Suddenly Kristina Keneally’s performance doesn’t look so bad. What happened to Labor in Queensland on Saturday is without any precedent in Australian history – certainly not since the Second World War, prior to which the party system tended to be more fluid. Labor can be assured of only six seats, holds the lead in only seven, and on the best case scenario will win only eight, for a total of 9% of the Legislative Assembly’s 89 seats. That compares with the “cricket team” of 11 members that Queensland Labor famously managed to return in 1974, at what was previously the gold standard for Australian election massacres – and at that time the parliament only had 82 seats. As for Keneally, she managed to win 20 seats in a chamber of 93, albeit that she did so with 24.0% of the primary vote against a provisional 26.6% for Anna Bligh.
I don’t normally presume to tell the voting public its business, but this is an unhappy state of affairs. While it might be argued that a useful example has been set for future governments considering breaking election commitments, the result is an unmitigated disaster so far as the effective functioning of parliament is concerned. Lacking anything that could meaningfully be described as an opposition, its sessions will henceforth resemble those of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. The problem is exacerbated by Queensland’s lack of an upper house, both as a venue for holding the government to account and for providing Labor with a second-eleven to fill out a shadow ministry. The precise dimensions of the problem can be detailed with reference to an online cheat sheet for British high school politics students, which tells us that parliament has five functions: legislature, representation, recruitment, scrutiny and legitimacy. I shall consider the first three in turn, while also shedding light on the last two along the way.
It might be argued that the Queensland parliament’s legislative functioning will be little worse than usual: so long as a disciplined party has a majority of whatever size, a unicameral parliament exists largely to do the bidding of the executive. However, the result will hamper the vitality of the committee system, which offers the public and interested parties a point of access to the legislative process, and helps iron out problems in legislation to the extent that doing so doesn’t tread on the toes of cabinet and the forces to which it responds. Each of the parliament’s 10 current committees have three non-government members from a total of six (seven in the case of the Committee of the Legislative Assembly), requiring 30 non-government members to maintain the existing state of affairs. Since the election appears to have only turned up 11 non-government members, it is clear that these committees will be dominated by the government, tending to make them both less vigorous and less representative.
This brings me to the second function of parliament, which is the one that presumes to make the system democratic: representation. While nothing should be taken away from the immense achievement of the LNP on Saturday, it has still not on present numbers cracked 50% of the statewide vote (although late counting may tip it over the line). However, such is the system in Queensland that it has emerged with very few fetters upon its power. This is not a situation Queenslanders tend to lament. The public is very easily persuaded that good government can be equated to “strong” and “decisive” leadership, rather than apparent abstractions like accountability and consensus. Media players are eager to fortify this view, knowing that systems which concentrate power are most responsive the pressures brought to bear by powerful interests. It tends not to register that such issues lay at the root of the abuses of the Bjelke-Petersen era – for which, incidentally, Queensland voters were far more forgiving than they were for Labor’s failings on Saturday. Opponents of reform may argue that such abuses are best addressed by extra-parliamentary accountability mechanisms such as corruption commissions, ombudsmen and auditors-general, but none of these is a substitute for parliament’s role as the expression of the sovereignty of the people. For as long as it plays this role, democratic principles demand that it be chosen by a system which produces representative outcomes.
There is plainly no clamour for these issues to be resolved by restoring the upper house, which Queensland abolished in 1922. The obvious alternative is to replace the single-member constituency system, which is increasingly a peculiarity of the English-speaking world, with proportional representation. Such a system in its purest form would have given Labor 24 seats, a suitably humiliating total that would nonetheless have left it enough personnel to credibly perform the job of opposition. An Australian public schooled in the notion that power should be wielded singularly and authoritatively would no doubt complain about minority government and the empowerment of marginal groupings, which we are told has had such a disastrous impact in Canberra over the past 18 months. However, there are ways in which such impacts could be limited. One that is very familiar from Australian practice involves dividing the state into regions represented by, to pick a fairly conservative total, five members each. On the basis of Saturday’s results, this would have had the LNP winning three or even four seats in each of the state’s regions, giving it a substantial working majority without entirely demolishing Labor.
