Personalities are increasingly significant in political contests, particularly as voters in all countries are abandoning the dominant parties. Politics in most Australian states are firmly controlled by capital city interests. Queensland has been slightly different, in this as in so many other ways.
Elsewhere, the ALP draws on working class votes and middle-class “progressive” sympathisers, but in Queensland these two elements are often spatially distinct. Over a long period, their opponents have been divided into two distinct organisations, dominated by the rural-based Nationals. Given this diversity on both sides of the “capitalist divide”, political leadership has been equally diverse.
With loyalty to the two largest traditional parties decaying, personality politics in Queensland has been similarly variegated and consequently more unpredictable than in other states or nationally. Some of these personalities play to parochial audiences and do not get much attention outside the state, or even outside parliament until there is an unusually close vote in a hung parliament in which most votes are close.
ALP losses inside Parliament
When Palaszczuk transformed a seven-member Opposition into a minority Government she had to deal with a large number of members with no previous experience. This led to significant problems. First was the Indigenous member for the far northern seat of Cook who had to be expelled from the ALP very early on for lack of disclosure of issues in the pre-selection process and continuing accusations of domestic violence; then the member for nearby Cairns forsook the party because it rejected claims he made about local government corruption. A third ALP member who had more experience, as one of the original seven survivors from the Opposition in the Newman era and so entitled to a Ministry, became an uninhibited back-bencher after giving misleading information about her handling of confidential documents. A fourth ALP member had been relegated to the back-bench after being dismissed from Cabinet for failing to meet basic requirements of personal financial responsibility. Finally, a fifth member of the ALP team, subject to highly unfavourable public accusations of (non-political) bullying, was denied re-endorsement at the eleventh hour before the 2017 election was called. Altogether a motley crew when it came to maintaining majority support for the beleaguered Premier, when deals also needed to be done with one genuine independent, elevated to the Speakership, and a duet of Katter’s Australian Party members.
A One Nation gain
By contrast, there was the only loss from the LNP side – the recruitment to One Nation of one of the own former Newman government Minister (disgruntled by relegation to the opposition back-bench). Steve Dickson has served for a few weeks as the sole representative and putative leader of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party.
Even though she has never been a member of the local legislature, Pauline Hanson herself aims to count for much more in Queensland in the long term than these occasional accidents. It is Hanson’s personality which has captured the limelight in Queensland politics, because of her national presence and the celebrity appeal she has been able to exploit, aided by a compliant media. In particular, she touches a raw nerve by embracing a set of race-based policies which have deep historical roots on both sides of the conventional party divide.
Katter’s Australian Party
But the media continues to do a disservice to those who wish to distance themselves from Hanson. There are other personalities, all of whom need more attention than they currently receive compared to Hanson.
The first of these is Robbie Katter, the local representative of the Katter family. (The second and third are the two opposing leaders – Nicholls and Palaszczuk – both with millstones around their neck – Campbell Newman and Gautam Adani. See below)
Robbie Katter has the lightest millstone: the perception of collaborating too comfortably with the ALP to sustain their period in minority government. Katter has shrewdly offset much of that load by pursuing an independent policy line on issues which matter greatly to his regional and rural constituents, notably on gun control (the issue so close to his flamboyant father) but also on fighting overseas monopoly control of sugar marketing arrangements and resisting ALP legislation on tree-clearing. The vilification and disdain shown to Katter by the Newman LNP government certainly came back to bite them.
The late-night manoeuvre which reintroduced compulsory preferencing may have proved a double-edged sword for the ALP but it certainly benefitted Katter’s chance of expanding his numbers beyond the current two members, especially as the seat of Dalrymple, held by the other KAP member, has been abolished in the redistribution In the north. What Katter continues to offer is a sensible alternative for protest voters in country and regional seats. The striking difference to Hanson and One Nation is the Katter family’s long history of working amicably with Indigenous communities and resistance to the racial and religious elements underpinning One Nation’s policies.
Tim Nicholls and the memory of Campbell Newman
Nicholls is at the other end of the socio-geographic spectrum from Katter and lacks Katter’s natural charm, particularly in dealing with rural and regional voters. One of Nicholls’ obvious weaknesses is his own intra-party credibility beyond Brisbane; activists from the former National party within the LNP are sceptical of his credentials to represent their interests despite his willingness to travel among them and to ensure prominence to the rural-based deputy leader. His ghost is the unshakeable spectre of Campbell Newman and the ultra neo-liberal economic policies of the Newman-Nicholls government. As I pointed out in reviewing Newman’s memoirs last year, Newman singles out Nicholls for direct blame for almost every bad decision of the era, including the choice of chief justice as well as for the specialist economic decisions such as privatisation.
Annastacia Palaszczuk and the burden of Gautam Adani
The millstone for Palaszczuk is Indian financier and mining entrepreneur Gautam Adani. He is less of a ghost from the past, though inherited from previous regimes, than a constant reminder of a potentially unpalatable future. The millstone is lightened by three factors: first, his presence in Queensland is the result of cumulative decisions at state and national level; second, he has had an even warmer embrace by the Liberal National coalition – and the compulsory preferential system means that the protesters have limited choice; third, there is real uncertainty among non-partisan financial experts about the future financial viability of building such a massive coal mine, as well as doubts about the actual employment effects from the mine itself compared with the long-term employment prospects to be derived from tourism if the Great Barrier Reef is saved.
The threat of Hanson holding the balance of power
For potential protest voters, the “clear and present danger” is not Adani but the prospect of a hung parliament in which a Nicholls government could not be trusted to honour its future commitments – like the Newman-Nicholls government promises in the past on public service issues. A hung parliament would leave One Nation in the driving seat, with a rampant endorsement for its underlying philosophies at both state and national level. Viewed in this wider perspective, the poll should be seen as a plebiscite about the power and influence of Pauline Hanson. All other issues pale into insignificance.
Roger Scott is an Emeritus Professor of Public Administration in the University of Queensland and former Director-General of Education in Queensland. He was the Foundation Director of the TJ Ryan Foundation in Brisbane.