Queensland votes Part 1: Marching to the beat of a different drum

Queensland elections are always different from other states in that regional issues often take pride of place, and personalities often seem more important than policy differences between the parties.

Queensland’s election takes place on 31 October. Nominations for the 93 seats closed on 11 October. The Electoral Commission reports a record number of candidates (144 more than in 2017) and that it has already received a record number of applications for postal votes. The Australian Labor Party (ALP), the Liberal National Party (LNP) and the Queensland Greens are competing in all seats. Pauline Hanson’s One Nation is competing in 90, and Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party in 55.

In this article we take a look at the contest in the regions north of the holiday mecca of Noosa. Queensland’s regional cities often march to the beat of a different drum. Tourism and mining in northern and central Queensland have become critical for the state’s economy as agricultural enterprises have declined and/or suffered the consequences of climate change.

The cities of Townsville, Mackay and Rockhampton and surrounding electorates have become heavily dependent on the mining industry for their development and prosperity. Both the ALP and the LNP would have learned lessons from the last federal election when hundreds of Stop Adani protesters, led by former Greens leader Bob Brown, turned up from the south, and the ALP sat on the fence. This caused heavy Labor losses in central and northern Queensland. Its state-wide messaging was confusing. The ALP was seen to be opposed to Adani, and even to all coal mining in central Queensland.

The Premier has led the way back in the ALP’s efforts to regain electoral credibility. Her promotion of coal-mining approvals has aimed to reassure voters in electorates in which mining activities are located and in the regional cities that host “fly-in/drive in” families, even if this carries the knock-on consequence of expanding the Green vote in suburban electorates further south.

COVID-19 has affected the tourism industry in particular, although the recent removal of barriers on intra-state travel has helped a little. The Gold Coast is recovering more slowly because of its proximity to New South Wales. While Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has generally been applauded for her handling of the COVID restrictions, even on the Gold Coast, it is unclear how much this affects the electoral preferences of voters north of Brisbane.

One of the first moves the Premier made in the campaign was to fly to the Mt Isa seat of Traeger, where the incumbent Robbie Katter (Katter’s Australia Party, which is contesting 13 seats) has a 28% margin. Ostensibly the purpose of the Premier’s visit was to announce a $1.8 billion extension of the national power grid from Townsville through Mt Isa. It would also have given the Premier the opportunity to be seen to be on better terms with Katter, after her miscalculated over-reaction to ill-judged comments by a now-ejected Federal member. Punishing the son for the sins of the father, Bob Katter Jr, by stripping away his support staff, never made good sense and even less so if the ALP needs KAP goodwill in the event of a hung parliament.

LNP Leader Deb Frecklington and Palaszczuk arrived simultaneously (after Frecklington had showed the greater urgency of a visit to reinforce her shaky grip on the Gold Coast.)

Townsville has been problematic for both the major parties since the end of the long reign of Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Peter McCutcheon, ABC’s state political correspondent, has suggested that polls showing state-wide swings or the popularity of party leaders do not accurately reflect the unique dynamics of Townsville’s electors nor the unpredictability of voting behaviour in the wider region.

The ALP  holds the three Townsville seats with slim margins. Volatility is further increased by the number and diversity of candidates including a variety of small single-issue parties such as the anti-vaccination lobby (Informed Medical Options) and candidates funded by the deep pockets of Clive Palmer.

The seat of Mundingburra in Townsville famously brought down the Goss government in its third term when the coalition led by the Nationals’ Rob Borbidge formed government in 1996 with the help of an independent. Mundingburra will be critical again as the ALP member (previously a Minister) is retiring on the grounds of ill health. The LNP candidate was previously a middle-ranking police officer so has the credibility to ratchet up the law-and-order rhetoric.

The issue of crime has been raised to prominence through the media, so this staple LNP election policy is once again front and centre. Photos of a self-professed “patriot” vigilante have received prominent media coverage as have citizens’ demonstrations against “out of control” crime. It is quite clear from the coverage, although not explicit, that the perpetrators are identifiable as Indigenous youth.

The Townsville seats are also north of what one journalist calls the “Katter Line”, above which the KAP currently holds three seats in the State parliament. KAP and One Nation preferences have been a significant factor in the results for Townsville in the past. In the first few days of the official campaign KAP and One Nation agreed on a state-wide preference deal.

The jobs issue, particularly in the non-renewable resources sector, is perhaps even more critical than the law and order rhetoric. The opposing party leaders are often difficult to distinguish on TV because of the presumed voter appeal of hard hats and high-vis apparel.

The equally high-vis signage on Adani HQ’s corporate offices in Townsville provides a constant reminder to voters of its potential contribution to the region’s wealth from coal mining.

Morrison surprised the pundits at the Federal election with his unexpected support from Queensland and he has obliged Queensland-based LNP members by committing some $3 million to a feasibility study for a coal-fired power station in Collinsville, at the centre of the Bowen basin west of Mackay.

Most experts agree that if ever such a power station was built, it would become a “stranded asset”. Nevertheless the “peanuts” of the feasibility study serves as a dog whistle for miners and/or climate change sceptics in the region.

The Whitsunday electorate, which takes in Collinsville and has always been marginal for both major parties, is another regional bellwether seat. The LNP won the seat in the three previous elections but the sitting member was expelled from the LNP in this term because of accusations of sexual impropriety. He subsequently formed his own party (North Queensland First) to recontest.

He will face eight candidates from all the usual suspects, including Clive Palmer. Adding to Whitsunday volatility is the unanticipated Labor candidate. The local rank and file choice was overturned by the central office in favour of the Premier’s “captain’s pick”, who was parachuted in after the local selection process was completed. The new candidate is a well-regarded local school principal, but lingering resentment may dampen the enthusiasm of local campaign supporters.

An equally problematic “captain’s pick” was made by the LNP leader, potentially with wider consequences. She has sought to maximise her chances of reducing ALP support south of Noosa by urging her voters to put the ALP last, i.e. behind the Greens. Tactical benefits would accrue in urban seats where the LNP might finish third but there could be a high cost in leakage to minor parties in regional seats, given the distaste engendered by the Greens in the last federal campaign when caravans of supporters “invaded” mining areas.

Under internal criticism, Frecklington responded with an extraordinarily narrow rationale relating to the one instance where the ALP could claim to be on the side of the environmentalist angels. New Hope, a relatively small-time coal-miner had been pressing for several years for an extension to expand its activities near Oakey in the Darling Downs and the ALP had resisted because of the aggressive and well-organised response from local landowners, including the very loud voice of Alan Jones. There were people who were previously the backbone of the old Country Party and fought bitterly and successfully against Campbell Newman’s affinity with mining and industrial interests.

On 6 October, Frecklington announced that the LNP would preference Greens ahead of the ALP across the state. This momentous decision was “in retaliation” for Labor’s rejection of New Hope’s planned expansion. She added, somewhat curiously, that preferencing the Greens was more palatable because “they are quite upfront about their job-destroying agenda”.

Our next contribution, on the situation south of Noosa, will discuss the role of the Greens who might be invigorated by this decision despite “their job-destroying agenda”. Their “new hope” might be found not in Oakey but in their impact on coastal fringes and on seats in urban centres.

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John Ford is a former Queensland public servant whose career included several human services departments.

Roger Scott has lived in Queensland since 1977, apart from time out establishing the University of Canberra. In Brisbane, he has been a professor of public administration at the University of Queensland, a director-general of the state department of education and a dean of arts at QUT. He was the founding Executive Director of the TJ Ryan Foundation.

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