There is another possibility which, although foreign to Australian practice, would put to rest any complaint about minority or coalition government. This would be to introduce a directly elected executive along American lines, balanced by a proportionally represented legislature. Such a system would do away with the anachronistic notion that those wishing to hold executive office should have to pay their dues through a lengthy parliamentary career. The limitations of this model were illustrated by the need the LNP felt to pursue its perilous Newman-for-Ashgrove strategy, with potentially disastrous consequences if it didn’t come off. How much more rational it would have been for Anna Bligh and Campbell Newman to have faced off in a direct contest for the premiership with all of Queensland given the chance to vote, together with a second vote to determine the composition of a legislature giving voice to a broad range of interests.
Finally, there is the question of parliament’s role in recruiting political talent. Partisan critics may scoff, but Queensland has been done no favours by the wipeout inflicted upon Labor’s ministry, which has between three and five members left standing out of 15 who were re-contesting their seats. The 43 incoming LNP members will no doubt include many conscientious local representatives and a smattering of stars of the future, but there will just as surely be a number of ill-prepared and under-talented accidents waiting to happen, who will in no way constitute a happy trade-off for Andrew Fraser, Cameron Dick and Stirling Hinchliffe. Even before the election, the LNP showed that its vetting procedures were rather less than fail-safe, with three candidates in seats it looked certain to win forced to withdraw at various points. As noted, the government will not even be able to keep all such members out of mischief by providing them with committee work. More broadly, the election’s demonstration of the remarkable volatility of modern voting behaviour will act as a disincentive for talented people wishing to enter state politics, given the perilous lack of job security involved.
Now then, to what happened on Saturday and why. The following list is by no means exhaustive:
Negativity. Many decades from now, election campaigners will still speak in hushed tones of the day the Crime and Misconduct Commission’s announced it would not proceed with an investigation into Campbell Newman, forcing Anna Bligh to concede: “Right now all I have is questions, I don’t have enough answers from Mr Newman or enough material”. It was then that the Labor’s position deteriorated from disastrous to catastrophic. It is rapidly becoming the fashion to view this election as a morality tale about the dangers of negative campaigning, but this needs to be kept in perspective. When I assembled links to both parties’ television advertising on an earlier post, I found that the LNP campaign consisted of five positive ads and five attacks ads, which is presumably no coincidence: it is exactly how you would expect a balanced and effective campaign to look. The issue for Labor was the entirely personal nature of its attacks, to the extent that it took the appalling risk of involving Newman’s wife. As Dennis Atkins of the Courier-Mail reported on the eve of the election, Labor’s assault did have the LNP spooked in the middle of the campaign, albeit that it clearly need not have done if Newman hadn’t set himself the bar of Ashgrove to clear rather than just the foregone conclusion of a parliamentary majority. So clearly attacks on personal probity can achieve their desired end, but only if they squarely hit their mark. If they don’t, watch out. And if such attacks are all your campaign has had to offer, don’t expect voters to be receptive if you spend the final week pleading for sympathy.
Ashgrove. Labor’s other giant gamble was its total focus on thwarting Campbell Newman in his bid for Ashgrove, on the basis that uncertainty over that result was its only weapon to encourage waverers across the state back into the Labor fold. So it was that Labor wasted little of its campaign breath on the more traditional type of negative advertising which might have done the job – cuts to services under a conservative government being the ever-reliable standby for Labor at state level. A more artful strategy might have integrated such attacks with its anti-Newman theme, portraying the well-connected wheeler and dealer as out of touch with your proverbial working families. The irony for Labor was that the very collapse of its get-Newman strategy was what drove the polling into a tailspin in the final week, which appeared to convince many Ashgrove voters that it would be highly indulgent of them to decapitate an LNP that was unquestionably going to win the election.
It’s time. I’m going to be provocative here and leave Labor’s broken promises and policy failures off the list. My rationale is that the Peter Beattie went into the 2006 election encumbered by the “Dr Death” fiasco, and emerged with almost all of his huge majority intact. The fact is that every government has baggage which accumulates throughout its time in office, and a tipping point inevitably arrives where it can no longer carry it all. As this election shows, the consequences can be disastrous if the government scrapes over the line for one last term in office, which it very often achieves on the back of promises it proves unable to keep. This leaves the government with the problems noted previously: unable to convincingly run on its record, desperate scare campaigns and personal attacks are all it has left. By very stark contrast, it is simplicity itself for the opposition to offer the balance of positive and negative which, as noted previously, is the cornerstone of a successful campaign.
