The last rites were a long time coming but can now be pronounced with confidence. On Monday night, the TJ Ryan Foundation held a post-election function advertised as ‘Who Won and Why’. Even then, over a fortnight after polling day, no-one was absolutely sure, despite Antony Green’s cautious prediction on election night. Counting was painfully slow because of the expanded engagement of minor parties and there were unpredicted preference flows. It took 13 days before the Leader of the Opposition conceded defeat.
Who did win?
The biggest winner was clearly Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk herself and her steely determination not to contemplate any outcome other than the absolute majority she now enjoys. This aim was the reason she advanced for calling the election significantly earlier than required, and against the assessment of many influential observers.
Palaszczuk’s capacity for forming a workable minority government following the anti-Newman landslide in 2015 required delicate negotiations with Katter’s Australian Party (KAP) and one Independent. This awkward balance had been hampered almost immediately by a series of departures to the cross-benches of several of her own troops as a result of a variety of misdeeds. Then a couple of her own Ministers brought the Cabinet itself into disrepute and had to be jettisoned. So a majority in her own right became the primary target, whatever the policy costs.
One of the biggest potential costs was the split both in the party and in the community over the Adani coal mine and Abbot Point port development. ALP strategists took the view that the party’s interests were best served in northern seats by supporting Adani as strongly as the LNP did, and hope to benefit from the generally poor quality of LNP candidates and leadership. It was more important to hold seats north of Rockhampton, even if that meant sustaining some damage by environmental critics both from inside the ALP itself and from a nascent Green movement energised by wider community direct action including the Stop Adani campaign.
By the end of the first week of the four-week campaign it was becoming clear to pollsters and campaigners that this strategy was not working. The Premier opted to respond to the rumour of an impending personal smear campaign aimed at her partner’s professional involvement with a consultancy firm advising Adani on its Naif loan application. Offered written options by her Integrity Commissioner, Palaszczuk chose the most decisive and wide-ranging response available.
She gave a press conference announcing that, if re-elected, she would veto Adani’s application for a $1bn commonwealth loan to build a rail line for its Carmichael mine. This came as a welcome relief to ALP campaigners in south-east electorates arguing with voters deeply antipathetic to Adani not to defect to the Greens. From then on, Adani remained as a subterranean issue which surfaced on voting day itself as a reason many voters gave for voting Green rather than ALP.
The big issue, which overwhelmed the media to the exclusion of much else beyond bread-and-butter infrastructure schemes large and small, was One Nation. Polling suggested that the One Nation Party, standing in two-thirds of the electorates, could win enough seats to hold the balance of power. It was also becoming clear that the only road to power for the LNP was to incorporate One Nation into its hypothetical parliamentary majority.
The ALP identified this as the major issue for the campaign. The LNP dithered in its response to the ALP’s assertion that a vote for the LNP was effectively a vote for giving One Nation the balance of power. Opposition leader Tim Nicholls refused to give a straight answer when pressed by the host of a televised ‘People’s Forum’. He never succeeded in disowning some of the wilder One Nation policies put forward by its leaders as non-negotiable conditions for cooperation. The ALP plastic bunting on election day said it all – a few benign photos of the Premier and slogans about jobs, education and health, but many more linking Nicholls to the ‘bad old days’ of the Newman government, side-by-side with portraits of Pauline Hanson, under the headline: ‘Cuts and Chaos’.
If the Premier is now the clearest winner, three others need mention.
One is the victory of the Greens candidate in my local constituency of Maiwar, where the ALP and Greens ran neck-and-neck to defeat a long-entrenched senior LNP Shadow Minister, described in my article ‘Carpet-Baggers and Sand-Baggers’, making it one of the last seats to declare.
Katter’s Australian Party
A second is the successful expansion of the rural-based Katter’s Australian Party. Its two existing members had been instrumental in sustaining the 2015 Palaszczuk minority government despite the dissidence in the ALP ranks. KAP conducted a highly-focussed campaign building on local personalities to wrest a northern seat from the LNP. This add to its future credibility as a rational country party (which the old National Party once was before its merger with the Liberals in 2008).
The ALP in northern Queensland
The third winner is the campaign team within the ALP charged with its northern defences. The rationale for supporting Adani at all related to the party’s concern with a range of seats north from Rockhampton which drew benefits from the current coal-mining industry and looked forward to the potential resuscitation through Adani. The ALP Mayor of Rockhampton had joined with the ALP Mayor of Townsville in a ratepayer ‘flight of fancy’ agreeing to fund a company airstrip for Adani in the bush to enable the employment of FIFO workers. The Rockhampton Mayor was vigorously supported by the Premier for pre-selection but rolled by the dominant local faction. She then stood as an independent. Her high hopes of election were sustained throughout the first week of counting but in the end the ALP held the seat. The ALP also confounded expectations by winning the Townsville seat when all seats in the area were seen to be endangered by the Premier’s volte-face over Adani. It may be that Adani mattered less than anticipated in seats also sensitive to tourism and agricultural interests, and there had was a great deal of evidence that the project may promise more than it could deliver.
The big loser, apart from the LNP and its misguided leadership, was the party which appeared to represent a real threat to the future of Queensland’s political stability. One Nation was deluded by its own propaganda into believing it could win the balance of power, and then campaigning on that assumption, aided (as usual) by a compliant media. Its local leader, LNP defector Steve Dickson, was invited to appear on the ‘People’s Forum’ beside the ALP and LNP (but not KAP or the Greens) reinforcing the assumption that it was about to became a significant party of government. Pauline Hanson was invited to specify the terms under which One Nation would be prepared to play this power-broking role. The media covered Pauline Hanson and her acolyte Malcolm Roberts as if they were certain to have a significant influence within the new parliament.
But in the end One Nation gained only a single seat on a cross-bench dominated by the KAP. The leader, Dickson, lost his seat to the LNP, and Roberts failed in his bid. Unlike the KAP, One Nation had spread itself too thin. This may have maximised taxpayers’ subsidies to the party, but also resulted in a choice of unconvincing candidates and episodic campaigning. In the future, it might be able to build on its 30% voter support in some areas and its general overall celebrity but it will not grow deep roots when it can only return a single member instead of what proved to be wildly exaggerated expectations.
As I write, Tim Nicholls has just conceded defeat and resigned as leader of the LNP. The party room will meet on Tuesday to choose his successor.
The final numbers have not been loaded on the Queensland Electoral Commission website, but it is anticipated that Labor will have achieved a majority, winning 48 seats in the 93-seat parliament. The ABC Queensland election site gives the current count (with 87.4% of seats counted): the ALP has 48 seats, the LNP 39, KAP 2, Greens 1, One Nation 1, and one Independent. One seat remains ‘in doubt’.
The election has thrown open a number of questions for the LNP and its composite leadership drawn from Brisbane, the Gold Coast and a wide variety of territories further north and west. These include the challenge posed by widespread but ultimately unproductive support for One Nation, which will be of particular concern to federal politicians. There is also the problem of providing credible appeal to non-Brisbane voters who might regard the Katters as legitimate heirs to Bjelke-Petersen and yet offer some hope for regaining Brisbane LNP voters who have deserted in droves. All options will be on the table when the party belatedly comes to terms with this new political reality.
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.