After a tumultuous first year in power for Campbell Newman’s Liberal National Party, Queensland now offers more hope for Julia Gillard at next year’s federal election.
Which way the Sunshine State will swing federally is still hard to predict – but ultimately it may be decided by two maverick Queensland conservatives.
The “Can-do” Premier
Following his unprecedented state election win on March, in which the LNP won 78 seats to Labor’s 7, Newman wasted little time in warning that Queensland was at risk of becoming “the Spain of Australian states” and announcing tough austerity measures, including 14,000 public service job cuts.
Newman’s initial approach to announcing the cuts was abrasive, with a macho emphasis on tough decisions. When questioned in parliament about counselling for sacked public servants, Newman went on the attack, saying his government had had to “get the pooper scooper out every day of the week” to clean up Labor’s mess.
The Premier later softened his approach, saying that cutting so many jobs had been the “hardest couple of months of my working life”.
Closing the gap
While there is still a long time to go before the next state election and Newman has a huge buffer, next year’s federal poll is a different matter.
As recently as May this year, the Gillard government had sunk to 23 per cent of the primary vote in Queensland, prompting Tony Abbott to declare “the LNP has obviously triumphed magnificently in the recent state election and I think we can do even better in the next federal election”.
But voter anger at Newman and Gillard’s slow recovery have put Labor back in contention, so that Queensland no longer represents a possible clean sweep for the Coalition.
A new poll shows federal Labor’s primary vote has recovered to 33 per cent in Queensland, close to the 33.6 per cent it won at the 2010 election.
Gillard and her senior ministers have already begun Labor’s re-election pitch in the state, with the Prime Minister claiming “Campbell Newman’s budget razor is Tony Abbott’s curtain raiser”.
Three down, more to go?
At a state level, Newman’s LNP government still holds a 56 to 44 per cent lead over Labor in the two-party-preferred stakes, but that popularity has been declining since the highs of the March election.
As well as facing a backlash over his cuts, Newman has faced destabilisation from within, including two forced ministerial resignations and a surprise defection over the weekend.
The first to go was Police Minister David Gibson, sacked for driving on a suspended licence after only 14 days in the job.
The next was Housing Minister Bruce Flegg. He resigned earlier this month after his former media adviser claimed the minister had failed to disclose numerous contacts with his lobbyist son.
Flegg was also accused of continuing to work as a doctor when his official diary said he was working in his electorate.
The Premier has tried to put an end to the lobbyist controversy, announcing last week that his and all his ministers’ diaries and lobbyist contact registers will be released every month.
A cloud still hangs over the future of Science, Arts and IT Minister Ros Bates, who will miss this week’s parliamentary sitting – the last before MPs return in February – due to a fall that left her with fractured vertebrae.
Bates has been embroiled in controversy over her own lobbyist connections, as well as being questioned about how her son, Ben Gommers, won a $100,000 position in the Transport Department despite a freeze on new jobs.
Last week Newman dismissed concerns about ministerial integrity as “media hype”, saying Bates' position is safe, and calling on reporters to focus on “real issues” instead.
There is a populist streak in Queensland’s political culture that tends to downplay the checks and balances of representative democracy. Governments prefer to focus on “getting things done”, and this government is no exception.
But Newman’s tough leadership style has alienated some – even within his own party.
Over the weekend, LNP veteran Ray Hopper stunned colleagues by resigning to join Katter’s Australian Party.
Hopper, who represents the south-east Queensland seat of Condamine, accused the LNP leadership of ignoring rural and regional people’s concerns, and said the mass lay-offs of public servants should have been done more gradually.
The Premier said he felt betrayed by Hopper’s disloyalty, but does not believe that more of his rural MPs would defect.
The Katter factor
Queenslanders are the most likely Australian voters to support a populist minor party, such as Pauline Hanson’s Queensland-based One Nation.
The upcoming federal election will be the first for maverick MP Bob Katter’s Australian Party (KAP).
At the state election, Katter’s Australian Party obtained two seats and 11.6 per cent of the vote, which was four percentage points more than the Greens.
But it was well below Katter’s predictions of outdoing One Nation’s 11 state seats at the 1998 election, and possibly even winning power.
Since the state election, the KAP has been further damaged by splits and resignations, and appeared to be on the decline – until this weekend’s Hopper defection.
The federal Coalition aren’t the only ones needing to keep an eye on a possible KAP protest vote.
Queensland ALP secretary Anthony Chisholm has said that the Greens represent less of a threat to Labor in the state than the prospect of losing blue-collar votes to the Katter party.
Thanks to Bob Katter’s high profile nationally, and the likelihood of a strong Queensland protest vote, there is little doubt that the Katter party vote will be influential in some seats, with the potential to even pick up a Senate position.
However, the history of minor parties in Queensland suggests it is unlikely that the party will be a long-term force in federal politics.
Having been all but wiped out a state level, federal Labor’s chances in Queensland are better than they have been for a long time. But this is still a conservative state.
The ALP will need all the help it can get, especially from Campbell Newman’s government, if it is to hold its Queensland seats next year and have any chance of clinging to power.