STATE OF THE STATES: a snapshot of the key issues affecting each state and territory in the lead up to Saturday’s election.
With more marginal seats than any state other than New South Wales - and easily the largest number of vulnerable opposition seats - the role of Queensland in the federal election of 2013 is pivotal.
The federal government is in the ironic position of needing to make a net gain in seats in order to retain power. And with losses seemingly inevitable in a number of other states, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) must win seats from the Liberal-National Party (LNP) in Queensland to have any chance of winning the election on September 7.
Being in a pivotal position in a federal election is not new to Queensland. When the ALP took government from the Coalition in 2007, it made large gains in Queensland. In the swing away from the government in 2010, Labor suffered large losses in the state.
One reason why the electoral pendulum swings back and forth from one party to the other is to do with the state’s demography and political geography. Queensland’s population is not only growing, it is also more dispersed than in other mainland Australian states. As a result, the state has a disproportionate number of marginal seats and significant numbers of seats change hands when support swings from one major party to the other.
The issues in Queensland in this election are similar to those that dominate throughout Australia: economic management, taxation and spending policies, education and health care, handling of asylum seekers arriving by boat.
In Queensland, perhaps more than in some states, support for regional areas continues to be an electoral issue, consistent with the state’s more broadly distributed population. This is one reason why political parties such as Katter’s Australian Party and the Palmer United Party are more optimistic about their chances of success in this state than some others.
Another factor that has contributed to the tone of debate in Queensland is the role of the dominant LNP state government, led by Campbell Newman, which cut some 14,000 state public service positions early in its term in 2012.
The ALP has consequently drawn parallels between the state government and the prospective federal coalition government. It has argued that a government led by Tony Abbott would inflict cuts and reduce government services on an even greater scale than the Newman state government. This is epitomised in the campaign slogan: “if Tony Abbott wins you lose”.
The LNP, on the other hand, has attempted to turn the apparent boost for Labor after Kevin Rudd’s reinstatement as prime minister on its head by talking of the “old” Rudd, painting a picture of an indecisive, arrogant, bad-tempered, self-serving and insincere politician.
Snapshot of Queensland
The government seems to have moved through three phases in recent months, which greatly impact on Queensland.
Before Julia Gillard was removed as prime minister, the party’s prospects appeared very bleak indeed, with a distinct possibility that Labor might lose almost all of the eight seats it currently holds in Queensland, having already suffered a severe reversal at the 2010 federal election.
When Rudd was reinstalled as the Labor leader, a surge of optimism in ALP ranks saw talk of, not only holding all of the government’s Queensland seats, but the possibility of taking five or six from the LNP as well. On this basis, Labor suddenly seemed to have realistic prospects of retaining government at the election.
From around the time the election was called, however, the party entered a third phase. As the electorate started to focus more clearly on prospects for the election and opinion polls showed a decline in the post-Rudd surge, it became apparent that the most realistic outlook lay somewhere in between phases one and two.
On this scenario, the ALP will have to battle hard to hold all its own seats and will have an equally tough job to win any from the LNP. At its extreme, the third phase involves the possibility that Kevin Rudd could lose his own seat, with two opinion polls about a fortnight out from polling day giving his LNP opponent, former Australian Medical Association president Bill Glasson, a lead in the two-party preferred vote.
While it may seem unlikely that Rudd will lose his seat in the end, these polls certainly remind us that it is not inconceivable. It happened to John Howard in 2007, albeit defending a much smaller margin, and the party leader is always vulnerable to claims they are neglecting their own constituents as they campaign across the country on behalf of their party at large.
It would, nonetheless, be one of the great ironies of modern Australian politics if Rudd’s resumption of the leadership assisted some of his detractors in the party (such as Wayne Swan in the electorate of Lilley) to hold on to their seats while Rudd himself bore the brunt of dissatisfaction with a government he was not directly part of for a decent proportion of its term and was voted out.
Among the seats particularly at risk for the ALP are several electoral divisions in and around Brisbane, including Moreton, Petrie, Lilley and Blair, plus the regional seat of Capricornia, based around Rockhampton in central Queensland. All of these seats are held by margins of less than 5%, while Rankin and Oxley (both with margins between 5% and 6%) can also not be counted as safe.
Rudd’s seat of Griffith, with a margin of 8.5%, was considered the only sure bet for Labor to retain – until the emergence of the aforementioned polls.
Moreton and Petrie appear particularly difficult for Labor to hold, while the retirement of the long-serving member in Capricornia (a seat Labor would normally expect to keep) makes its retention more challenging.
It is difficult to judge whether Swan’s high profile as the erstwhile Treasurer will help him stem the tide in Lilley or whether his close association with a government revered by few will further harm his cause.
The most vulnerable LNP-held seats are central-city Brisbane, Forde to the south of Brisbane and Longman to the north. All three are on margins of less than 2%, while Herbert, Dawson and Bonner are held by margins of between 2% and 3%.
To great fanfare, Labor brought former state premier, Peter Beattie, in to contest Forde at the last minute but there is little indication that this strategy has turned the seat into an easy gain for the party.
Finally, what seems clear now is that despite the apparent rise in Labor’s prospects when Rudd first resumed the prime ministership, the most likely result of the switch from Gillard to Rudd is not that the government will be saved from defeat in the election on September 7. Rather, it’s likely to suffer a lighter blow than it would have sustained under Gillard’s leadership.
This is the seventh article in our State of the states series. Stay tuned for the final instalment.
Part one: Tasmania
Part two: Northern Territory
Part three: Western Australia
Part four: Victoria
Part five: South Australia
Part six: Australian Capital Territory
Part eight: New South Wales