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Labor fears history repeating in Queensland

23 January 2009 1,243 views No Comment

In Queensland, the populist Peter Beattie first led Labor to power in 1998. Premier Beattie then won three more landslide victories in 2001, 2004 and 2006, and now the state ALP government led by Anna Bligh has a huge majority in Queensland’s one-house Parliament.

Labor has 58 of the 89 seats. It actually won 59 seats at the last state election, but Ronan Lee, the member for Indooroopilly, defected to the Greens last year.

The 2008 redistribution of Queensland electoral boundaries significantly favoured Labor, which now has probably 63 or 64 notional seats going into the state election which must be called this year. It is hard to disagree with Malcolm Mackerras’s assertion, published in the Australian, that Labor now has a notional majority of 37 in Queensland. Lawrence Springborg, leader of the newly formed Liberal National Party, has cleverly managed to pull together the warring National and Liberal parties into one more or less united group. While this has put the fear into Bligh’s Labor government, will it make the LNP a serious challenger?

Following the most recent results from Newspoll, there will be some in the LNP wondering whether it would be worth revisiting the protest vote strategy successfully used against former Labor premier Wayne Goss by Rob Borbidge and Joan Sheldon, who then were in coalition and leading the National and Liberal parties respectively.

Goss was personally popular, but his government was not. So when it seemed impossible to defeat him by confronting him head on, the Borbidge/Sheldon opposition ran a deceptively simple campaign asking Queenslanders, seat by seat, to send the state Labor government a message in the form of a protest vote.

The strategy eventually proved successful in 1996, and the Borbidge/Sheldon coalition formed a government.

The political similarities between Anna Bligh’s government today and that of Wayne Goss in 1995 are striking. First, she is leading an unpopular government, staying up in the polls largely because of a long history of divided opposition.

Second, while personally popular, her star is fading.

Third, key policy failures have alienated large sections of the Queensland community, particularly over issues such as health, roads and public transport.

Unlike Peter Beattie and former prime minister John Howard, both Bligh and Goss are awkward under intense political pressure.

The fact is that Bligh is strongly favoured for re-election by the prevailing political circumstances, as was Goss. Plus, and this is acutely important, Labor is in office federally, as it was in the mid-Nineties.

Bligh, like Goss, is therefore vulnerable to one strategy only, and that is for opponents to say to the electorate that if you are unhappy with Labor’s performance, don’t allow them to spin their way to another electoral victory. Send the incumbent Queensland government a message by voting for the LNP.

In effect, this strategy involves running a series of by-election campaigns throughout Queensland, which may often highlight specific issues where the incumbent government is perceived as failing to pay proper attention to the wishes of the electorate. In 1995-96, Wayne Goss was portrayed as not listening to community concerns about a proposed superhighway running through protected koala habitat. This issue alone resulted in Labor losing a number of key seats in south-east Queensland.

Unlikely as it may seem, the deceptively simple strategy of calling for a protest vote in each and every state electorate could well result in a change of government in Queensland this year.

But even if it doesn’t, such a strategy will certainly make a future change of government possible if Labor continues to underperform in Queensland. This would be especially likely if, as is currently the case, the Bligh ministry remains short on talent — with the conspicuous exception of Anna Bligh herself.

After all, governments work better when they are kept on their toes, and when they are forced to face a united and energetic opposition. Another massive Labor majority in 2009 is not good for democracy in Queensland.

THE SPECTATOR AUSTRALIA, 23 January 2009