“Appalling, "opportunistic”, and a return to “the bad old days of Queensland politics”. That’s how experienced political analysts have described the “partisan game-playing” that unexpectedly ended on Thursday night with a vote to make Queenslanders number every box on their ballot paper at the next state election.
Responding to an LNP push for four extra seats in parliament, on Thursday the Labor government unexpectedly pushed through an amendment to reintroduce compulsory preferential voting. This scrapped the optional preferential voting system, which was brought in after the Fitzgerald Inquiry into corruption.
‘Alarm bells’ from Queensland’s corrupt past
“If you think back to the Fitzgerald inquiry, you’ll remember that it tied police corruption into government dominance and the corruption of the electoral system to suit the Bjelke-Petersen government,” University of the Sunshine Coast lecturer Bronwyn Stevens said.
To avoid future electoral corruption, it was recommended that changing the number of seats in parliament or the way people vote should be handled independently of parliament.
“Yet suddenly we’re seeing the Queensland parliament getting straight into the process [on both those issues] as it did in the Bjelke-Petersen years – and this rings alarms bell for Queenslanders.
"This is appalling behaviour from both parties. They’re both being hypocritical – trying to take the moral high ground, when both have done the wrong thing and haven’t followed the recommended procedures that came out of the Fitzgerald inquiry.”
Ms Stevens predicted Labor could suffer an electoral backlash over the voting change.
“Politically, I can see why some media have reported this as tactically smart from Labor. But I think the consequences are the undermining of Labor’s credibility … So I think there could be a backlash, especially among Green voters I suspect.”
Time for real reform
Following the Fitzgerald inquiry, an independent committee recommended a switch to optional preferential voting – which Labor introduced for the 1992 election, as part of a suite of anti-corruption measures. (For more on optional preferential voting and its history in Queensland, read this article.)
Griffith University professor of politics Anne Tiernan described the “opportunistic” behaviour of both parties on Thursday as “disappointing and very dangerous”.
“On both sides, short-term hyper-partisanship routinely triumphs over the long-term health and integrity of our most important public institutions. Queenslanders should be very concerned that the political parties devote most of their energies to political tactics, rather than to ideas, policies and a vision for the state.”
Unlike other states, Queensland only has one house of parliament. Professor Tiernan said she has always been sceptical about whether a upper house of review would make much difference, given it didn’t seem to in other states such as New South Wales. Now, she’s reconsidering.
“Going right back to federation, the tensions in Queensland politics are always about how to balance the interests of people in regional and remote areas with the southeast of the state, where the population and the wealth is concentrated.
"Maybe it is time to think about better representative structures to deal with that challenge, and also to make sure we don’t see another situation like last night: where major changes are suddenly made with no deliberation, no design, and no consultation with the community.
"New Zealand operates effectively with just one house, so learning from their electoral system is another option.”
“But the people of Queensland will need to stand up and engage with this; we can’t leave it to the parliament.”
Queensland needs a culture of consultation
In March 2016, Queenslanders voted yes in a referendum to extend state parliamentary terms from three years to four.
Griffith University senior lecturer Tracey Arklay was among a number of political analysts who warned against voting yes, because without an upper house, state governments would hold too much power for too long.
Dr Arklay said everyone had been “blindsided” by the LNP’s successful push for four new state seats, and Labor’s response of “completely overhauling the voting system without any consultation”.
“I was surprised it all happened so quickly, but it’s not surprising that it could happen when there are no checks and balances to stop it. We haven’t got a culture of proper public consultation in Queensland. And that needs to change.”