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Labor on the brink of a shock election win in Queensland

Labor leader Annastacia Palaszczuk has seen off Queensland Premier Campbell Newman – can she win government too? AAP/Dan Peled

Queensland appears headed for a hung parliament or even a shock Labor win, with Premier Campbell Newman conceding defeat in his own seat less than three years after leading the Liberal National Party to a record-breaking victory.

If it is a hung parliament, with neither party able to win a 45-seat majority, Labor would have to break a pre-election promise even before forming government.

Both the Liberal National and Labor parties explicitly ruled out doing deals with minor parties, with Labor leader Annastacia Palaszczuk declaring only weeks ago:

Let me make it very clear: no, no, no, no deals.

‘Giant killer’ Kate Jones, the new member for Ashgrove. Instagram/Katejonesashgrove

On Saturday night at 10:40pm (Queensland time, 11:40pm AEDT), a beaming Palaszczuk told Labor supporters “it’s still too close to call at present, but I’m very hopeful that we will be able to form government”.

“Today the people of Queensland sent a very clear message. And that message is, they do not want their assets sold.”

Earlier in the night, Newman declared “My political career is over”, keeping his promise to leave state politics if he lost his seat.

“Over the last three years we’ve had to make some very important decisions for this state. They were necessary and I do truly believe that they have put Queensland in a far better place,” Newman said.

Former Labor minister Kate Jones reclaimed Ashgrove after running a deliberately low-key, local campaign.

Before the January 31 poll, the LNP held 73 seats in Parliament, with Labor having just nine, Katter’s Australian Party holding three and four independents.

Given that record-breaking 2012 win and the massive majority, most had been predicting that the LNP would stay in power, even if the result was tight and Newman could not hold his seat of Ashgrove. But the strong swings shocked even the experts.

As the heavy swing against the LNP government began to become clear early in the night, ABC election analyst Antony Green spoke for many people when he said:

It seems unfathomable to me that I can’t call this election given the size of the result last time. We’ll just have to wait and see. It’s too close to call.

Green said he remained cautious about calling the overall result, particularly because of postal and pre-poll votes still to be counted.

Experts say the government’s proposed privatisation of A$37 billion of state assets was the key factor behind the huge protest vote.

Labor and LNP banners outside a Brisbane polling booth on election day. Liz Minchin, CC BY-NC-ND

A referendum on privatisation

Politics lecturer Bronwyn Stevens said it had been an election full of surprises: first with its timing as a snap summer poll, and now with the result.

“While it is too early to call the election definitively, what is clear is that the premier has lost his seat and the swings against the LNP have been considerably more than the opinion polls were indicating,” said Ms Stevens, from the University of the Sunshine Coast.

“This is particularly true in north Queensland and the south-east corner, though the Sunshine Coast appears to have bucked the trend. It appears that Queenslanders’ dissatisfaction with the Newman Government was greater than the polls were measuring.

"Labor ran a targeted campaign, focusing not on what they will do but on what they will not do: dispose of government assets. Privatising assets has been the dominant issue in this campaign.”

Ms Stevens said other issues that had caused disquiet in the electorate included deep public sector job cuts, contentious anti-bikie gang laws and the undermining of the Fitzgerald anti-corruption agenda.

Economist Mark McGovern agreed that the LNP government appeared to have been punished mainly over its plan to lease A$37 billion of state assets, just as voters had ejected the previous Bligh Labor government over its surprise asset sales.

“Selling assets is clearly not the people’s preference in Queensland,” said Dr McGovern, a senior business lecturer at Queensland University of Technology.

“The Bligh government was terminated in a record swing in 2012 and now the Newman government is facing the same prospect. While final results are unclear, it would seem that the government-owned corporations should remain in state hands even if the LNP were to cling to power.

"This is just as well since government-owned corporations earnings contributed a total of A$3.2 billion to state coffers in 2013-14. With privatisation this contribution would be lost, leaving an unaddressed financial black hole in the LNP plan.”

Griffith University professor of employment relations David Peetz said that apart from privatisation, Queensland’s higher unemployment would also have hurt the government.

“The deteriorating labour market, contrary to promises made [by the LNP] before the 2012 election, was part of it. Major public sector job cuts, also contrary to pre-election assurances, fuelled those perceptions and angered many,” Professor Peetz said.

Only 10 days out from the election, unemployment fell in Queensland, which could have given the government a much-needed boost. But as Professor Peetz showed in a recent article, the trend in state unemployment remained relatively high compared to other states, and was still at 6.6% in December 2014, up from 5.5% in March 2012.

And the unemployment rate is even higher in some regions, including in regional centres like Cairns in far north Queensland, which was a key election battleground.

Bikie-bashing appeared to backfire

Former Gold Coast police detective turned criminologist Terry Goldsworthy said law and order was also a deciding factor – but perhaps not in the way that the government expected.

In the two leaders’ debates on Friday and a week ago, Premier Newman alleged that Labor had benefited from secret criminal bikie gang donations, via unions. But Newman was unable to produce evidence to back up the claim, undermining that attack, and one union is now suing the LNP.

“One thing in clear from tonight’s result, democracy is alive and well in Queensland, and both major parties need to start listening to the people again,” Dr Goldsworthy said. “The people have spoken and they want consultative and considered social policy.”

“From a law and order perspective, the Newman government displayed all of the characteristics that Queenslanders disdain. Arrogance, a lack of accountability and transparency, politicisation of the police, poor consultation and a penchant for picking fights with anyone who disagreed with them. Add in attacks on corruption-buster Tony Fitzgerald and a disastrous appointment process for the Chief Justice, and the own goals for the LNP just kept adding up.”

Dr Goldsworthy said “even good news stories such as a general crime reductions were lost in controversy”, and that the government’s missteps had masked the fact that Labor “offered little detail or depth” in its law and order policy.

Who will lead the LNP next?

University of Southern Queensland politics and economics lecturer Geoff Cockfield said the premier’s concession speech “showed he was capable of clear and gracious communication – and would have been an advantage if he spoken like that during the campaign”.

Now that Newman has ruled out staying on in politics – despite the legal possibility of staying on if a vacant seat could be found for him – the LNP faces a difficult choice about who would be its next leader.

Lawrence Springborg. AAP/Dave Hunt

“The most experienced and perhaps steadiest hands are those of Lawrence Springborg, who has got the health portfolio off the front page and holds one of the safest seats in Queensland. He has, however, the baggage of being a former leader who could not win elections and a strong Nationals identity,” said Professor Cockfield.

Tim Nicholls. AAP/Dan Peled

“Treasurer Tim Nicholls is Brisbane-based and has a Liberal pedigree, but is strongly associated with the economic policies of the last government, including asset leasing and public sector cuts.

John-Paul Langbroek. AAP/Dan Peled

"John-Paul Langbroek has leadership experience, a Liberal background and his portfolio of education has also been kept off the front page, but may be burdened by the ‘yesterday’s man’ tag. The generational change contender might by Scott Emerson … who also seems to have managed his portfolio competently.

"But the LNP will have a legacy problem if it is seen to focus disproportionately on urban electorates and concerns. It is vulnerable to minor parties and independents in regions and one need only look at the surprising result [in this election] for Pauline Hanson in Lockyer. Many of the wildfire parties, such as PUP and KAP rise and decline quickly, as we see again in this election, but they are a thorn in the side for the LNP.”

Read more of The Conversation’s Queensland election 2015 coverage.

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