Queensland voters may not like it, but Premier Campbell Newman is defying conventional wisdom and taking the state to a mid-summer election. The election is on Saturday, January 31 and the barbecued sausages won’t be the only thing generating heat.
Whether voters will punish the LNP for their inconsiderateness remains to be seen, but it is a high risk strategy in an already tight election with the Premier struggling to hang on to his Ashgrove seat in a renewed challenge from popular former member Kate Jones. Possible reasons for the early poll include catching Labor on the hop, removing useless election date speculation, and a feeling the downward poll trend is unlikely to be reversed and may as well be faced up early. It may even be some bad news down the track that would only have made matters worse.
Whatever the reason, it smacks of a government in trouble and represents a remarkable turnaround in three years. It is also a problem entirely of the LNP’s own making.
The LNP won a huge mandate for change in 2012 with voters tired of a government that had lost its way after two decades of near continuous rule. Campbell Newman won an unprecedented victory from outside parliament providing what seemed a fresh apolitical perspective on government. It didn’t take long for the novelty to wear off.
The government practiced classic first year austerity measures, with large-scale public service redundancies. They said no front line services would be affected, but it was hard to pick off bits of the house of cards without serious impact. After three years, the Government can claim credit in reining in borrowing while finding efficiencies, particularly in health. But a sour taste has lasted, especially from those affected by job losses.
A more surprising downside came with an unsavoury and botched manoeuvre in the field of law and order. A campaign against vicious criminal motorcycle gangs, who seemed immune from prosecution seemed to be tailor-made for a first term conservative government. The draconian and humiliating Vicious Lawless Association Disestablishment (VLAD) laws had some success in cutting down on crime but are universally loathed. The government underestimated just how many middle-aged and middle-class motorcyclists there were, who felt outraged against what they saw as a personal sleight.
Newman also tried to be too clever when going against the Queensland distaste for privatisation of government assets. His government’s campaign that they were merely “leasing” the assets and they would be “returned” to the taxpayer in 99 years fell flat. Large-scale advertising at the taxpayers’ expense did not help.
These issues are a windfall to a Labor party still bruising from the 2012 election bloodbath. The prospect of a close call in 2015 must have seemed unlikely when Anna Bligh’s government lost 44 seats in 2012 leaving them with a netball team of seven seats. Bligh resigned and talents such as Stirling Hinchliffe, Cameron Dick and Andrew Fraser all lost their seats.
New leader Annastacia Palaszczuk has been a dogged campaigner for three years but has failed to cut through, particularly in preferred premier polls. The Victorian state election showed a leader with a low profile is not a fatal handicap. That election also showed the effect of national issues and the unpopularity of the Tony Abbott government is a factor in Queensland too.
Yet I cannot see how Labor can win this election. The polls are currently 50-50, which will favour incumbency and many new LNP members have created a good profile in their electorates. Labor have nine seats and need to get to 45 to form government, a task that just seems beyond them. A possible outcome is a hung parliament with a handful of independents having the balance of power, though Queensland’s exhaustible preferential voting mitigates against that outcome. The Palmer party might have done well had the election been called a year ago, but is fading rapidly. The most likely outcome is for the LNP to retain government with a small majority. The big question is: who will be the next premier?