Byelections are rarely happy occasions for governments, but the electoral test that faces Campbell Newman on Saturday is a gloomier prospect than most.
With barely nine months to go until the likely date of the next state election, voters in the electorate of Stafford will choose a successor to outgoing Liberal National Party member Chris Davis, who has brought his debut parliamentary term to a premature end after a series of disputes with Newman’s government.
Stafford appeared to be a fairly solid seat for Labor until the drubbing it suffered at the 2012 election, when an existing margin of 7.3% was demolished by an LNP swing of 14.4%.
That gives Labor the task of making up 7.1% to recover the seat on Saturday — a fairly substantial swing under normal circumstances, but eminently within Labor’s reach if the 17.2% swing at February’s Redcliffe byelection is anything go to by.
Labor thus has every confidence that its meagre parliamentary ranks will shortly gain a ninth member in the shape of Anthony Lynham, a surgeon at Royal Brisbane Hospital.
In the blue corner is Bob Andersen, a senior psychologist with Queensland Health, who enjoyed a brief moment of popularity on social media after failing to look duly pleased when Campbell Newman introduced him to the media as the party’s candidate …
Stafford is located in Brisbane’s inner north, about six kilometres from the city centre, a moderately affluent area of middling ethnic diversity.
Of roughly similar demographic profile is its neighbour to the west, the electorate of Ashgrove, the scene of Campbell Newman’s audacious bid to enter Parliament and assume the premiership in one fell swoop in 2012.
Newman’s gambit in running against a popular Labor incumbent in Kate Jones paid off in spectacular style, in no small part because Labor overreached in its personal attacks as it sought to derail the LNP campaign by casting doubt over Newman’s capacity to carry the seat.
By polling day, even Labor was acknowledging that the LNP was headed for a big victory, and there was a clear mood in Ashgrove that the party should not be deprived of its leader for the sake of local sentiment.
However, it is evident that Ashgrove has failed to warm to its new member, with a ReachTEL poll in November finding 53% of locals rating his performance as poor or very poor.
This figure was exactly matched by a favourability rating for Kate Jones, who is so far yet to confirm if she plans to run again, although state political observers say she is expected to do so.
For his part, Campbell Newman is emphatic that he will stand and fight in a seat where the most recent published poll had him trailing 54-46, but it could be that a particularly fearsome swing in Stafford will focus his mind.
However, Saturday’s poll is disappointingly deficient as a litmus test in one important respect — the Palmer United Party, which will surely have all guns blazing when the state election is held next year, has declined to field a candidate.
While the party owes its existence to its founder’s animus towards Newman, it may end up doing him a very substantial favour, both in Ashgrove and elsewhere, by soaking up support from the very large number of voters who have soured on the LNP since voting for it in 2012.
On Saturday, many of those voters will presumably follow the more conventional path to expressing dissatisfaction with a government at a byelection by voting for the opposition, and in doing so provide an exaggerated picture of Labor’s electoral strength.
Another noteworthy feature of the byelection, as noted here three weeks ago, is that it will be the first test of Queensland’s voter identification laws, the first of their kind introduced in Australia.
The state’s acting Electoral Commissioner, Yvette Zischke, told an estimates committee hearing on Tuesday that few if any of the roughly 1200 voters who had cast pre-poll votes had failed to meet the requirement — remembering that any who do may still cast a declaration vote to be admitted to the count if the Electoral Commission deems the voter to be eligible.
However, it remains to be seen if logistical problems emerge in the considerably more demanding conditions that will prevail on polling day.
It also might be countered that a prosperous inner-urban electorate such as Stafford is unlikely to contain large numbers of the marginalised voters for whom the identification regime might prove problematic.