Queensland election: Labor’s to lose?

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With the polls tight, One Nation on the rise and an Adani coal mine wild card, this weekend's Queensland election is on a knife-edge, writes Dr Lee Duffield.

Things are somewhat unstable in the Queensland electoral game because margins are tight and voter swings can be different from region to region. The battle for Townsville and the Adani coal mine have continued to look like crucial factors.

On paper the election this Saturday is the Labor Party’s to lose.


State-wide surveys taken up to a few weeks ago were giving the Annastacia Palaszczuk Labor Government a slight swing, maybe a few percentage points, coming to about 35% of the primary vote and an average State-wide lead of 6-8% over the Opposition two party preferred. In these polls, the Liberal National Party (LNP) took a knock in its primary vote, mostly from One Nation, leaving it with 34% — and its support not that good in the overall distribution of minor party preferences.

The Labor Party hopes for an advantage because it is in government, even though four seats short of an absolute majority, looking for a second term with a fairly problem-free track record: unpopular job cuts from the previous Campbell Newman LNP Government reversed, no extreme ideological thrusts of its own, no catastrophes, keep things stable. As the Opposition says (setting aside some initiatives on budget cropping, education and health), the government has “done nothing” — a perception this small-target government would be happy enough to live with.

It has been helped more than other parties by the 2016 redistribution of electoral boundaries, which increased the single-chamber parliament from 89 to 93 electorates — potentially picking up a few seats.

The Federal Liberal Government has been unpopular for most of its four years and sometimes that can carry over to the state — such as when the sinking Keating Labor Government in Canberra helped to drag down Goss Labor in Queensland, in the 1990s.

The prospects are usually talked about in terms of regions, and there are indications for the regions both in published polls and also skerricks of information leaking out of the party organisations.


In the greater Brisbane area, Labor has a net advantage of 16 seats (23 to 7) and, on current indications, is hoping to win a few more – see the redistribution effect above.

On the Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, it has a combined disadvantage of 21 seats, where it holds none at all (21 to 0) — but thinks, once again, it should have a chance of getting one or two. While it did stage Sunday’s official campaign launch on the Gold Coast, it failed to have candidates ready for all of the seats in that city when the election was announced.

Insider thinking is that Labor should hold up well in large regional centres, notably Cairns and Rockhampton — except for the black spot around Townsville.


On the conservative side, the LNP has been able to take comfort from getting One Nation preferences in seats that it has a fair chance of winning or retaining. That might overcome its evident disadvantage in the distribution of preferences overall. Queensland has just gone back to compulsory preferential voting, instead of optional preferential. Getting preferences directed to it and at a better level than One Nation voters gave it previously, must help the LNP’s chances.

The Party had the same number of seats as Labor in the last Parliament and should only need to get five more to win outright — a good start for an Opposition.

Apart from such factual material, the Opposition has some plausible hopes. One is that the unpopularity of the Newman LNP Government, sensationally unseated three years ago, will be forgotten; and there is the hope that the present weak standing of the Federal Government under Malcolm Turnbull will not rub off onto itself.

Add into these calculations that there are usually cases where a few seats change hands unexpectedly, as if randomly. Likewise, add in that there are some seats with such very tight margins (0.5%) they always might go either way — like Bundaberg (held by Labor) and Whitsunday (LNP).


The focus gets back to the major city of Townsville, where Labor is defending four electorates (three with Labor members and one seat notionally Labor after the redistribution).

If there was a place designed to carry the brunt of a bad patch in the economy, psychological glumness and resentment over “getting left behind” by changing society, and wanting the promise of some quick answers, Townsville in 2017 might be the one — though we will have to wait for Saturday to see.

The city normally gets by with employment if at least one major regional industry is going well — whether in the mines, processing, or through the port. The last few years have been difficult, punctuated by the closure of the Clyde Palmer nickel refinery, but then the prospect of a jobs boom with the proposed, wanted, hated, confusing, controversial Adani coal mining project.


All of that has been worked on by the Pauline Hanson One Nation Party, which polled so well in the Federal election a year-and-a-half ago.

According to polls carried in the local news media, it might itself win the Townsville-based seat of Thuringowa as well as helping the LNP with preferences. Its chances of winning other seats would be wild cards.

Such gains might, or might not, depend to some extent on behaviour of the party membership, who are prone to getting into scrapes and being argumentative among themselves. In one of the latest incidents, the Thuringowa candidate, Mark Thornton, who owns a sex shop, has been fending off hostile commentary about some of the posts going out from one of his company's social media accounts.

Some questions might be put to the LNP about a few of its own law and order proposals being floated in the North, as in new youth curfews for Townsville and Cairns. Is this dog whistling about Indigenous children running wild and getting into minor crime? At least if the junior partner One Nation came up with something like that they’d just come out and say it.


Public support for the Adani mine project in Queensland looks as though it could get tipped over by public hostility towards it. That has been picked up by party phone canvassers in Brisbane as the one issue threatening the Palaszczuk Government’s base.

It is a surprise, considering that putting on hard hats and proclaiming new industrial mega-projects has been a clear winner for Queensland politicians for at least the last 60 years.

Things have changed, maybe people have changed and life is no longer so simple. It does have a “people power” aspect to it and provokes the idea that this coal mine, should it go ahead, might be the last of its kind in Queensland.

People are saying:

As an election issue, it has been in part neutralised by the decision of Premier Anastacia Palaszczuk to exercise the State’s prerogative to veto the proposed loan. That has brought Labor back to its policy at the last State election — that to happen, the Adani project must be a fully commercial operation, not a State-subsidised development scheme.

It is a problem now for voters against, who want to kick Labor over the project, but realise the other side are more likely to push it through and even help fund it from the public purse.

It is a good bet now to expect that those citizens mean to continue to make it a hard fought issue, whichever way it goes in the Queensland state election this Saturday.

Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic. 

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