IAN MCAULEY. Queensland election: a policy challenge for the Coalition

The Queensland election has been a disaster for the Liberal-National Party. There is a risk that the Coalition will misinterpret the result and become even more alienated from the Australian electorate.

While Saturday’s election in Queensland may not have given Annastacia Palaszcuk the decisive majority she was hoping for, by now it is clear that her government will continue in office.

It was an impressive result, because Labor had to confront four difficulties. The first was the likelihood of what statisticians call “reversion to the mean”: after a 14 per cent two-party preferred swing in 2015, it would not have been surprising if there had been some swing in the opposite direction. The second was the fact that compared with the extremism of the Newman Government, Opposition Leader Nicholls came across as more moderate. The third was the tough economics of the end of the mining boom: although southeast Queensland is doing well, the mining regions are not. And the fourth was the general discontent of voters in many democracies. That discontent was manifest in a poor primary vote for both the main parties: the Labor plus LNP vote was below 70 per cent.

While the election was tough for Labor, for the LNP it was a disaster. The LNP will probably go through its usual rationalisations, attributing the result to everything except their own policies: Nicholls didn’t get his message out.

And of course there was One Nation taking their votes.

Some in the LNP will be mourning the arithmetic of the election: if only the 33 per cent for the LNP plus 14 per cent for One Nation could have been consolidated in a conservative bloc of 47 percent they would have easily won with the help of a few preferences. It’s almost a mirror image of the national situation in the 1950s and 1960s when the “left” vote was split between Labor, the Communists and the DLP. Already we are hearing federal LNP members Matt Canavan and George Christiansen urging the Coalition to shift to the right.

Others in the Coalition with cooler heads will realise that the situation is more complex. There was no way one party could satisfy the demands of non-metropolitan Queensland and the people of the urbanised south east with one suite of policies or one election pitch. In this regard Queensland’s politics are a microcosm of the politics of the USA, the UK and Germany which have all faced similar problems.

The Labor Party, with its last-minute rejection of support for a loan for Adani (and perhaps a reading of the extraordinary Green win in Northcote, Victoria), went for a strategy of sacrificing support in the north and building support in Brisbane. It worked – just – but demographic movements mean that it should be a successful strategy for the future. And what goes for Queensland goes more strongly for the nation’s more urbanised other states and territories. A swing to the socially-conservative right would not be a sound strategy for any party.

Three years, eight elections, eight losses

The performance of the Liberal Party (and its LNP equivalent) in the last eight elections has been dismal. In every state or federal election over the last three years the Liberal primary vote has slipped, and in all but one (Saturday’s Queensland election), Labor’s vote has improved. A summary of the swings in those elections is shown in the table below, and I expect that the Tasmanian election, early next year, will add another similar row to the table.

Election date
Jurisdiction Labor’s primary swing from previous election Liberal (LNP in Qld and NT) primary swing Two party swing to Labor
Nov 2014 Vic + 1.8% – 1.6% + 3.6%
Jan 2015 Qld + 10.8% – 8.3% + 14.0%
Mar 2015 NSW +  8.5% – 3.5%  + 9.9%
Jul 2016 Federal + 1.4% – 3.4% + 3.1%
Aug 2016 NT + 5.7% – 18.8% + 14.3%
Oct 2016 ACT +  0.2% – 2.5% NA *
Mar 2017 WA + 9.1% – 15.9% + 12.8%
Nov 2017 Qld – 1.5% – 7.8% NA **
*   In a Hare Clark system it is hard to ascribe TPP votes to either party.

** Not calculated at time of writing, but appears to be in the order of + 0.8%

Seventy years of disillusionment

As many have pointed out, Queensland’s election confirms people’s disillusionment with the established parties. That’s by no means a unique Australian phenomenon – think of the protracted negotiations following the recent German elections. It was Labor’s fortune on Saturday that Queenslanders seem to be a little more disillusioned with the LNP than they are with Labor.

Although some commentators suggest that this drift away from the major parties is a recent development, it has been in train in Australia for the last seventy years, as shown in the two graphs below relating to federal results for the Labor and the Coalition.

Even though Labor has had at least two sudden setbacks – the “split” of 1955 and the Whitlam Government’s dismissal  – when viewed over a longer term its decline has been fairly steady.

The Coalition’s decline is somewhat different, because although over the whole period it has held up better than Labor, its downturn has been more pronounced in the last twenty years, falling from 47 per cent in Howard’s 1996 victory to around 37 per cent at present – a period coinciding with a drift of the Party to the right, starting with Howard’s purge of moderates in the Liberal Party.

Towards a multi-party democracy

The official line from the Coalition nationally is that the Queensland election result has nothing to do with federal issues. Perhaps there is some truth in that claim, in so far as the citizenship problems are confined to the Federal Parliament, and Tony Abbott’s sniping has no connection with Queensland.  (The LNP had its own Tony Abbott in Campbell Newman who was on television trying to “help” his party by reminding Queenslanders of his time as premier.)

But there is a federal link, and it relates to the Coalition’s general policies manifest at both state and federal levels: the influence of social conservatives, its contempt for the collective good, and its capture by special interests representing so-called “business interests” (aka rent seekers). In environmental policies – subsidies for the coal industry, support for land clearing, and opposition to marine parks – the national and Queensland parties are closely aligned.

