Many Brisbanites even mildly interested in national politics woke 0n Sunday morning with a sense of satisfaction that the PM had not been rewarded for his guttersnipe tactics. As Greg Jericho pointed out on Sunday, “he may not be as vulgar as Trump but Turnbull uses the same playbook.” (Jericho G, The Guardian, 29.7.18) His choice of playbook may seem inappropriate for Harbourside Mansions; his assumption must be that it is appropriate for vulgar unsophisticated Queensland.
Longman provided an acid test for this assumption, given its make-up of outer-suburban Brisbane, coastal retirement havens and semi-rural small properties. It is never clear what motivates those casting votes in Longman (or anywhere else) but the role of dominant personalities is often identified as a major influence. Turnbull was one among several influences relevant to Longman voters and his choice of having as long a campaign as possible and spending as much time as possible in the electorate and on local television screens indicates a desire to focus on the quality of his own leadership compared to Shorten.
But the small minority of Longman voters interested in national politics were obviously aware of four other, more local personalities. The first of these, notionally nearest to Turnbull (but not dearest) is the member for a nearby constituency for the same party, Peter Dutton. Press reports suggest that Dutton sees himself as a loyal standard bearer of Tony Abbott and as a potential successor if the Liberal Party leadership again becomes vacant. The uncompromising image he projects may have alienated many middle-class liberals. They might fear that Dutton has already proven his ability to shape the ultra-conservative agenda which has apparently been imposed on Turnbull. But “il-liberals” inside the same broad church might prefer to vote for Hanson and even ignore the Hanson how-to-vote advice and vote ALP rather than stabilise Turnbull’s control of an increasingly restive caucus. Who knows?
And it is Hanson who will claim to have been another victor in the Longman vote, with an allocation of primary votes at a higher percentage than at the recent state election. This reflects the core support geographically concentrated in a state constituency located within Longman – probably working-class populists as well as retirees responding to the Hanson special focus on race/immigration and climate denialism.
Hanson and Dutton seem in broad agreement on both issues, often linked to the special Queensland enthusiasm for coal mining as an alternative to renewable energy sources. Hanson did remarkably well in Longman, given that her candidate typified the problem which has bedevilled so many earlier One Nation candidates. Most of them welcome the opportunity to be the centre of attention, being realistic about their chances of actually winning seats rather than channelling preferences, but often have financial or dodgy associations clouding their past which do not pass close inspection in an election campaign. In the last week of the campaign, the rape conviction and gaoling of a former advisor to a Queensland One Nation senator added to the potent mix.
The third personality was the LNP candidate, whose “medalling” became a major impediment to serious policy discussions in the later stages of the campaign. Unlike the One Nation candidate, “Big Kev” Ruthenberg had a record of public service beyond the workshop. Being a low-profile member of the LNP Newman government left him open to all the accusations legitimately levelled at that government over service reductions, massive public service cutbacks and anti-environmental policies.
The fourth personality was the successful ALP candidate Susan Lamb, who, like Barnaby Joyce and all the other MPs forced into by elections, suffered no public criticism for the costs and inconvenience of their faulty paperwork. Turnbull’s strategy of accusing her and Shorten of lying about this was self-evidently stupid, since the same criticism would be relevant to his own side and there were no lies involved, just differences of legal opinion and parliamentary tactics.
Apart from Turnbull and general disgruntlement with governments generally, Lamb was able to strike chords about the problem of economic inequality and social dislocation flowing from national policies on taxation seen to favour the banks and the big end of town, at the expense of spending on welfare, health and particularly education. Trade unions were heavily mobilised in this campaign, with the candidate having strong links with key players ensuring major campaign support on the ground. The Brisbane media also noted that the principals of two Roman Catholic Church schools in the electorate had written to parents to endorse the ALP candidate because of her party’s willingness to move against the proposed changes to education funding at national level.
Among these four personalities, Hanson is likely to attract the most attention in the longer run as Turnbull has to consider how to deal with her short-term significance in Senate voting on his taxation and other controversial legislation such as immigration and security. Peter Dutton will also have a role to play in this resolution, given his aspirations. Turnbull will also need to work out a viable long-term strategy to secure his own position within the party and the party’s own search for a middle ground, again with reference to Dutton.
Hanson has accumulated significant taxpayer funds from her previous electoral performance and gave priority over her campaigning commitment to spending a small portion of these funds on a luxury cruise around Ireland, in the state-room of Cunard’s MS Queen Elizabeth. The strongest memory from the Longman campaign will be the array of cardboard cut-outs of Hanson made available to a candidate with nothing else to offer. Like the infamous burqa stunt, this underlined the extent to which she is an icon for a disturbingly significant portion of the Queensland electorate, a celebrity not required to offer much of policy substance or consistency.
Hanson matters in Queensland politics because of the particular threat she poses to the conservative forces grouped inside the LNP, both nationally and at state level. Her brand of anti-feminism has been noted by several writers, this one included (see Phoenix? Pauline Hanson and Queensland Politics, TJ Ryan Foundation, 2017). Longman brought to the fore the galaxy of female talent arrayed against her, including within the LNP at state level, where recently-elected Leader of the Opposition and Leader of the Liberal National Party Deb Frecklington, a country-based lawyer, has espoused a level of liberalism and feminism at odds with Hanson. On the ALP side, the role of women is widely acknowledged at Cabinet level, in party processes, and in the Queensland Council of Unions. The result in Longman (and in Braddon) reflects the same shift towards the new social reality of the advancement of women.
Footnote: I apologise for the narrow focus on south-east Queensland, generated by the location of the by election constituency. The situation further north is clouded by the re-emergence of Clive Palmer and his newly-named United Australia Party, now represented in the federal Senate by a Hanson drop-out from New South Wales, and the continuing presence of Katter’s Australian Party in both national and state legislatures. Palmer recently acquired a high-visibility penthouse in Townsville to add credibility to his renewed enthusiasm for political and economic advancement in that city.
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.