The Queensland election: How Labor – and the LNP – defied the odds

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The LNP tried to scare voters into re-electing them, but their campaign fell away like their stupid signage (Miami High School 31/1/15, image by DG Donovan)

Seasoned election watcher Dr Craig Johnston was in Brisbane in the closing days of the campaign and was shocked by the election outcome; here, he tries to make sense of the second unprecedented swing in Queensland in a row.

At 5.20pm on election day, 31 January 2015, a fierce storm broke over polling booths throughout south-eastern Brisbane. It lasted barely 10 minutes. At the time, it was an inconvenience in the closing minutes of polling day for the Electoral Commission, party canvassers and voters alike. It could now be read as a metaphor for the Campbell Newman LNP Government of Queensland — spectacular in its inception, violent in nature and mercifully short.

In 2012, the Queensland Liberal National Party (LNP) beat the long-term incumbent ALP Government so comprehensively Labor could have faced a generation in the wilderness. With a seemingly unassailable majority, no upper house to frustrate him and what should have been a deep well of political capital, Campbell Newman was looking at a comfortable decade with his feet under the executive desk in George Street. Yet three short years later, the unthinkable happened. Queensland, which has only voted in a new government six times since 1915, turned its back on Newman and his party.

The mountain that the ALP faced after the 2012 election was enormous, a “David and Goliath battle” as Palaszczuk said at every opportunity. Having been handed the poisoned chalice of the leadership of a rump of seven MPs, Palaszczuk, the most senior figure left standing after the LNP’s over-successful decapitation strategy, worked hard to regain votes and the voter’ trust not only in Brisbane, but also in Northern Queensland. She was aided by a loyal dinghy-full of MPs willing to work as hard and not to rock the boat, and an inexperienced parliamentarian, in Campbell Newman, possessing no apparent ability to self-regulate. The ALP quite rightly expected to see a significant correction in the vote, delivering enough seats in 2015 to be competitive next time, perhaps led by one of the many returning senior MPs who lost their seats in 2012.

When the polls closed in January 2015 and the counting began, party workers and volunteers on both sides were hearing the official exit poll results. It looked bad for the LNP straight away. The nominal results that evening showed the ALP had done better than even they had hoped at their most optimistic. The swing was over 12 per cent, although several seats remained in doubt until the last of the postal votes were counted.

Two weeks later, Annastacia Palaszczuk became Queensland’s unlikeliest Premier and the first woman to lead any federal or state party from opposition into government.

Recriminations within the LNP began before the count was finished. Party elders and future leaders including Jeff Seeney, Lawrence Springborg and Tim Nicholls were already turning on, and distancing themselves from, Campbell Newman, the party’s failed experiment with outsourced recruitment, while the former premier blamed senior members of his cabinet for a poor campaign.

And it was on the campaign trail that the Opposition Leader bested the premier at every turn. Like leaders of small and largely insignificant oppositions the world over, Palaszczuk was denied much media spotlight during the term of the Government. Reduced to an almost irrelevant afterthought for a lot of the time, during the campaign she was afforded equal time and importance with the premier. At rallies across the state, Palaszczuk met the people, shook the hands and listened to concerns.

At a rally against TAFE cuts, held in the Greenslopes electorate, one of Labor’s must-win seats, 40-odd people, aged from 18 to 80 – students, unionists, retirees, plus four candidates and their entourages – waited for Palaszczuk. They carried out that uniquely Queensland tradition of waving banners and hands at passing motorists. (Seriously, candidates and their proxies are not seen waving at motorists anywhere else. The mind boggles at the thought of PM Kevin Rudd himself waving at cars on Lytton Road when not gracing the studios of Sunrise or Rove Live.)

When Palaszczuk arrived, she was greeted as “our next Premier” with a bit of a nod and a wink. After four weeks of campaigning across the state with almost no errors (this was two days before the GST “gaffe”) she greeted people, many by name, worked the crowd and posed in numerous selfies. This tireless campaigner then asked one of the local candidates how he was holding up. Someone looked her in the eye and said “you can do this”, and her look, just for a split second, agreed. It was a moment when she showed self-belief before a flicker of understandable doubt. This was no machine-politician, manufactured to appeal to the opinion polls. This was the performance of a genuinely enthusiastic leader and she was rewarded by the genuine enthusiasm of the party members there.

