Queensland’s election in the shadow of the virus

Queensland faces a full state election on 31 October. Unlike recent state and federal by-elections, this election will be severely effected by the Coronavirus. And as with the virus, just what will happen in 11 weeks time is anybody’s guess.

Although the only recent published public opinion poll (from YouGov Galaxy, in mid-June) showed the LNP ahead of Labor, 52-48, the betting agencies, most unusually, are split, Sportsbet making the LNP clear favourites while TAB.com shows Labor as a relatively strong favourite.

The ALP, under the leadership of Annastacia Palaszczuk, won the last two elections, in 2015 and 2017, after having been reduced at the 2012 election to just seven MPs in the rout (a swing of 15.6 percent) led by the LNP’s Campbell Newman. In 2015 the swing back to Labor was 14 percent, sufficient to allow it to govern, but only with the aid of the one independent who had been elected.

In 2017 the electoral pendulum barely moved, with a swing of just 0.1 percent to the ALP. But thanks to an increase in the size of the Parliament from 89 seats to 93, and the redistribution of electoral boundaries that was then required, the ALP won four additional seats, and government in its own right. The LNP dropped four seats, Katter’s Australian Party had 3 MPs elected, while One Nation and the Greens each gained a seat, as did one independent.

At the 2017 election Labor had a primary vote of just 35.4 percent, but after preferences this increased to 51.2 percent – sufficient to give it 48 seats in the 93 seat Legislative Assembly. (Queensland does not have an upper house.)

If anything, the 1.2 percent/four seat margin enjoyed by the ALP going into the election overstates its hold on government. An extraordinary number of seats could change with only small swings – in either direction. Almost a third of the MPs hold their seats by less than 5 percent – 14 ALP, 14 LNP plus the Green and One Nation MPs. The ALP holds 5 seats by less than 2 percent, the LNP 4.

The ALP is most vulnerable in Brisbane and in the central and tropical coasts, the LNP in the Gold and Sunshine coasts.

A volatile situation. But the politics adds so much more.

On the Labor side, the virus has destroyed the most potent argument against its record in government, namely economic management. Not that the economy has been in any worse shape than it might have been under a different administration. In fact the government has bought its way out of real trouble, and been prepared to finance (without the Commonwealth aid it deserved) the state’s most important current infrastructure project – cross-river rail, which will overcome the major design fault in the current metropolitan rail system by more than doubling access between north and south Brisbane (extending to the Gold Coast).

The $5.4 billion cost has meant a further significant deterioration in the state’s debt, which will be approaching $90 billion in a few years. But the time when government debt was a political no-no is no longer with us – at least since the first of the Morrison Government’s enormous spending responses to the virus. The Government will claim as a virtue its planned expenditure on highways and Gold Coast light rail. The Opposition is also trying to attract public attention with multi-million dollar spends promised (three months out from election day) on roads, bridges and dams.

However the main focus of the LNP in the past 12 months or so has been on allegations of corrupt behaviour directed at (then) Deputy Premier, Jackie Trad. The first issue was over Ms Trad’s failure to declare, within the proper time limits, her purchase of an investment property house, and the second concerned her involvement in the appointment of a principal for secondary college which is under construction in her electorate.

The Opposition thought the house purchase could be corrupt conduct and ‘insider trading’ because it was located in an area where it might benefit from the cross-river rail project (which was within Ms Trad’s ministerial responsibilities) and new educational facilities.

The Crime and Corruption Commission (CCC) investigated but found ‘no evidence … that supported a reasonable suspicion of corrupt conduct’. It did, however, say that ‘as a general proposition, failing to declare and properly manage a conflict of interest creates a corruption risk’.

As to the second complaint, the CCC also exonerated Ms Trad, finding she had not interfered in the recruitment process, though it did consider her involvement had ‘created a corruption risk’.

This second episode proved too much for the government. Ms Trad resigned as Deputy Premier and as a Minister. However her trials by the CCC are continuing. Last month the LNP made another complaint, this time about her supposed interference in the recruitment last year of the under treasurer – the head of the Treasury Department, of which she was the Minister. The allegation is that the government appointed an applicant who was not the preferred candidate of the selection committee.

