In the eyes of some, the emergence of Bob Katter’s Australian Party has the potential to shake up what had loomed as a predictable Queensland state election, due around March.
With its figurehead enjoying an elevated profile through his position in a hung federal parliament, some credit the party with the potential to activate a regional revolt comparable to that which powered the One Nation onslaught in 1998 — the last time Queensland saw a change of government. At the outer limits, it is suggested the party might score enough Liberal National Party scalps to rob Campbell Newman of the parliamentary majority, which the polls are currently giving him cause to take for granted.
However, there are several reasons to be sceptical. For one thing, Katter has tried this sort of thing before. In 2004 he sought to exploit discontent among sugar growers by endorsing candidates in five seats, but the only one who scored so much as 20% had done almost as well without Katter’s help in 2001.
Secondly, this election looks a very different beast to 1998, when the avalanche of support for One Nation came very largely at the expense of the Coalition. There is no doubt the move this time will be against Labor, and the NSW election gives strong cause to think that voters wishing to swing the proverbial baseball bat will see the LNP as offering the biggest bang for their anti-Labor buck. The Victorian and South Australian elections provide further case studies where conservative voters who had backed independents when the Liberals looked a lost cause reverted to type when a change of government appeared in prospect.
A third difficulty for Katter’s party is the operation in Queensland of optional preferential voting. Introduced at the 1992 election, it took a while for voters to put the new system to use — most continued to number every box in the manner they had long been accustomed to at state and federal level, with the encouragement of the parties’ how-to-vote cards. The watershed came with Peter Beattie’s landslide win in 2001, when Labor ran what was then considered an audacious “just vote one” campaign.
According to Antony Green’s calculations, the rate of exhaustion of Labor preferences in the kind of seats being eyed by Katter’s party blew out from about 35% in 1998 to 60% by 2009. An Electoral Commission of Queensland ballot paper study found the practice even more widespread among supporters of the LNP, which had also jumped on the “just vote one” bandwagon. In rural seats, fully three-quarters of LNP votes in 2009 exhausted after the first preference.
This suggests that any Katter candidates who out-poll one major party candidate will have a substantially harder time overcoming the other on their preferences than they would have in 1998. On that occasion, One Nation won eight seats by overtaking Coalition candidates and then enjoying the dividend of their wildly contentious policy of preferencing One Nation ahead of Labor. This was achievable in several cases with a fairly modest 30% of the vote — about 10% lower than was required in the three seats where One Nation had overtaken Labor, whose how-to-vote cards placed One Nation last.
In 2009, the four independents who retained their seats had to do so largely off their own bat. Dorothy Pratt managed an uncomfortable re-election in Nanango with 40.1% of the primary vote, while the others scored in the order of 50%. For a first-time candidate to achieve a comparable primary vote would be a major achievement, and it would probably take more than just the Katter’s Australian Party name to pull it off. A great deal will depend on the strength of the candidates.
The party has the advantage of a sitting member in the Gold Coast hinterland seat of Beaudesert, where Aidan McLindon has followed a circuitous route from the LNP to Katter’s Australian Party since first entering parliament in 2009. On that occasion, Beaudesert voters had the rare opportunity to deliver their anti-major party protest vote to Pauline Hanson herself, who scored a solid but far from formidable 21.2%. McLindon faces a big challenge to do substantially better than that, as he will need to.
The brightest prospect looks to be Mount Isa, where the Katter brand will go beyond the party name: their candidate is Bob Katter’s son Robbie Katter, a local councillor and property valuer hoping to extend his family’s political dynasty to a third generation. Katter faces a Labor incumbent in Betty Kiernan, who looks likely to lose a big chunk of the 44.5% primary vote she scored in 2009. Here as elsewhere, the issue is how much of that dividend will go to the LNP, who polled 29.5% in 2009 and landed 5.7% short after preferences.
Another strong chance is former Test cricketer Carl Rackemann in Nanango. As well as enjoying a high profile and an extended family history in the area, Rackemann will benefit from the retirement of Pratt, who has held the seat since winning it for One Nation in 1998.
Upsets are always possible in regional Queensland seats, where independents can occasionally get under the radar of the metropolitan media and pull a rabbit out of the hat on election night. A handful of Katter’s candidates might be able to do just that, and in doing so add a bit of colour to proceedings on election night. For most observers though, the real story on the night will remain the same: the steamrollering of one more ageing state Labor government by a triumphant Liberal National Party.