This enthusiasm within the rank and file of the ALP was notable in a score of marginal seats (in an election where marginal came to mean anything under 10 per cent). It was not just the true believers and the union diehards. Grassroots members came back to the branches, manned the phones, knocked on doors and canvassed. Many waved at cars. With the odds so firmly stacked against it, the Queensland ALP was reinvigorated, not resigned to defeat.

In contrast, the Newman-led LNP had a terrible campaign. The premier had squandered his political capital so completely it was at odds with the magnitude of his victory. Perhaps it was unsurprising. He had no experience of parliamentary procedure or practice and owed nothing to anyone, except perhaps Jeff Seeney. By trying to govern like an executive city Mayor, he rode roughshod over his colleagues, the public service and common sense alike. Many of his cost-cutting moves seemed mean and small-minded — like abolishing the highly regarded and ridiculously cheap Premier’s Literary Awards. Others hit homes across Brisbane hardest as 14,000 public servants were sacked. Anti-bikie legislation was too akin to the bad old days of Joh Bjelke-Petersen as basic civil rights were infringed and curtailed by piece after piece of legislation.

Three years in power, fighting battles on all fronts and Newman seemed to have lost the common touch. While Palaszczuk was comfortable in urban and rural settings across the state, Newman rarely met a voter who was not an LNP member. His media appearances became ever more contrived as he attempted to play down Tony Abbott’s knighting of Prince Philip while denying the prime minister was not welcome in Queensland. State issues were dominated by the same thing that, ironically, brought Newman to power over the discredited Bligh government: asset sales. It was also to prove his undoing.

During the campaign, Newman tied himself in knots avoiding questions on his own prospects in Ashgrove. Prior to election day, the media whipped itself into a frenzy of speculation about who would lead a victorious LNP government without Newman at the helm when it was clear he’d be running in Ashgrove again.

There was no move to shift him to a safer seat, despite precedents at all levels of politics to do just that. The legality of someone standing aside for him to re-enter Parliament via a by-election was mooted. Expecting to be returned with a reduced majority and without Newman, in hindsight it’s clear that the LNP was going to pin as much of the blame for the result on him as possible, and had had enough of him and his unpopularity. This, of course, ignores an inconvenient truth. Seeney and his gang put Newman there in the first place, despite the fact the LNP were as certain as anything is in politics to win in 2012 no matter who the leader was. The party was, perhaps, hoist with its own petard.

Newman’s personality was as much a gift to the ALP as the surprise package that Annastacia Palaszczuk proved to be. Labor in NSW, for example, has had none of the same fortunate circumstances, despite the loss through ICAC investigations of a premier in Barry O’Farrell and ten coalition MPs who now sit on the crossbench in Macquarie Street. Neither O’Farrell, who never moved beyond the small target strategy of Opposition, nor Mike Baird is Campbell Newman. John Robertson as ALP leader proved as inept as Paul Keating once predicted he would be. Luke Foley, parachuted in at the last minute, has no time to make a mark.

The LNP’s victory less than three years ago was truly historic. No party at any level of government in Australia had been so comprehensively routed as the ALP was at the 2012 election. But the victory proved short-lived. The historic swing of 2012 was followed by another historic swing in 2015 and a party that could have been regarded as terminal was returned to office in one cycle.

Perhaps the real lesson from Queensland 2015 isn’t that parties can return from the dead much more quickly than expected, but that voters are now far more willing to turf out an unpopular government without giving it a second chance. Opinion polls have suggested for some months that Tony Abbott might be heading the same way and the Northern Territory Country Liberals have made the NT Parliament the “nation’s laughing stock”.

It looks like this is a bad time to be in government. However, credit must be given where it’s due: it takes some political skill to turn a majority of nearly 70 seats into defeat in less than three years.

Disclosure: Dr Craig Johnston volunteered in the closing days of the campaign for the ALP.

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