In an election victory driven by her management of COVID, the dire second wave in Victoria likely helped Annastacia Pałaszczuk. Defending her tough border policy and her message about keeping Queenslanders safe, she had a real life example to illustrate what happens when the virus gets away.
Her win reinforced the accepted wisdom that this crisis favours incumbents – provided people think they are doing the right thing.
The Queensland outcome might at one level be galling for the federal government – which has been sniping at Pałaszczuk’s border policy for months – but at another it is also reassuring for Scott Morrison, who has so far managed the pandemic response well.
That said, Morrison has a rockier road to navigate to his election. The federal poll is a year and a half away, and (assuming the virus now stays under control) the challenge for him is economic, which will be complicated as he juggles withdrawing the current massive fiscal support without any disaster.
While some details of the Queensland result are yet to be finalised, Pałaszczuk is set for an increased majority, with Labor securing a swing towards it. For a government seeking a third term, and one which had been – pre-COVID – under criticism for its performance, this is a remarkable achievement.
Despite some pre-election speculation, and the plight of the tourist industry, Labor’s seats in the north of the state did not collapse.
The difficulties of the Queensland economy and its high unemployment did not translate into electoral damage for the government.
And nearly a week’s campaigning by the prime minister produced not the slightest sign of a Morrison “miracle” for the Liberal National Party. On the other side, the absence of Anthony Albanese could have been a bonus for Labor.
The Pałaszczuk government was helped by its opposition, with recent fighting between the LNP organisation and the parliamentary party. On the main issue of this COVID election, LNP leader Deb Frecklington could only say she too would follow the health advice. She may not have not been believed, given the attacks on the closed border coming from the conservative side.
Apart from the result, the big story of Saturday was the collapse of the One Nation vote. What was left of that vote favoured Labor via preferences, probably reflecting older voters’ COVID fears.
Pauline Hanson was low profile during the election; whether she can gear up her party when the federal contest comes remains to be seen. It’s clear how “all about Pauline” is Pauline Hanson’s One Nation – if she’s not going flat out, there’s nothing much there.
Just as the Victorian wave played into Pałaszczuk’s story line, so did the federal pressure on the premier. The smaller (in population) states are parochial: Palaszczuk benefitted by being seen pushing back against the “open up” brigade.
The benefit was in net terms – she lost skin when some hardline decisions hurt interstate families who needed health care or who wanted to visit sick relatives or to attend funerals.
Apart from the warm glow of a fraternal success, the Queensland result doesn’t bring a lot that’s positive for federal Labor.
For it, the message about incumbency is not encouraging.
The ALP also knows Queenslanders are quite comfortable with federal and state governments being of different stripes. The voters can judge who’s who, and just because they trust Pałaszczuk Labor doesn’t mean they are more likely to embrace Albanese Labor.
Morrison goes down well in Queensland when he’s campaigning for his own government.
Federal Labor must work out its detailed positions on key policies – climate, energy and resources – and more effectively sell its leader, before its fortunes can improve in that state.
Both will be difficult. Attempts to paper over the internal differences on climate and energy won’t cut it, but forging genuine agreement is a struggle.
Albanese is up against it when the times are suiting Morrison.
Post Saturday’s result, the premier has indicated Queensland’s border ban on people from greater Sydney and Victoria won’t be reviewed for another month. That would still leave time for Christmas reunions, but it could be a tight-run thing.
Health Minister Greg Hunt said on Sunday: “we’re now, I think, in a position where we would like to see New South Wales and Queensland be able as soon as possible to have free movement between the jurisdictions. And once everybody is comfortable that Victoria does have its contact tracing to gold standard levels, then I think we’ll see a single national bubble in due course.”
With Victoria on Sunday recording zero new cases and community transmission in Australia virtually stamped out, Australia is at this moment in an extraordinarily good place on the health front.
But with COVID rampaging again in Britain and many other countries, and the memory of the Victorian experience fresh, there can be no complacency.
Update: In an about-face, Frecklington says she won’t seek to stay leader
Deb Frecklington announced on Monday she will not seek to remain as LNP leader – after on Saturday night declaring firmly “I will continue as the leader”.
Her Saturday statement surprised observers, coming not only after a devastating loss but against the background of an automatic spill of leadership positions post-election, when she would have faced a challenge.
Asked what had changed her mind, she said probably her husband and daughters. While “my first instinct is always to fight on”, she’d had a great day with her family on Sunday and reflected on her future. “Family is really important to me,” she said.