Two by-elections and the state-wide local government elections went ahead last month with outcomes that returned most major party candidates but encouraged only the Greens and One Nation. The process was abysmally managed, with chaos and uncertainty on the day and results still not finalised.
Each of the by-elections went as expected. In Ipswich, the ALP retained the seat comfortably – what was notable was the increased percentage of the vote attracted by the One Nation candidate, nudging 28% at the last count. The Courier Mail reporting of a survey suggesting a Hanson victory seems to have been fake news, Ashby imitating Trump. But the idea of an LNP/One Nation preference deal might frighten some ALP horses in a state-wide contest (although it might also turn off the liberal component of the LNP).
The other by-election was in Currumbin on the Gold Coast, precipitated by the resignation of a long-serving LNP candidate. Her continuing complaints about bullying within her own party provoked vicious responses from party officialdom. It seemed there might be a close contest with encouraging responses for the ALP during the pre-polling period. But that faded once the ALP state government chose to isolate the state from NSW by establishing police checkpoints along the border, without much planning and consultation. This occurred with very little warning and opportunity for police preparations effective from midnight on March 26, two days before polling day. The southern edge of the Currumbin electorate is the NSW border and residents were massively inconvenienced.
The border closure was one of many mis-steps precipitated by the virus. Police were given unclear or rapidly-altered instructions to implement a procedure which current rule-makers had never contemplated. The definition of essential worker, medical necessity, legitimate shopping for food and other provisions were all called into question.
There was also a more general problem for all Queenslandvoters, whether they attended early polling or attended on the day, effectively risking their health and breaching social distancing. There had already been a high use of postal voting without any pretence at measuring need. The inability to count so many votes until well beyond election night added to the uncertainty.
There was also the problem of reconciling compulsory voting with the reality of individuals fearing any community contact would endanger their health. Nobody was willing to bell the cat and say outright that penalties would not be applied in the prevailing social circumstances. Strict interpretation of the legislation would suggest that anyone who did so was breaking the law and potentially subject to severe penalties.
And to top it off the counting system collapsed on the night, due to electronic malfunction. The Queensland Electoral Commission received robust criticism by the Premier, the Brisbane Lord Mayor and the Leader of the Opposition for its failure to meet expectations about the speed of counting. In the interests of preserving social distance, scrutineers were isolated in a separate room so the customary insider commentary on trends also was not available. After the technological problems were corrected, the mountain of early polling and mailed votes posed further delays in many council divisions and results were still not finalised many days later.
So, how much more do we know about the political landscape in Queensland as a result of these elections? Did they tell us more beyond demonstrating the limitations of the Queensland Electoral Commission and the impact on voter behaviour of the rapid decision to close the border with NSW? Did the inevitable low turnout invalidate any conclusions for future polls?
First, as discussed above, we know that Pauline Hanson still has political appeal in her home ground of working-class Ipswich. Where the One Nation label appeared on ballot papers elsewhere, there was no striking chord. The One Nation vote in Currumbin was insignificant.
Second, Clive Palmer’s open treasure chest failed to prevent an ignominious rejection of ex-NRL hero Greg Dowling. If Palmer was on his customary track of attention-seeking in the interest of weakening the ALP, he failed miserably in Townsville.
Third, the LNP secured an easy victory in its major competition, the Lord Mayoralty of Brisbane, and most of its sitting members were returned in Brisbane and elsewhere. Generally local governments were unchanged, except where large numbers of councillors or individual mayors had been convicted of corruption or malpractice. Notably, the ghostly figure of Lawrence Springborg, widely respected but so often a loser at state level, was returned unopposed as Mayor of Goondiwindi Regional Council.
But, like Springborg, another LNP leader from a rural constituency – Deb Frecklington – is under stress after the LNP candidate prevailed by only a 3% margin. There was newspaper speculation that she had not done well enough in Currumbin to maintain her hold on the leadership running into the state election in October. A carpet-bagger who has moved down to the southeast coast from Cairns to secure his future political career was identified in press speculation as a possible replacement.
David Crisafulli has been characterised by Paul Williams, the state’s most reliable commentator on politics, as “a former journalist and local government minister long touted as a future Premier … an experienced ex-Minister who’s also good on the sound-bite … an urbane and energetic progressive who’s not yet 40 … the LNP’s best hope of toppling a Premier who, despite tumbling approval ratings is still Labor’s best asset”.
Fourth, the significance for the ALP: it would be a supreme irony if its by-elections performance may have disadvantaged its longer-term prospects. Subsequently, an off-the-cuff response in a radio interview has opened another can of worms for the Premier. She offended the union movement by appearing to disown all the tortuously-negotiated enterprise agreements with public servants endorsed by due legal process and widely already implemented. Ironically it was many non-medical health workers whose agreements remained unconfirmed due to the virus distraction and thus at risk of losing their benefits. This sounds like an echo from the time of Anna Bligh, with the ALP blowing away the political benefits of being a leader in hard times by offending its friends.
Finally, threatening both the major parties, the Greens seem to have emerged as a major political presence in local government divisions, especially in and close to central Brisbane. They may have trebled their presence on the Brisbane council. In the current circumstance they seemed marginal – a solitary presence in both the state legislature and the city council. But there was a strong shift of preferences towards the Greens in both Brisbane and the south-east, which could flow on to the October election. This will probably be an all-mail activity, which ought to reduce the chaos which has been so obvious this time around.
The one current Green councillor, Jonathon Sri, had a very large majority in his south Brisbane ward which neatly encompasses the same voting public as the state seat occupied by the Deputy Premier, Jackie Trad. Trad is already in difficulties of her own making. Swinging voters in an inner-urban area full of trendies and environmentalists have shown they are willing to forgo the luxury of a member with access to the levers of power.
Finally, a footnote from the very Deep North in a welcome new on-line publication, In Queensland, (8.4.2020): “Residents of the Douglas Shire in far north Queensland have elected the state’s first openly gay married man, Michael Kerr, who believes honesty with voters has equipped him well for the new standards of local government … … He ousted two-term mayor Julia Leu, who had been forced to fend off allegations of a questionable land purchase in the Daintree … Kerr believed his own journey living as an openly gay man would bring authenticity to his leadership.”
Roger Scott has been a professor of public administration at the University of Queensland, a director-general of the state education department and a dean of arts at QUT.