If the Liberal Party wants to avoid a slow but terminal decline it would be well advised to break the coalition arrangement with the Nationals, and to de-merge the parties in Queensland and the Northern Territory. Nationally that would leave the Liberals in a minority government, and they may have to wear a few bits of legislation, such as a banking commission, going through parliament, but they would be unlikely to face a vote of no-confidence. And a further and necessary move would be to rule out ever accommodating far-right populists, such as One Nation. (In Germany Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, in their struggle to put together a government, have completely ruled out doing any deal with the Alternativ für Deutschland.)

In the ABC’s political panel on Saturday night, apart from Antony Green’s wonderfully professional interpretations and projections, there wasn’t much to learn from the commentators, whose dialogue was as predictable and vacuous as that of footballers giving a match post-mortem.

But at one stage, when it appeared that neither Labor nor the LNP could possibly assemble the numbers, Federal Liberal politician Jane Prentice broke from script and citing Denmark as an example where no party could ever expect to hold a parliamentary majority, suggested that the time may be coming when we need to break from the assumption that there is something intrinsically undesirable about a “hung” parliament or a “minority” government.

As John Menadue has written “We need to acknowledge that we have in effect a multi-party system but we refuse to admit it.”  Is there some way the message can get through to our two old, established parties?


Ian McAuley is an Adjunct Lecturer in Public Sector Finance at the University of Canberra and a Fellow at the Centre for Policy Development.


Ian McAuley is a retired lecturer in public finance at the University of Canberra and a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development.

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5 Responses to IAN MCAULEY. Queensland election: a policy challenge for the Coalition

  1. Roger Scott Roger Scott says:

    Your final question about eschewing deals has already been answered in part in Queensland, with Palaszczuk governing for as long as she chose after a carefully brokered deal with the Katters where she outbid the LNP. Past of the reason for the Katter preference was the abysmal attitude towards them manifest by the rampant LNP in Parliament. Faced with the same necessity, she and the Katters could probably find enough common ground again. So the reality is that the ALP is not at all fanatical on deals per se. Personalities matter and there is more latent antagonism between the ALP and the Greens despite policy affinities.

    My guess is that the multi-party trend will also be manifest on the other side of politics, with clearly separated identities for the city Liberals, the core rural constituencies of the old Nationals and the regional cities where loyalties are in flux.

    When the multi-party reality is established as a fact of political life, I would anticipate moves by the new chums to change the electoral system to fit this reality and strong resistance by the two old stagers. Tasmania has shown this in the recent past.

  2. Avatar Jim Allen says:

    South Australia is likely to be where the next election occurs (Malcolm Turnbull is hoping so). The Rann and Weatherill Governments have both co-opted or enlisted support from outside the ALP including Liberal defectors. The National, Karlene Maywald, was a member of Rann’s Cabinet. The former Liberal leader, Martin Hamilton-Smith who is a Cabinet Minister now. These are/were one term arrangements and defectors are usually punished by voters, but this perhaps can’t entirely be dismissed as short term opportunism. The popularity of the SA Best party of Nick Xenophon seems to be pushing SA in a multi-party direction. On the other hand, no one really knows yet if SA Best is a sustainable option. SA Best is not a force in any other State. My question is, can the culture of the two party system and the parties themselves permit a response other than trying to defy and not accomodate the multi-party trend, perhaps ineffectively. Being rigid cost Tony Abbott the opportunity of minority government that he clearly did not want. How fanatical will future leaders be in eshewing deals. SA’s experiments in power sharing (so far the ALP dealing with individuals only) have a bearing on the way the multi-party trend is handled elsewhere?

  3. Avatar Geoff Edwards says:

    Thanks, Ian McCauley.

    There is an intriguing line in your piece that I don’t quite understand: “There was no way one party could satisfy the demands of non-metropolitan Queensland and the people of the urbanised south east with one suite of policies or one election pitch.”

    Yet later on in the article, you itemise a number of practices that are likely to alienate moderate voters wherever located: cuddling up to lobby groups and rent seekers, hostility to environmental policies, and contempt for the common good. Yes, regional Queensland is likely to always be more socially conservative than the urban south-east, but their common interests in a peaceful society with equitably shared prosperity are more substantial than their points of difference.

    Policies based on the pro-business neoliberal worldview, coupled with the demonisation of environmentalists and other social groups by the mainstream press, are bound to accentuate inequality and discord. The people yearn for a policy platform that systematically aims for the common good. As you conclude, the rise of minor parties may force the majors to seek this common ground.

  4. Avatar Roger Scott says:

    An excellent overview and contextual analysis, adding a Canberra dimension not at all in evidence locally.

    Four short speculative updates:

    (1) Nicholls has disappeared from sight and three contenders have surfaced – all with some claim to affinity with the regions, tenuous in the case of the ex-RL referee.

    (2) Palaszczuk is literally back in office despite the niceties of vice-regal endorsement. Everyone expects her to either have the numbers in her own right or be able to do quick deals with two independents, one of whom beat the long-serving NLP member for Noosa and the other is a former ALP stalwart and ex-Mayor of Rockhampton denied endorsement despite the Premier’s backing.

    (3) The press were again seduced by Hanson celebrity and helped her create expectations of an impending matriarchy. However, she and Ashby will cry all the way to the bank, with the publication of earnings of taxpayer dollars.

    (4) Nobody in the press or outside northern and western Queensland pays serious attention to the Katters. They were immensely successful in keeping Palaszczuk’s minority government afloat without losing their credibility among their own voters. They will be back for more, with three seats rather than two. They may have weaker bargaining power but made a number of good friends last time around.

  5. Avatar Don Macrae says:

    Thank you Ian McAuley – the most interesting analysis of the Queensland election that I have read. The long term decline in the primary vote of the major parties was not something I knew about.

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