After the unexpectedly strong showing by the State ALP, this question has been posed: “Why is there such a dramatic difference between federal and state election results?”
Another way of framing this is to ask: “Why does Queensland so persistently return ALP governments at state level while returning so many non-ALP politicians at federal level”?
There were circumstantial and structural reasons in play during the election campaign which bear upon both questions.
The dominant circumstance was the Covid pandemic and Queensland’s uncompromising response which was consistently pursued from February onwards by the ALP and the Premier, backed by locally-based health experts. Arrayed against them were the local commercial interests, especially tourism and entertainment industry spokespersons, as well as all the political parties to the right of the ALP.
Adding to this cacophony were the persistent and increasingly snide pressuring from the Prime Minister using his bully-pulpit of the press conferences after meetings of the hastily-constructed National Cabinet structure. His views were amplified by his own bevy of health experts and business specialists. Yet another level of pressure for abandoning border controls came from the NSW Premier, doubtless keen to divert attention away from her own shortcomings.
Seeing Queenslanders derided by southerners as country bumpkins unconcerned about the interests of big cities and “latte-sipping” urbanites worked well for Joh Bjelke-Petersen. The ALP now embraced this source of solidarity. Denying Queensland voters access to coffee-shops was sound politics, when the return for this sacrifice was the survival of grand-parents. So Covid proved a boon for the incumbent ALP at state level, as it has in other jurisdictions.
But there was more to this success than stiff-necked resistance in support of a hard border and the shilly-shallying of the LNP on this issue.
A structural fault-line dividing the edge of Brisbane from the rest of the state still posed challenges, as it had in the federal election to the detriment of the ALP’s overall performance. In that election, the greenish tinge of the ALP left had created a future embarrassment for the party for its state campaign as it fought to retain its foothold in areas like Mackay, Rockhampton and Townsville. This time around, the Premier and her key supporters made gestures and high-vis personal appearances which clearly differentiated her vision of Queensland as a continuing mining and industrial powerhouse, even pressing a hot-button approval labelled Adani.
As Dennis Atkins reported in INQueensland: “State Labor managed to inoculate itself from the kind of attacks that worked against the federal party 18 months ago. While the strong support for the Government’s handling of the pandemic provided a foundation for the ALP’s electoral strategies, hugging the communities that had revolted against Bill Shorten last year was the key to success.”
The same structural fault-line north of Brisbane is obvious in the non-ALP parties. The LNP believed that it had a realistic chance of winning several northern seats and its leader accordingly spent time and advertising revenue which might have been better diverted to securing the ramparts under siege around Brisbane. Clive Palmer, One Nation and the Katter Party joined in, but all they collectively delivered was the maintenance of the status quo, which continues to exclude a significant LNP presence. In terms of the future, only the Katters can take encouragement from the outcome, easily holding their three seats and increasing their presence elsewhere.
This outcome was seen as a northern debacle, and predictably LNP leadership changes followed which shifted the focus back to the Gold Coast and Brisbane, away from Frecklington’s notional stamping ground once occupied unassailably by the old National Party. Late counting may temper this disappointment but the LNP now faces an existential challenge which tends to be papered over at the national level’s bigger constituencies.
The new leader, David Crisafulli, provides an image of solid devotion to his own interests as he shifted from local to state government and then from the politically insecure north to the comfortable beaches of the Gold Coast. The challenge for the party will be to restrain the rump of former influentials north and west of Brisbane from deciding that their future is best served by dissolving the marriage which has proved so unfruitful.
The biggest loser was seemingly Clive Palmer, whose cynical manipulation of electoral funding laws and his own largesse, managed only to see an expansion of the ALP vote in response to his blanket media advertising. However, his well-publicised celebration on his yacht with LNP apparatchiks was matched by the same enthusiasm for change displayed early on and often by Campbell Newman.
Another heavy loser had not been predicted. Hanson continues to be a major force inside the Senate because of her bargaining power in tight votes. Perhaps she will continue to draw enough support to remain a beacon for Trump-lite dissidents at national level, but her presence at state level has been massively reduced. Her heartland support evaporated so that seats where her preferences were once crucial to outcomes no longer existed. Despite contesting almost every seat this time around, One Nation’s overall vote plummeted.
Many observers anticipated that there might be a flow to the two main parties under the Covid sense of insecurity. What surprised everyone was that the voters giving up on One Nation shifted to the ALP and not the LNP. Seats in the south populated by concentrations of senior citizens abandoned One Nation to favour the one party consistently favouring impermeable borders. As Atkins has pointed out, for the ALP’s winning formula of supporting mining in the north “there was a price to pay in inner-city Brisbane, as the Greens scooped up environmentally-driven voters but the calculus provided far greater dividends in Central and North Queensland.”
This is another existential question – for the ALP nationally. The Greens comfortably held their previous gain of Maiwar against the LNP where they had just edged out the ALP in preference swaps last time around. The talented ALP candidate had been redirected to contest a seat where the ALP had made a complete mess last time around – Pumicestone – and she attracted a significant swing, particularly among the senior citizens of Bribie Island who had in the past seen One Nation as their preferred alternative to the LNP.
With indicative results like this, the Palaszczuk government will be able to resume business as usual for four years, confident that its concessions to mining and regional interests will offset its minimal losses to the Greens. But the same formula might not work when extrapolated to the national scene, or even in the longer-term in Queensland, as Greens expand their presence, when the spectre of accelerating climate change finally impacts on national resource options.
Roger Scott is a former professor of public administration, a former dean of arts, briefly a vice-chancellor and then head of the state department of education. In retirement, he was the inaugural executive director of the T.J.Ryan Foundation.