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Hung parliament for Queensland? Expect more nuance than chaos

With Premier Campbell Newman exiting the political stage, Governor Paul de Jersey (left) may become a key player in deciding who forms Queensland’s next government. AAP/Dan Peled

Hung parliament for Queensland? Expect more nuance than chaos

Driving back to Brisbane from my childhood home of Nambour, I saw the most extraordinary political billboard. In monumental black and white, it simply said: Hung Parliament. Chaos.

That these stark and expensive warnings suddenly appeared in the final week of the campaign should have alerted commentators – me included – that the election was going to be line-ball.

We all knew that Premier Campbell Newman, in his seat of Ashgrove, could not survive the heavy swing his government faced. But we overestimated the benefits of incumbency to the LNP and underestimated the extreme volatility of contemporary electorates.

As we now know, Premier Newman (for he still is that, until he tenders his commission to the Governor) has redefined the term “one-term wonder”. In 2012, campaigning from outside parliament, he led the LNP to a historic landslide. A swing of almost 14% reduced the ALP to seven MPs out of 89.

Fast-forward through the blur of three intervening years, and Annastacia Palaszczuk is on the verge of becoming premier. An accidental leader of the Secret Seven MPs in 2012, she may in the next fortnight become just the second female to lead her party from opposition to government. May. Or may not.

What then awaits Queensland politics in the next two weeks?

Queensland’s Queen’s man

In theory, ultimate power still resides with the Crown. Its ceremonial role becomes intellectually taxing only at times like these: close elections, hung parliaments and unclear executive transitions.

Queensland’s Governor, Paul de Jersey, QC, was until last year its third-longest-serving chief justice. He retired at the still spritely, by judicial reckoning, age of 66 to accept Newman’s offer to become the local viceroy.

De Jersey is an eminent lawyer and a traditionalist: army reservist, Churchie School graduate and chancellor of the state’s Anglican diocese. He was no doubt, last week, consulting his copy of the Constitution of Queensland Act 2001, prepping for all possibilities.

One section, the 23rd, would have given him pause, if not constitutional dyspepsia, had the LNP harboured a “plan B” to try to keep Newman on. That section strongly implies that the Governor can only appoint MPs as ministers.

It may have counteracted Canadian precedents of leaders losing their seats but hanging on until a fellow MP in a safe seat was sacrificed.

As it happens, Newman, a proud man, did the honourable thing by the state and his party. He bowed out of politics on election night. His party can now make him – and Prime Minister Tony Abbott – its public scapegoat, while it moves to resolve his successor.

The numbers game

Labor has the twin advantage of having more seats and a leader, Annastacia Palaszczuk, in place. AAP/Dan Peled

Politics may be about ideas, but electoral politics is ultimately about numbers. At the close of counting on election night, the ALP appeared bound for between 43 and 46 seats. It could scrape a majority in its own right, but this seems less likely than not.

Absentee votes lean a little left, but given the ease of pre-polling these days, absentee votes are less common. As Adrian Beaumont surmised, postal votes usually trend heavily to incumbents, especially conservatives.

Then, uniquely at this election, there is the unknown unknown. How many people had to lodge a “declaration vote” because they did not bring ID to the polls? How many of those votes will be counted, and what demographics do they represent?

In short, one or two ultra-marginals will decide whether Labor has a clear seat advantage over the LNP, and whether there are three or four crossbenchers. Even barring litigation, these results could take a week or more, since postal votes can drift in for up to ten days after election day.

This muddies the water, and not just for the Governor and his consultations. It also complicates the LNP’s desire to move swiftly to elect a leader. LNP state president Bruce McIver has said the party would now be looking for “some fresh ideas, fresh start, fresh leadership team”.

Any one of several new leaders is possible. Business-like Treasurer Tim Nicholls. The urbane transport minister, Scott Emerson. Respected health minister and former party leader, Lawrence Springborg. And on Monday, speaker Fiona Simpson put up her hand, saying the LNP had “stuffed up” and that her party needed a new, more consultative, style of leadership.

The absence of a clear Newman succession plan is unsurprising. The LNP knew it would lose dozens of MPs. How could any of these contenders be sure of his numbers until after the election?

Negotiate or retreat?

The ALP is therefore in the box seat in two senses. It is likely to have a seat or two more than the LNP. It also has a leader. Not just a leader in the ascendant, but a leader, full stop.

Palaszczuk can immediately begin negotiations with the crossbenchers. In contrast, the LNP is leaderless. Before the election the presumptive favourite was Nicholls, the architect of the LNP’s privatisation plans.

Privatisation is anathema to the Katter’s Australian Party (KAP), which has two continuing MPs. They represent bush electorates. After the 2010 federal election, their eponymous federal leader, Bob Katter junior, sided with Tony Abbott over Julia Gillard in negotiations to form a minority government.

Like “Black Jack” McEwen, the Country Party leader who vetoed Billy McMahon as prime minister on Harold Holt’s death, the KAP MPs could exercise a virtual veto on the LNP leadership. If the LNP wished to lead a hung parliament it might have to elect Springborg or Simpson.

KAP MP Shane Knuth said on Monday he could potentially work with Simpson, Springborg or Tim Mander. But he warned that if the LNP stuck with its current senior leadership team they would be “wasting their time”, singling out Nicholls for criticism, saying he was “frothing at the mouth to sell our assets”.

Independent MP Peter Wellington, who supported Labor in a hung parliament in 1998, may be wooed again. AAP/Dan Peled

The longest serving of the crossbenchers – 18 years all told – is an independent, provincial solicitor Peter Wellington. His seat of Nicklin is part of the Sunshine Coast, a conservative redoubt.

Wellington, true to his former profession, is a stickler for accountability and governance practices. He became a trenchant critic of the Newman government on process issues. In 1998, in a hung parliament, he sided with Labor.

Like his federal counterpart in the area, Clive Palmer, Wellington owes his seat to tactical voting and preferences from Labor supporters, in and around Nambour. Nambour is a hinterland town that educated Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan. Wellington is a likely Labor supporter.

Advantage is with Labor

Despite the warnings of this full-page LNP election-eve ad in the Courier-Mail, the result is more likely to be nuance than chaos. LNP Queensland

Momentum is an overused word in electoral politics. Elections are not football games, where one side’s growing confidence can turn a result. Electors decide elections, not politicians’ psychologies.

But in negotiations for a hung parliament, where the psyche of politicians is paramount, momentum is relevant. One side (here Labor) will have come out of the election revivified. The other, the government, will be bruised and soul-searching.

The LNP campaigned hard on the “chaos” of a hung parliament. In truth, hung parliaments are nuanced, not chaotic. Given its campaign position, its drubbing and its leaderless state, the LNP may prefer to retreat to attend to its wounds and let Labor negotiate its way to a working majority.


Editor’s note: Graeme will be answering questions between 1 and 2pm AEDT on Tuesday February 3. You can ask your questions about the article in the comments below.