Bligh will lose in Queensland, but it won’t be a wipeout

Bligh’s days as premier may be over, but all is not lost for Labor. AAP/Jack Tran

It’s long been said that Queensland is beautiful one day and perfect the next. But it has been a long time since Queensland politics reached these superlative heights. The state has been mired in controversies, scandals, deceptions, rorting, misconduct investigations, even criminal trials of politicians.

That the current election campaign has been about personal attacks and character assassination is the most recent manifestation of this legacy.

This election is not about policy or visionary directions for the state. It is about who Queenslanders want to be premier. Not much more. It’s simply a presidential stoush fought out by the main combatants.

Electoral deja-vu

We have seen similar contests in the past. The brutal 1974 election was one such case when Joh Bjelke-Petersen decimated Labor. The 1983 election was another when the “fatherly” Bjelke-Petersen fell out with the Liberals and spectacularly managed to form government in his own right for the Nationals.

Peter Beattie’s landslide win for Labor in 2001 amidst the electoral rorts scandal was another. The 2012 campaign is lining up as another case of an election fought over leadership.

In the final few days before the poll there are predictions of a comfortable win for Liberal-National party. Labor has been continuously in power since 1998 and governed for 20 of the past 22 years. But there is now a fiercely anti-Labor mood in the Sunshine State.

Strong predictions but…

Commentators have been making extravagant claims about the likely result. Some have estimated (or simply guessed) that the Coalition LNP will win somewhere in the vicinity of 64-70 seats out of the 89 available. (NB Clive Palmer even predicted the LNP would win every seat in the state!)

On such polling predictions Labor would be reduced from 51 seats it currently holds to just 18 seats, or even as low as 12 seats almost the same low point as the party suffered in 1974.

In that election, some 37 years ago, Queensland had compulsory preferential voting and suffered under an unequal voting system with malapportionment heavily favouring the conservatives (colloquially called the gerrymander). In 1974 Labor polled 36% of the vote but got just 11 seats.

In 2012 the big differences are that voting is optional preferential and the electorates are relatively equal. And this time, Labor is the long-standing government but almost the entire LNP is inexperienced in office.

As results come in we can expect some Greens and independent preferences to flow Labor’s way – meaning it should manage to get over 40% of the two-party preferred vote, perhaps as high as 45%.

These figures would indicate a swing of around 7% to the Coalition. The conservatives would then win around 25 additional seats taking their total around 52 to 60 seats (a comfortable majority), with Labor managing 27-32 seats. These figures assume that Labor loses a number of seats in its Brisbane heartland, including that of the Treasurer Andrew Fraser (Mt Coot-tha).

Still some uncertainties

But the momentum is not all the LNP’s way. The rural conservative vote is split – sometimes three or four ways.

Four sitting conservative independents are likely to be returned, and up to three or four Katter candidates have a chance to win (two are sitting defectors). This means that to govern in its own right the LNP need to win at least 14-18 seats from Labor just to get over the line.

I would say that predictions of a massive conservative landslide (similar to what occurred in NSW) are exaggerated. The Bligh government will lose but not be wiped out.

The battle in Ashgrove is on a knife’s edge. A 7% swing is not quite enough to put Campbell Newman into parliament – he needs to do better than the state swing to win. And some mud thrown in the campaign over his alleged connections to dodgy business proposals may stick, including attempts by in-laws to profit from the Brisbane floods. The polls have been highly volatile, bouncing around by up to 10% within a few days of each other. Ashgrove will be tight.

In an electoral contest entirely about who Queenslanders want to be premier, one of the key contestants may not make it to the parliament.

Labor hatred vented?

The big interest in the Queensland election from a national perspective is whether Queenslanders will have got the anti-Labor sentiment out of their blood before a federal election comes is due.

In the 2010 federal election, Gillard’s Labor party lost 7 seats in Queensland, leaving it with just 8 seats out of 30. So much depends on how long the anti-Labor sentiment persists after Saturday’s poll.

It is not impossible for a party on the nose at one election to rebound sufficiently to win a short time later. Voters also vote with some notions of not handing all power to one side of politics (strategic voting).

Neville Wran pulled off such a victory in the 1976 NSW state election within a year of Malcolm Fraser’s massive landslide against Gough Whitlam. Peter Beattie returned Labor to office in Queensland in 1998 just two years after a clean-out of the Goss Labor government.

Queensland and the nation

Southern commentators and party bosses tend to overlook the significance of Queensland in federal elections. Not only does it command a sizeable number of seats (30 now and just a handful less than Victoria) it also swings of late much more heavily in the direction of change.

In the 2001 and 2004 elections, Queensland sustained John Howard; by 2007 Queensland swung strongly toward Kevin Rudd; then equally fickle, it swung massively against Julia Gillard in 2010. Queensland counts federally, and whichever side controls the state legislature can affect this outcome.

The composition of the next Queensland government does not seem to be in doubt, just the size of its majority. But the more states fall to the Coalition, the more federal Labor will be able to differentiate itself from them and perhaps stand to benefit.

A Coalition government in Queensland will warm the hearts of conservatives north of the border, but could make it more difficult for a federal Coalition to make up any more ground in the beautiful state.

Tony Abbott will genuinely welcome a conservative victory, but a tiny part of him will rue the fact that the LNP got there before he did.