This will be an interesting issue for the CCC. At the Commonwealth level, people appointed as public service heads of department can be sacked at the government’s pleasure and are almost always appointed without the benefit of a formal selection process. Where such a process has been put in place, can it be overridden by the government at the request of the relevant minister?

Ms Trad is unlikely to return to the next Parliament, not because of these allegations but because the LNP will urge its supporters to give preferences to the Greens in her electorate. At the last election Ms Trad only narrowly outpolled the Greens candidate on first preferences. The LNP preferences should push Ms Trad out of Parliament and give the Greens an additional seat.

Meanwhile the Opposition has been grabbing more than its share of unfavourable headlines thanks to a clash between the leadership of its political and organisational wings. In June this year, just a week after an opinion poll showed the LNP with an election-winning 52 per cent of the prospective vote, the party headquarters leaked internal polling which suggested the LNP was losing in key marginal seats. It also said the LNP Parliamentary leader, Deb Frecklington, was trailing the Premier in 18 attributes such as liability and optimism.

Ms Frecklington reacted vigorously, saying she would not ‘be bullied by the backroom boys of the LNP’. She said the anonymous leakers were ‘certainly not the good people of the LNP’. The Parliamentary Party rallied behind her.

But at party headquarters there was first resistance to admit error and then some shuffling of the deck. The executive removed from his position as a party trustee Lawrence Springborg, a former party leader and the person probably most responsible for the merger of the Liberal and National Parties in Queensland. (No explanation was offered.) Then the party president David Hutchinson quit. It turned out the Mr Hutchinson (and several of his colleagues on the executive) had been on the payroll of Clive Palmer, a former major financial backer of the LNP, but currently its political opponent. Conflict of interest, anyone?

Mr Palmer, who created his own political party seven years ago and spent almost $90 million at the last federal election trying to ensure that the ALP would not be elected, is again taking an active role in the Queensland election.

He has announced that his United Australia Party will field candidates in at least 40 electorates. It is far from clear whether these candidates will take votes from the ALP or LNP or which way they will tip the marginal seats they will contest.

But there is one major difference between this election and previous elections Mr Palmer has contested because the ground rules were changed a few months ago. It is no longer possible for him to use his fortune, and the financial resources of his companies, to outspend every other party.

This is the first Queensland election at which an election spending cap will be in force. Political parties will be banned from spending more than $92,000 for seat in which they field a candidate, plus $58,000 that the party’s candidate can spend. Still, in total Mr Palmer would still be able to spend over $6 million throughout Queensland. The major political parties contesting each seat would be able to spend almost $14 million. Third parties not associated with a candidate or party contesting the election could spend $87,000 per electorate up to a maximum of $1 million.

There is another smaller but noteworthy difference between this election and what has happened in previous years – this time the Murdoch press will be less visible in many non-metropolitan electorates. Many of the News Corp. publications in regional areas have either been completely shut down or else become digital only. Could this affect any voting?

It is difficult, however, to believe that the outcome of the election won’t be primarily affected by the virus. A month or so ago, Ms Frecklington was gambling heavily that she could capitalise on opposing the Premier’s decision to close the border. She was probably the first political leader in Australia to try to take a strong and unequivocal public stance against a decision made on (primarily) health grounds during the pandemic. Her critical anti-isolationist stance undoubtedly reflected the views of the tourist-dominated Gold Coast and many other areas dependent on tourism. However, the LNP already holds all but one of the Gold Coast seats – not really much to be gained there.

But the situation has changed in the past few weeks, as a consequence of the Victorian catastrophe. Now Ms Frecklington is supportive of the border shutdown, and merely critical of some of the ways it is being administered.

I note that this week’s Guardian Essential poll found that 68 percent of Queenslanders support the state government’s approach to managing the pandemic. Perhaps more telling of the public mood was the decision last week of the (conservative) mayor of the Gold Coast, Tom Tate, to publicly ask the Premier to ban Schoolies Week (in November) on the Gold Coast.

The election is still more than two months away.

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David Solomon is a former legal and political correspondent. He has degrees in Arts and Law and a Doctorate of Letters. He was Queensland Integrity Commissioner 2009-2014.

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