Where the 2017 Queensland election will be won and lost

Despite a rocky spell in office, Labor heads into a short campaign favoured to win the most seats. But all eyes are on One Nation’s support and the flow of preferences

The Queensland election looms as a cliffhanger in which Annastacia Palaszczuk’s Labor risks becoming the third successive government ousted by voters.

Labor losses could deliver Pauline Hanson’s revived One Nation its most influential role yet: kingmaker in another hung parliament.

The ground has shifted dramatically since Palaszczuk clawed across the line into minority government after a David and Goliath victory over Campbell Newman’s Liberal National party in early 2015.

Newman was the first LNP leader in a generation to capture the popular imagination with a barnstorming win over Anna Bligh’s Labor in 2012. But he squandered his political capital amid brawls over public service cuts, a law and order campaign and a push for privatisation.

From accidental leader of an opposition rump in single figures, a less combative if unadventurous Palaszczuk has proved the more popular of the major party leaders since. But she has endured rocky times in a hung parliament where Labor lost two of its MPs and the occasional vote on the house floor, including around its signature tree-clearing controls.

On Friday Palaszczuk dumped another MP from her party, Rick Williams, after claims he had threatened a Bribie Island newspaper owner, a move that triggered her decision to go to a snap election.

Small target Labor v invisible LNP

With crossbench support, Labor inherited a safe agenda of simply deconstructing the Newman legacy: restore the public service, wind back punitive criminal laws and mend fences with stakeholders from the judiciary to the community sector.

But attempts to kickstart regional economies struggling after the mining downturn have been hamstrung by a lack of cash for big investments. The government has committed to repaying Australia’s biggest state debt without asset sales, new taxes or big bureaucratic cuts. The result has been a government with mostly small targets.

Palaszczuk’s emphasis on consultation after the combative Newman years has led to a plethora of reviews and fewer bold decisions.

A rapid commitment to ban developer donations on the recommendation of the corruption watchdog was a recent, if rare, example of the Labor government jumping out of the blocks.

The LNP have painted Palaszczuk as frozen in indecision. But her amiable, measured public persona has been enough to keep her as the preferred premier throughout her term, even if polls from this year began to show more voters dissatisfied with her performance than those satisfied.

The LNP leader, Tim Nicholls, is a well-connected inner-city Liberal who has struggled to cut through with the electorate or connect with the all important regional battlegrounds on a personal level. He has made repeated efforts to capitalise on Palaszczuk’s perceived indecision and paint her government as being in thrall to the unions. Pauline Hanson recently branded Nicholls, who has been wary of openly embracing a deal with One Nation, “rude” and “arrogant”.

One veteran union boss has said efforts to link Nicholls to the privatisation agenda of the former Newman government, in which he was treasurer, have a key obstacle: “No one knows who Nicholls is.” Many think Lawrence Springborg, whom Nicholls deposed last year, is still the opposition leader, the campaigner says.

Tim Nicholls
Opposition leader Tim Nicholls has struggled to drag his party back into contention after the debacle of Campbell Newman’s election defeat. Photograph: Dan Peled/AAP

The electoral arithmetic

Whoever wins government in 2017 will hold a fixed term of office for the first time, under electoral reforms that have already set down the election beyond for 31 October 2020. Had Palaszczuk waited to pull the election trigger in 2018 – when full fixed terms kick in – the victor would be in line for an extra year in power and a 2021 election.

Another key change is a redistribution – raising the number of seats to 94, which on paper favours Labor. A replay of the 2015 election on a two-party-preferred basis would give Labor 48 seats, the LNP 43 and Katter’s Australian Party two, on ABC election analyst Antony Green’s count.

But there will be no replay.

The major parties’ primary votes languish at record lows, with the latest Newspoll finding Labor at 37% and LNP at 34%. A Guardian Essential poll a week earlier had Labor’s primary vote on 35%, with the LNP on 34%.

This is the One Nation factor. Hanson was largely ignored during the 2015 election, despite almost winning a seat. Her resurrection via the federal Senate has driven a revival in her home state, where One Nation’s primary vote has been almost half the LNP’s at 16% and more.

In 1998 One Nation won 11 Queensland seats on a statewide primary vote of 22%. Major party strategists believe this year it is in the race for up to six seats, which could give it the balance of power, a pivotal role it has never held.

One Nation’s prospects have been improved by Labor’s move to restore compulsory preferential voting. What was originally seen as a Labor coup – to claw back spent votes from Greens supporters – now gives One Nation a shot in the arm.

The “Just vote one” factor no longer splits the Queensland right. One Nation now has a shot at toppling Labor on LNP preferences in seats where it can get into second place on the primary vote.

