also and in terms of the latter constituency what of Treasurer Tim Nicholls, who has also experienced stints as acting premier? Lawrence Springborg boasts 25 years of parliamentary experience: the most of any present re-contesting member on either side of politics. John-Paul Langbroek became opposition leader after Anna Bligh’s 2009 election victory and, based on the magnitude of the 2012 result, even without the Newman factor, could be presumed to have won that poll easily. Scott Emerson, Tim Mander and Ian Walker are but three others who could step up.

The ultimate question is who?

A victorious inner-city LNP candidate vacating his/her seat immediately thereafter so as to enable Newman is another Plan B scenario mooted by commentators. This can and should be written off as implausible; not only would doing so equate to a breach of trust for the voters who thought they were voting in their candidate for an entire three year term, in straitened budgetary times in Queensland, how could the wastage of public funds for a by-election be justified?

Another possibility is amending the Queensland Constitution – which unlike the Federal version can be performed by mere parliamentary majority – to allow a non-member to become premier? Far-fetched, maybe, but then again that’s what many thought about Newman’s initial bid to become premier whilst never having sat in George Street.

Scenarios such as this and indeed many others creative minds may postulate, will only heighten the doubts in voters minds as the "no Plan B" mantra keeps perpetuating.

Furthermore, the historical precedents of high-profile candidates winning marginal seats hardly bodes well either.

In the 1998 and 2007 Federal Elections respectively, hyped ALP candidates Cheryl Kernot and Maxine McKew famously defeated Liberal Party incumbents only to lose the return bouts three years later. And, moreover, they lost to first time candidates.

Former Environment Minister Kate Jones, however, is a known – and popular– quantity for the voters in Ashgrove.

In the final analysis, the entire Newman for Ashgrove pitch could be the most self-defeating of all.

Whilst many non-aligned voters voted decisively for Newman in 2012, to the extent that their doing so outweighed or was divorced from any filial loyalty to the LNP, those voters might in fact feel minded, in the privacy of the polling booths on 31 January, to defect to the ALP. There being, of course, no doubts about Annastacia Palaszczuk’s tenure on her seat of Inala, her having "inherited" it from her father Henry Palaszcuzk, who held the seat (and its predecessor Archerfield) continuously from 1984 and 2006.

"He’ll get marks for that"?

He won’t if Kate Jones finds herself spending 1 February making plans to return to Ashgrove’s Waterworks Road electorate office.

David Topp is a Brisbane barrister and author. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidTopp.

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