ROGER SCOTT. Carpet-baggers and sand-baggers: life Inside a marginal Brisbane electorateNov 20, 2017
The Scotts live in an affluent electorate where the longer-established residents have consistently manifested Liberal tendencies, occasionally tinged with green because of the presence of a university. A recent redistribution has expanded its boundaries, adding middle-class voters less enamoured of conservatives and suddenly our long-serving Liberal incumbent is looking decidedly shaky.
Rupert Murdoch and Sky News
The LNP is in trouble here and elsewhere because of its willingness to contemplate working in government with One Nation, which is visualised as rampant outside Brisbane and threatening the LNP’s hold on seats as close as Brisbane outer-suburbs and as far away as Cairns. This issue came to a head at this election’s ‘People’s Forum’ organised by two components of the Murdoch empire: Sky News and the Brisbane Courier-Mail. In a similar event at the last election Annastacia Palaszczuk gained a clear ascendancy over an aggressive and over-confident Campbell Newman in a direct confrontation of the two potential premiers. On both occasions, the audience was chosen by Galaxy to provide a hundred uncommitted voters.
This time around, without any apology or explanation, the expected panel confrontation between Palaszczuk and Nicholls was expanded to include One Nation leader (and LNP defector) Steve Dickson. The only justification for including Dickson in the broadcast was his party’s level of support in opinion polls, which One Nation claims to be running at 20 per cent. This ignored the reality that the Greens could claim similar levels of support within parts of Brisbane and that the Katter’s Australian Party had held two seats for the whole of the last Parliament whereas One Nation only gained a toehold with the recent defection of Dickson. But the intention was clearly to legitimate One Nation as a potential policy-maker through its capacity for bargaining in a hung parliament, to de-legitimate the others and to bolster Nicholls with a sympathetic third presence on the platform.
The strategy worked spectacularly badly. The Premier had some discomforting moments explaining her change of heart over providing public funds to support the Adani coal-mining and rail projects, and Dickson obviously enjoyed the spotlight to advocate for his combination of repressive social laws (but legalising medicinal marijuana) and direct state funding for both the Adani railway and a new coal-fired power station in the north. When the audience was asked whether anyone supported government funding going to Adani, not a single hand was raised. But the unavoidable question for Nicholls was his future plans for dealing with the presumed probability of a hung parliament and what concessions would be needed to win the support of One Nation.
The audience, many of whom had displayed apparent LNP sympathies earlier, became utterly frustrated when Tim Nicholls constantly dodged questions on whether or not, if the election result were not clear cut, he would negotiate with One Nation in order to form government. After much obfuscation by Nicholls, and several refusals to give a straight ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answer when pressed by host David Speers, large sections of the audience heckled and hooted with laughter as Nicholls spluttered through. When polled afterwards about who they thought had own the debate, the Premier won in a landslide.
The Murdoch press: the Courier-Mail’s alternative facts
Because this Sky program turned out to be such a disaster for the LNP, the powers-that-be in the Murdoch press decided it was best forgotten. Other papers and non-print media gave prominence to the convincing performance of the Premier reporting that Nicholls performed poorly on a key issue. Even Sky News themselves, in ‘Qld Leaders faced off in People’s Forum’, gave the evening firmly to Palaszczuk:‘The results of the forum revealed an astounding 60 per cent of undecided voters present would consider Labor, while only 12 per cent backed the LNP. One Nation received 10 per cent of the vote, while 18 per cent remain undecided’.
The Courier-Mail chose an entirely different banner headline the day after the People’s Forum, using cold news about Treasurer Curtis Pitt who had been an advocate of Adani and was wrong-footed when the Premier changed her position without warning. Buried inside the paper, the People’s Forum was covered in an article ‘Voters apply blowtorch: One Nation preferences a poison chalice for Nicholls’, which referred to the audience having jeered Nicholls, but included two journalists’ own personal scorecards which gave the impression that the event had been a close run thing. Facts were not allowed to get in the way of a good non-story.
Honest John lends a hand
With the shambles continuing to unfold in Canberra, and the result in on the same-sex marriage mail poll being published, national politicians were not in plentiful supply in Queensland. The bombshell of a real contest in the by-election in his own old electorate of Bennelong may have persuaded John Howard that he might be more usefully employed further north. So he popped up unexpectedly in south-east Queensland constituencies, skilfully avoiding being seen with Tim Nicholls. Howard’s own dealings with Pauline Hanson were hardly a template for future close working relationships. After her dramatic emergence in 1996, Howard vigorously attacked her, negotiated a relationship with the ALP to ensure that her party ended up last on everyone’s how-to-vote cards and then adopted her policies on immigration control. But Howard was able to promote the idea of cutting back numbers in the public service as the only basis for debt reduction, something close to the heart of Liberal Party nationally and to local private sector entrepreneurs but vigorously disowned by Nicholls after the trade unions worked so hard to punish him for his behaviour when he was Treasurer under Newman.
At home among the sand-bags
Both major parties held off their party launches until the last Sunday before the election, with the ALP choosing to gather the faithful on the Gold Coast as a symbol of their commitment to regaining a presence there, not least as hosts of the forthcoming Commonwealth Games. Because Bill Shorten was unexpectedly detained promoting a by-election candidate for Howard’s old seat, the low-key event was remarkable only for the choice a boxing celebrity to share the limelight (receiving contradictory headlines in the Courier-Mail: ‘Champs in her corner: Horn gives Palaszczuk a ring of confidence’, and ‘Support a sign of too many hits to the head’.
The LNP brought in Prime Minister Turnbull for this purpose, for an equally lack-lustre affair apart from the announcement from Nicholls that his gloves are off too and he would drop the positivity which seemed to not be gaining traction — offering twenty accusations about lies told by the Premier in a fifteen-minute speech.
During campaigns the parties redirect resources towards previously safe electorates identified by polling as suddenly at risk, a process known as sand-bagging. Our local community received this treatment on Sunday afternoon when the cavalcade of LNP politicians (including Turnbull), security, media and carefully-dressed extras appeared in our shopping centre, providing opportunities for flesh-pressing and selfies for shoppers and shop-keepers. The manager of the local supermarket was first in line, suggesting a touch of hypocrisy after earlier espousing non-partisanship in his attitude to canvassers.
As a resident of what is now being flagged as a marginal seat, the newly-created electorate of Maiwar, I face a choice between two locals: the LNP’s long-serving former Transport Minister and ex-journalist, Scott Emerson, and the ALP’s Ali King, a local lawyer who has had experience running her own small business. The third contender, Michael Berkmann, has flown the Green flag in several constituencies across the Brisbane area, most notably standing against the current federal Minister, Peter Dutton. His Maiwar campaign has received backing from the Wotif co-founder Graeme Wood, and Berkmann has made extensive use of non-traditional media, so his face keeps injecting itself into my computer-based card games.
This combination of Berkmann’s professionalism, the community’s residual hostility towards the former Newman government and Emerson’s identification with threatened local transport cut-backs under Newman, puts the new seat on a trilateral knife-edge. The boundary changes have added a slice of territory formerly held by the current Environment Minister, Steven Miles, who ran a strong ‘Miles for the Reef’ campaign at the last election, which attracted significant Green vote preferences.
So our Maiwar election night party will have to contemplate any of three outcomes and the probability of not having a clear result on the night. Nary a one at our party would be able to claim Queensland citizenship by descent, although the majority have spent over half their working lives here. But we all feel as strongly engaged as in any other election we can remember — apart from our American guests. The worst outcome next Saturday would be the certainty of a hung parliament empowering One Nation.
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. Additional commentary on the Queensland election can be found on the TJ Ryan Foundation website.