Labor leads the LNP 52% to 48% on two-party preferred in the latest statewide Newspoll. But Labor sources are confident One Nation is in line to win seats, despite its bumpy ride leading into the campaign, including the loss of eight candidates through controversies ranging from lawn swastikas to disgruntlement about campaign costs.

If One Nation does hold the balance of power it’s almost certain it will deliver an LNP government, despite the friction between Hanson and Nicholls.

Nicholls has been coy on where the LNP could give preferences to One Nation over Labor. Griffith university political scientist Paul Williams says indications are that as many as 80% of One Nation voters are disillusioned conservatives whose votes would flow back to the LNP. But the real threat to the government lies in LNP preferences to One Nation in seats where Hanson’s party finishes second to Labor.

Hanson’s ‘make or break’ moment

One strategist identifies three classes of swing seat contests.

1. Labor v LNP: The LNP-held southside Brisbane seats of Mansfield and Mount Ommaney are Labor targets. Mansfield is on a knife-edge, and would go to Labor in a 2015 replay. Another Labor source says losing voters to One Nation in the cities is more an LNP problem. But a recent Reachtel poll on Mansfield found the One Nation primary vote at 17%, with preferences getting the LNP home comfortably. Labor, not traditionally strong on the Gold Coast, has a real sniff in the new seats of Gaven and MacAlister. The LNP will look to hold onto Whitsunday and snatch back Pumicestone, the seat of the dumped Labor MP Williams.

2. LNP v One Nation: Semi-rural Lockyer, south of Brisbane, which Hanson nearly won in 2015, is considered her party’s most likely LNP scalp this time. One Nation is also in the hunt in Callide, Condamine, Burnett and Burdekin. Polling shows the LNP likely to regain Buderim from its defector to One Nation, Steve Dickson.

3. One Nation v Labor: One Nation’s best chance of making inroads into the Labor vote is in regional towns and the outer fringes of cities. Parts of Ipswich and Caboolture are in play, as is Mundingburra in Townsville, Mirani between Rockhampton and Mackay, and Bundaberg. The disqualified federal senator Malcolm Roberts will have his personal popularity tested now he has been installed as the One Nation candidate in the seat of Ipswich.

Malcolm Roberts and Pauline Hanson
Former federal senator Malcolm Roberts is now standing for One Nation in Ipswich, but will the party’s state vote hold up without Pauline Hanson as a candidate? Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

The last federal election gives a glimpse of One Nation’s best hunting grounds, according to election analyst William Bowe. Those voting patterns by state boundaries show One Nation hitting double figures in 33 seats. The highest booth votes were in Lockyer (27.2%), Mirani (20.1%), Callide (19%), Burnett (18.9%), Condamine and Gregory (both 18.4%), Nanango and McConnel (both 18.1%), Hervey Bay (18%), Hinchinbrook (17.8%), Burdekin (17.4%), Bundaberg and Gympie (both 17.2%).

Graeme Orr, a University of Queensland expert in the law of politics, says with the primary vote for both Labor and the LNP flatlining, “you probably are looking at a situation where the parties are looking very closely at a handful of seats that could go to One Nation”.

“I imagine it’ll be that kind of marginal seat turf war.”

Roger Scott, a former executive director of progressive Queensland-based thinktank the TJ Ryan Foundation, says there are “half a dozen seats or more” where One Nation could swing the election if they give their preferences to the LNP.

He has spoken to Labor figures who are “fearful of six seats being lost to One Nation [itself], which might make the difference in the balance of power”.

Labor thinks the LNP cannot win without the One Nation vote bump that would come from Hanson herself running as a candidate.

One Nation’s appeal rests almost entirely on Hanson’s personal appeal to nationalistic supporters nostalgic for a bygone Australia, says Scott, author of the forthcoming book Phoenix? A Queensland Perspective on Pauline Hanson’s One Nation.

Not many of her signature platforms translate locally, so “people will vote for Hanson herself rather than specific policies”.

Scott suspects the Queensland election is “make or break” for the course of Hanson’s political revival. Winning a few seats without holding the balance of power would render One Nation “very much down in relation to credibility, to have an impact on policy”.

Scott says while some city Liberal supporters are embarrassed by Hanson, a Nationals group in the LNP would look to govern with common ground on social issues on which One Nation is mostly “highly conservative” such as putting Bibles back in schools and anti-abortion measures. There would also be a “comfortable” union on gun laws, land clearing and pro-coal sentiment.

Hanson, with her right-hand man, James Ashby, is likely to exert national control over state MPs, anxious to avoid a repeat of the leadership void that caused One Nation’s 1998 contingent of 11 MPs to fall apart.

Jobs, jobs, jobs

Labor’s rearguard action is its economic pitch to the regions.

“The selling of ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’ is the main thrust of what [Labor] hope will stop people going to One Nation,” Scott says.

