Queensland election: Labor on the wrong side of the boom

Campbell Newman and close confidants Jeff Seeney (right) and Tim Nicholls at the first meeting on the LNP government. AAP/Dan Peled

A lot of the coverage of the Queensland election has so far focused on the headline numbers. Admittedly, these are startling.

The LNP will control 78 of 89 seats in the unicameral Parliament. Labor’s primary vote - 26.6% - was only just above what the far more disordered NSW state party achieved in last year’s state election there. With no upper house to stand in the way, the Newman Government has the numbers to do almost anything it wants.

History repeating

But it’s important to remember that parties have dominated Queensland’s Parliament to a similar extent before. The Queensland Labor Party has suffered during its several schisms - not least in the 1950s - but there have been other occasions when they have been lashed.

Labor was reduced to eleven seats in 1974, with only two independents to keep them company, in circumstances with parallels to the present. Joh Bjelke-Petersen called an early election which capitalised on the deep unpopularity in Queensland of a foundering Federal Labor Government.

The National-Liberal Coalition won 84% of the available seats in the parliament then, compared with what looks to be 87% as a result of the weekend’s election.

Labor’s primary vote was 36% then, but the absence of another left party like the Greens, or even a strong DLP, to claim a share of the vote, and the absence, too, of optional preferential voting meant that final seat tally was somewhat better than what we saw on Saturday. Then Labor leader Perc Tucker lost his seat of Townsville North, and an often hapless Labor Party was kept out of office for a further 15 years.

The rise of the Liberals

Although Campbell Newman is celebrating his achievement as, effectively, the first Liberal premier of Queensland, the party he joined as a young man has probably suffered most from the vicissitudes of Queensland politics.

Anna Bligh and her husband Greg Withers after the former premier announced she would be resigning her seat. AAP/Dan Peled

In 1983 Bjelke-Petersen, who had been forced to an election by Liberals crossing the floor to vote for an expenditure review committee, encouraged two Liberal members to defect after the election, leaving that party with only six seats, and the Nationals with majority government in their own right.

In the subsequent election in 1986, the Liberals were left with only three seats, and still played no part in government. In 2001 they were again reduced to three seats in the Beattie landslide, and the reconstituted Coalition could only muster 15 seats from 89 between them.

The volatile state?

So there are precedents for parties suffering as Labor have. A number of factors combine to make Queensland especially volatile. At a state level, optional preferential voting means electoral races come to resemble first-past-the-post affairs, especially in elections where voters are of a mind to make changes. Results are distorted away from any kind of proportionality - Labor will only get 7% of the seats in return for a quarter of the vote.

At federal and state levels, there are vanishingly few electorates that are demographically uniform enough to be super-safe electorates in the manner of some Sydney or Melbourne metropolitan seats.

But complicating this is the fact that Queensland is still regionalised in a way that other states aren’t.

The barnstorming One Nation result in 1998 excluded Brisbane, encompassing mainly the rural north, the south-east’s declining rural hinterland and the Wide Bay area. In normal circumstances, differing regional priorities can work to cushion defeat. But when all regions swing together, the result can be devastating.

The danger for Labor

But the precedents and explanations should not be too comforting for Labor. Labor recovered, eventually, from 1974. They were up against an appalling gerrymander, but eventually hubris, corruption and the modernisation of Queensland laid the Nationals low.

It could be argued that the Liberals, after their principled stand in 1983, never really did recover, and they had to wait for a united LNP to deliver them to government. There are no guarantees, and there are reasons now for Labor to be more concerned than they may have been even in the mid-1970s.

Former Labor Premier Peter Beattie inflicted a massive defeat on the then Liberal/National coalition in 2001. AAP/Dan Peled

A brief look at what used to be, even in troubled times, Labor’s regional redoubts shows how far the tide has gone out. As recently as 1995, Townsville had a Labor mayor, three out of three Labor state members, and a Federal Labor MP. Now they hold none of these. A conservative-leaning council and mayor were elected in 2008 after more than three decades of Labor rule, the LNP gained all three state seats on Saturday, and Herbert, formerly something of a bellwether, has been in Liberal hands since 1996.

Cairns deserted Labor for the first time since 1904 on Saturday, Leichhardt fell to a returning Warren Entsch at the last Federal election after only three years in Labor hands from 2007. In a regionalised state, these major centres matter, but we could make similar diagnoses in other former strongholds around the heart of Brisbane.

Was Labor its own worst enemy?

How has Labor managed to so thoroughly alienate what were some of its strongest supporters? We could observe that at the state level, the previous government did almost everything it could to undermine the traditional Labor advantages. On industrial relations and public services, it privatised railways without a mandate, thus making the jobs of thousands more precarious, especially in regional areas.

As a result, for example, the member for Ipswich, Rachel Nolan, had to deal with transport unions campaigning against her personally for two years in her own electorate. On health, and again with some IR overtones, the catastrophic implementation of a new pay system in Queensland Health directly affected thousands of workers, including thousands of poorly-paid people with little financial cushion.

This not only upset a whole lot of “natural” Labor voters, it amplified an impression of incompetence in this area, corroding the most important motivations people have for voting Labor. The overlong, overly-negative campaign was just the icing on the cake.

A changing electorate

But it helps to zoom out a little from the last term of government to put Labor’s decline in context. What’s clear is that the years since 1989, when the Goss Government was first elected, have been the most convulsive in the state’s history since settlement. A state that used to be extremely cheap is now relatively expensive.

Coal ready to be shipped overseas at a Gladstone port. AAP/Dave Hunt

This is true of the south-east, but even more so in boom towns like Mackay, Gladstone, and to a lesser extent Townsville. At the same time, the boom and the high dollar are putting a different kind of pressure on tourism-reliant centres like Cairns and the Gold Coast, whose former glory the visitor will observe as having faded. Queensland has an internal two-speed economy, at a time when the costs of living are high all over.

The population of the state has expanded, but not evenly, so that boom towns and the south-east have special infrastructure problems, even to the extent of not being able to house people properly. In the face of boomtime prosperity, formerly safe jobs in publicly-owned enterprises have disappeared, as has a lot of safe employment more generally. It’s not clear as a result what the future for large swathes of regional Queensland is.

The wrong side of the boom

Public services, especially health, are under increasing pressure. Labor governments, including those led by Mr 20-20 hindsight, Peter Beattie, have not been equal to these challenges.

Meanwhile, boom industries are perceived as being threatened by federal Labor measures like the mining and carbon taxes. Labor has been affected by these unaddressed, long-term structural issues at all levels of government. And it’s never offered a clear message about how they will be addressed, or even that this are the necessary growth pangs of a glorious future.

It’s not impossible for Labor to lose all of its Queensland House of Representatives seats at the next Federal election. Like 1974, and 1995, one feels Queensland voters have simply whetted their appetite with a Labor state government, and will now devour the feds. It’s not clear that Labor will have the wherewithal to avoid this.

Queensland’s conservative future

The organisation has lost further resources as a result of last week’s election, not to mention the best and brightest of its next generation of state parliamentary leaders.

There are fewer councils and safe seats in which to nurture new talent. There are fewer offices from which to run campaigns. There are fewer people entering the organisation as potential leaders, and fewer members from which to regrow the party at the grassroots.

Its links with the community are weaker, and in its last term it alienated large parts of the trade union movement. In a state where both major parties and the community at large has a strong, pro-development streak, the Greens are years or even decades away from state parliamentary representation. It’s not even obvious that they’re anywhere close to victory, at state or federal level, in any particular seat.

Unless Labor can work out what it wants to deliver for a core constituency, Queensland will be a conservative stronghold, at all levels of government, for a very long time.