Anna Bligh. Going into the campaign, Anna Bligh’s poll ratings were not impressive in absolute terms, but relative to Labor’s disastrous figures on voting intention they were remarkably strong – stonger certainly than Julia Gillard’s, who for all her much-touted difficulties leads a government with a two-party preferred rating in the upper half of the 40s. Clearly the shine from Bligh’s response to the floods had not entirely worn off. This made her a net asset to the party which, used effectively, would have been a key factor in any less-bad-than-New-South-Wales defeat. However, Labor demolished all that by not only pursuing its personal attacks on Campbell Newman, but placing Bligh at the centre of them. For Bligh herself to use parliamentary privilege to suggest Newman might be imprisoned jettisoned the fairly elementary axiom of political strategy that leaders should be seen to be above this sort of muckraking, which should instead be left to a designated ministerial attack dog. Labor’s contrary rationale seemed to be that Bligh was the only thing the government had going for it, and that she thus had to bear the whole burden of its public communications. The entirely predictable effect of this was that Bligh’s personal ratings tanked as the campaign progressed, taking with it one of Labor’s few remaining assets.
Federal factors. “This was a state election fought entirely on state issues”, went John Howard’s Sunday morning mantra throughout the 2000s, as his state counterparts mopped up the blood after yet another electoral drubbing the night before. Yesterday came the turn of Labor interviewees on Insiders and Meet the Press to trot out this very same line. Howard of course was routinely mocked for this, but he usually came up looking pretty good when his own time to face the voters came around. Are things any different this time? I tend to think that they are. “Voters are intelligent enough to distinguish between federal and state issues”, politicians are wont to say, by way of finessing state election defeats and flattering their target market besides. However, one politician who memorably demurred was an earlier Queensland Premier, Wayne Goss, who after losing office in the twilight of the Keating years remarked that voters had been “sitting on their verandas with baseball bats”, waiting to take a swing at the first Labor government that came along – which, through not fault of his own, happened to be his own. That there was an element of this on Saturday cannot be seriously disputed: the only question is how much. Certainly federal Labor is doing quite a bit worse in Queensland polling than John Howard was at the time the Coalition was crushed at the 2001 Queensland election. In the corresponding Newspoll result, Howard’s Coalition trailed in Queensland 54-46, while John Howard’s personal ratings were 37% approval and 53% disapproval. This hardly seems a ringing endorsement, until you compare it with the most recent figures for Labor in the state: a two-party deficit of 59-41, with Julia Gillard on 25% approval and 65% disapproval.
Electoral geography. Compared with NSW, Labor looks to have performed about 2.5% better on the primary vote and 2.0% better on two-party preferred (I believe they are shooting at a bit below 38% on the latter count), but on seats their performance is much worse. This is because Labor’s support in Queensland is spread more thinly throughout Brisbane than in Sydney and Wollongong, where Labor enjoys concentrations of support that translate into a greater number of unloseable seats.
The media. Well, no, actually. From where I’m sitting in Western Australia, this looked nothing like the 2008 WA election campaign, when barely a day went by without The West Australian deploying its front page in pursuit of a vendetta against the Labor government, entirely irrespective of whether or not the day’s events had furnished it with any material with which to do so. Far from being annihilated, that government actually came within a handful of votes of clinging to office. Murdoch tabloid though it may be, the Courier-Mail contented itself with reporting what was actually happening. No doubt it was a different story on talk radio, but that is a medium which preaches to the converted: it is monopoly daily newspapers which truly have the power to shape the campaign agenda, and the Courier-Mail exercised that power even-handedly and responsibly.
Women’s issues. Women leaders contesting state elections are now batting one from seven (although the picture is somewhat rosier at territory level). It’s true that this is partly down to Labor’s apparent habit of turning to women when their governments are running out of puff and headed for defeat in any case, but there might also be a peculiarity of Australian culture at work here. On a possibly related note, female representation has taken a knock with the LNP’s triumph, as only 16 of their 89 candidates were women.
Labor’s issues. Landslides copped by Labor tend to be a) bigger than those inflicted on the conservatives, and b) suffered from government rather than opposition. But that is a subject for a future post.