Queensland election offers Turnbull no respite as right-leaning voters show their anger | Katharine Murphy

The state election lays bare the challenges the political right in Australia faces: unless the Coalition can connect with the disaffected, they will continue looking elsewhere for answers

Let’s be clear up front. Unless the Liberal National party was able to pull off a major upset on Saturday night, storming to government in its own right, there really was no good result for Malcolm Turnbull from the Queensland election.

You see that when you work through the various hypothetical scenarios.

A Labor win would be confirmation of the national repudiation of the Coalition, underscoring that hard-baked negative trend in the major opinion polls. A Labor win in Queensland would be particularly bad news, because Queensland is a state which determines national elections, because of the large number of marginal seats.

If the LNP was able to just scrape across the line, forming a minority government with the support of One Nation or the Katter boys – the focus of the punditry would not be on Queensland going from red to blue. The focus would be on the protest vote, and the implications of that fracture for the Coalition federally, because that’s the inflection point.

So let’s move now from the hypothetical to the actual.

The ABC’s election analyst Antony Green has now called the contest for Labor, predicting the ALP will secure 48 seats and majority government.

It’s clear that two elections happened in Queensland on Saturday night.

There was an election in the south-east in the state, where Labor got the upper hand, and the progressive vote was boosted by a solid result from the Greens, and then an election in regional Queensland, where the LNP fared better, but not decisively so, with corrosive competition from One Nation and the Katter operation.

There was a solid protest vote for One Nation, broadly in line with the opinion polls going into the contest, but Pauline Hanson’s party struggled to convert community support to seats.

Despite that problem, that dimension of Hanson’s underperformance, the outlook for mainstream rightwing politics is grim.

The biggest loser from the One Nation insurgency is clearly the LNP, haemorrhaging a chunk of its primary vote, and those preferences don’t flow back uniformly.

So assuming this protest sentiment holds, and there is no reason for it to evaporate, the Coalition federally is in an invidious position.

If it is not inclined to take One Nation on, to have the principled fight, to confront the vacancy of the economic populism and the crass xenophobia, then does the Coalition seek a preference deal to try and get some of those preferences flowing back its way?

But if it goes down that path, does it then invite opprobrium from Liberal voters, the denizens of cosmopolitan Australia, who want the mainstream political parties of Australia to lock One Nation out of parliaments around the country?

Is Malcolm Turnbull game to take to confront the economic populism and crass xenophobia of One Nation?
Is Malcolm Turnbull’s party game to confront the economic populism and crass xenophobia of One Nation? Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

So, in summary, the Queensland election offers Turnbull no respite – it just lays bare the complex challenges the political right in Australia faces, which are not exactly abstract at the federal level, given the ongoing instability in Canberra is forcing all political parties to ready themselves for a possible election sooner than anyone planned.

Queensland will doubtless embolden the professional Turnbull knockers, the internal enemies, and the caustic little coterie on Sky and Sydney radio, to argue the prime minister is not the leader with the capacity to woo back the voters who have peeled off to One Nation.

What can a man like Turnbull possibly have to say to a regional voter who has lost their job and has little prospect finding another one? What is the basic connection point?

The bitching and the backbiting will continue as parliament resumes, and the government holds it breath, waiting on the voters’ verdict in Bennelong.

But while Turnbull will be a focal point, the truth is the right’s problems go far deeper than a prime minister who hasn’t lived up to expectations.

The truth is the Liberal party does not have an obvious prime minister in the wings who can connect with both inner-city Brisbane and with Townsville.

But it’s bigger than that problem.

A big chunk of right-leaning Queenslanders have, in this election, turned their back on a political system which they think is rigged against them and doesn’t connect with them, and they are angry enough not to care about the practical consequences of their protest.

Until the mainstream right in this country has something meaningful to say about that, voters will be looking for answers elsewhere.


Katharine Murphy

The GuardianTramp

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