Politics Analysis

Queensland poll rejected race 'dog whistles' in media

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Despite a series of attack campaigns, Deb Frecklington congratulated Annastacia Palaszczuk on her election victory (Screenshots via YouTube)

In the State Election, Queensland Labor faced not only political opposition but also attacks and dirty politics played out in the media, writes Dr Lee Duffield.

ONE FEATURE of the October Queensland Election was the show of civility put on for the cameras as the outcome became known, washing away some of the dirt thrown earlier.

Conceding defeat, former Opposition leader Deb Frecklington said:

“I would like to congratulate Annastacia Palaszczuk on her victory tonight.

...this decision is respected by the LNP.”

That attitude must bring some relief across the board, especially considering the line being taken by Ms Frecklington’s fraternal party in America, the Republicans, gearing up as she spoke to denounce any outcome against their leader, President Donald Trump, as grand electoral fraud.

Dirt politics

However, it was not all so sweet in a Queensland campaign that was, if not downright dirty, full of attack ads and abuse, especially from the conservative side.

The Liberal National Party's “dodgy Jackie” billboard campaign up and down the state against former Deputy Premier Jackie Trad, complete with scowling, distorted portrait, was borderline defamation, misogyny, definitely political incivility. Set up before Ms Trad, who lost her seat to the Greens, resigned from the Ministry over charges of conflict of interest, the billboards had become irrelevant to serious debate. 

Setting up a “black crims” issue

Then there was the political conflict in Townsville over black juvenile crime.

At the close of counting on Saturday night, the Labor Party had received swings in its favour, around three per cent, in the Cairns-based electorate of Barron River and the Townsville-based seats of Mundingburra, Thuringowa and Townsville.

These were all Labor seats where the Opposition – with active support from News Corp’s local tabloid the Townsville Bulletin and, incredibly, the Queensland ABC – campaigned for a “trial curfew” to control black juvenile crime. It was billed as “law and order” but the use of the same repeat vision of young Aborigines acting violently made it explicitly about race.

Aboriginal children “overboard”?

The scenario was that a police operation would round up minors after dark, put them in the cooler and impose steep fines on their parents. Underscoring the “action man” angle, the LNP put up a police inspector and a retired army lieutenant-colonel as candidates in two of the seats. The plan was that people worried by constant trouble being inflicted by these children at night, especially car theft, would give up on work being done by executive-level police and government agencies to get it under control and go for the tough-knuckle option. (It’d be a new take on the idea of “children overboard” for the sake of a political win — the dog whistle inscribed into Australian political memory during the Federal Election campaign of 2001.)

The theory was the crime issue would be fatal for Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk’s Labor team in the area. Deb Frecklington and her Deputy, the author of the juvenile crime scheme, Tim Mander, kept travelling up from the south and hanging around in Townsville as if they belonged there.

Media story gets it wrong — set to backfire

There was nothing genteel or civil in this politicking. The Bulletin has routinely abused the three Townsville MPs together, most famously on the front page of 27-28 April last year, distorting their portraits (to make them look ugly) and declaring them ‘gutless’ for not supporting coal, just before the Federal Election. Evidently, nothing much is expected from the newspaper by the public; the 2020 Election results suggest the newspaper’s propaganda was ignored.

The ABC erred badly, in television news and some radio commentary, swallowing the LNP’s faulty analysis of the public mood and misjudging the weight of the matter as a voting issue. It elevated it and handled it uncritically, to the point of recycling the same pictures of violent Black children and celebrating the antics of an armed “vigilantes” out scouting for juveniles to give them a “flogging”.

Good reporting requires some analysis of situations. The ABC, in this case, deployed southern-based journalists to report on northern issues, which can be alright if they are seasoned analysts, know the pitfalls of getting briefed and provided with talent by political parties and don’t take sides. The same “death of Labor in Townsville” by law and order has now been prematurely foreshadowed by news media in two state elections: 2017 and 2020.

Media commentary, except in a few places like Independent Australia, took up the Opposition’s tactical line, never considering why all Townsville’s sitting members were government ones to start with. Knowledge of the city’s demographics and political background would show there is ingrained support for the Labor Party there, which can be very fickle, but unlikely to shift on a whim — useful knowledge to avoid serious errors. More in sorrow than in anger, is it time for action through the ABC’s complaints process about this dodgy performance?


The idea contained in critiques concocted in Brisbane and further south of a “deep north”, full of racists ready to jump to a dog whistle on colour, can cause insult. North Queenslanders have not been forming lynch mobs to hunt down their neighbours’ children. The re-elected Labor member for Townsville, Stewart Scott, the former principal of two Townsville high schools, on election night paused in the celebrations to outline some of the initiatives in place to arrest the delinquency problem. He insisted that in the end, more jobs would be the best antidote to social disorder and distress — and crime that goes with it.

Former ALP Secretary and party spokesperson Anthony Chisholm, in the election night television coverage, condemned the Opposition party over its “law and order” push into north Queensland:

“The LNP should be ashamed. People saw it for what it was. That was completely disrespectful towards the people of Townsville and Cairns.”

Another way, here is a ditty getting some nods of agreement around the bars: “LNP says north Queensland people are racist scum and for betting on that got a kick in the bum.”

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

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