Its Buy Queensland policy, a parochial attempt to favour local enterprise in government procurement, has been met by the LNP’s Buy Local policy.

“They’re obviously getting the same research we are, saying it’s hurting them,” a Labor strategist says.

The problem for both major parties is they are on a similar footing when it comes to the best government driver of jobs growth: building big ticket infrastructure. That is, neither of them has much cash to do it.

Labor has the Cross River Rail proposal in Brisbane. But Morgans chief economist Michael Knox says the “real funding problem for the Queensland government is the federal government was going to provide a rolling cycle of infrastructure spending [only] if the state government undertook to privatise some of its assets”.

Queensland voters gave bloody noses to the last two governments that took a privatisation platform to an election. Even Nicholls, the architect of the last push, is now gun-shy.

But market advocates like Knox say the government is “fenced in by their own thinking” which means “it doesn’t have money available to invest in infrastructure” – especially since it rebuilt the public service after deep LNP cuts.

Queensland coal
The future of Queensland’s energy mix offers one of the clearest dividing lines between the two main parties, but both support Adani’s plans for the huge Carmichael mine. Photograph: Reuters

“This is the major thing they could be doing to improve the competitiveness of the Queensland economy and generate more business investment, because in the end, it’s business investment that generates employment, and it’s employment that generates growth.”

Queensland’s trend unemployment was at an 11-year high at 6.7% before Labor took office but that has now fallen to 5.9%.

The treasurer, Curtis Pitt, says the figures “confirm our economic plan is working”, the keystones being a $177m hiring incentives program and a $10bn-a-year capital works program.

Knox says Labor has done “a lot of small things frequently, so you can generate the theatrical appearance of doing large things occasionally” .

“I think the state government needs to be commended for their sense of theatre.”

Without any other obvious cash windfall to bankroll infrastructure, the LNP are “in the same boat as us”, the Labor strategist says.

Adani and the north

Both major parties publicly support Adani’s contentious Carmichael mine proposal, with Labor experiencing some backlash in greener-minded Brisbane.

Longtime Labor strategist Cameron Milner has stopped lobbying for Adani to continue advising the campaign.

Rogers says coal is “the really hot issue, the difficult issue for the ALP” with some “well-meaning” voters in the capital lured to the Greens by the feeling that “your party is deserting you”.

His wife, Ann, also political analyst, says Adani has been “a running sore for too long” for Labor, whose neighbourhood campaigners are copping flak at the doorsteps from “people who used to be rusted-on Labor”.

But Maxine Newlands, a political scientist at James Cook University, says Labor’s tack on Adani seems to have worked in places like Townsville. The big issues there are jobs and increasingly – with a dam at 20% capacity amid years of drought and level three water restrictions – water security.

But there lies a contradiction, Newlands says.

“They say, ‘we’re going to do this with Adani, we’re going to build a battery power factory and solar farms, Townsville’s going to be the heart of growth – yet there’s nothing to sort out water,” she says.

“They talk about raising the dam wall and building a new pipeline but that’s going to cost squillions. Where’s the money going to come from?”

Labor has made some progressive legal reforms, such as expunging historical convictions against gay men.

But Orr says other significant “symbolic” reforms such as decriminalising abortion have been left undone “because they’re so scared of scaring vocal minorities”.

“It’s been literally an executive government more than a parliament. ‘We’re just running the show, ticking along, not scaring the horses’.”

Palaszczuk has asked for a majority to enable Labor’s unbridled agenda. The party has signalled at least two stark policy differences with the LNP, both with environmental significance.

The first is Labor’s pledge to restoring the tree-clearing laws it tried and failed to deliver this parliament. Hotly contested in the bush, a tree-clearing ban is low-hanging fruit for a government wanting both to cut Queensland’s nation-leading carbon emissions and sediment runoff to the Great Barrier Reef.

Another gulf between Labor and the LNP is on energy policy, which affects Queensland’s single largest source of emissions. Labor has a goal of 50% renewables by 2030, and already has some jobs growth to show for what amounts at this stage to little more than a policy setting and market signal. It’s a path that suggests a relatively young fleet of power stations represents the state’s final generation of coal-fired assets, giving way to solar and wind farms and – the government hopes – battery factories. All at no appreciable cost to power customers, according to an upbeat advisory panel report commissioned by the government.

By contrast, the LNP has been encouraged by Malcolm Turnbull to apply for federal funding for a new coal-fired power station for north Queensland.

The prime minister uttered the magic word “infrastructure”, noting “a power station ticks that box”. It ticks a few other boxes for the LNP that could all act as a wedge against Labor – jobs for the north, faith in coal to deliver cheap, reliable power over renewables, an appeal to nationalism through Australia’s economic advantage on coal, and political carrots from Canberra – but Turnbull left these unsaid.


Joshua Robertson

The GuardianTramp

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