After a run of bad news for the ALP, this week’s Queensland Newspoll didn’t look too bad. But perhaps looks are deceiving in Queensland?

From the 12 January subscriber e-mail:

The Australian today presents the third Newspoll in the space of a week, this time for Queensland. (Although it’s the first one available on
their website, here.)

Like the last two, and the one before Christmas in Western Australia, it’s bad for Labor: a swing of 3.5% in the two-party-preferred vote
since last year’s election. But that still leaves Labor in front (52-48), and the swing is a lot less than the horrors in the other states, so in its current condition this counts, in a relative sort of way, as good news for the ALP.

Not as good, though, as The Australian seems to think. Peter Beattie must be some sort of favorite at News Ltd (Ed – plenty of cosy dinners with Chris Mitchell when he ran The Courier Mail), because the spin in the article is unusually positive, starting with the headline – “Beattie way ahead despite hard year.” (52-48 doesn’t sound like “way ahead” to me.)

It then gives perhaps an undeserved emphasis to the preferred premier results, which admittedly are pretty spectacular: Beattie leads 64% to 17%.

As far as the main current topic of interest goes, namely Mark Latham’s fortunes, this result is probably about neutral. It won’t help, but as things are going it’s certainly not the biggest of his worries.

More interesting is the breakdown of the non-Labor vote in Queensland, which shows the Liberals leading the Nationals 29% to 12%. Compared to only a narrow lead (18.5% to 17%) at the election, and parity (14% each) at the previous election in 2001, that represents an impressive turnaround. It certainly makes a nonsense of the Nationals’ attempts to absorb the Liberals into a single party.

But as long as the Liberals refuse to stand candidates against the Nationals, as they did last year, their lead will never translate into
actual votes at an election. And that election showed that many Liberal voters, faced with a choice only between Nationals and Labor, are prepared to switch to the ALP.

A final oddity about The Australian’s coverage is their comment on the Greens, who recorded only 3%: “Newspoll is a setback to the Greens’ hopes of replacing the Democrats as Australia’s fourth political force.”

Fourth? Surely, whatever you think of the Greens, fourth isn’t a contest any more. The Democrats and One Nation are both dead. The only
contest is between the Greens and Nationals for third, and while the Nationals are well clear in Queensland the Greens are ahead almost
everywhere else.

Reader feedback

A former Labor staffer writes:

I usually find myself in agreement with your fine psephologist but I think he (and the Australian) missed a major angle out of today’s Newspoll on Qld.

It is not possible to sensibly compare state election results and a Newspoll in Qld, especially when it comes to the Libs and Nats, ‘cos their electoral performance depends on what seats they contest, whereas that is irrelevant in a Newspoll (although it probably does have some influence on Newspolls taken during an election).

The Coalition ‘peace deal’ done prior to the last election saw the Libs not contest a number of seats (at least 8 I can think of), particularly in the SE corner, where they clearly would have done much better than the Nats. Broadwater, won by Labor’s Peta-Kaye Croft with a margin of around 4% is one obvious example.

Next time there is an election the same problems will face the Libs and Nats – broadly they have three options. They can choose to run 3 cornered contests (which is a huge boost for Labor in an optional preferential system). Or the Nats have to give up their claims to seats in the Sunshine Coast – Brisbane – Gold Coast corridor which would effectively be conceding senior party status to the Libs (a complete anathema to the Qld Nats). (I know the Nats hold Maroochydore and Beaudesert but the point is still valid.) The third alternative is to continue to let the Nats run in seats where the Libs would do better if they ran.

To illustrate my Broadwater example of the folly of allowing the Nats to contest a winnable seat I would refer to a couple of the most recent three cornered contests in Qld that occurred in 2001 in that area. There was a State by-election in neighbouring Surfers Paradise when former Premier Borbidge resigned after the general election. The seat was won (for a single term) by conservative independent Lex Bell with the Libs getting 21% of the primaries and the Nats 8%. The Libs won it overwhelmingly in 2004. At the 2001 Federal election there was a 3 cornered contest in the vacant (due to the retirement of Kathy Sullivan) seat of Moncrieff. Broadwater is largely or wholly within Moncrieff. Federally the Libs got 51% and the Nats 6% in 2001 yet the Nats contested the state seat at the next election.

Peter Beattie must lie awake at night worrying which of the three scenarios will be played out in the lead up to the next election, although I don’t think anyone really believes the Nats will gracefully withdraw from SEQ for the overall good of the conservative forces.

No matter which way it falls the Newspoll figures underestimate Labor’s position by accurately reflecting Liberal support which cannot be realised at an election where they will not be on the ballot paper in the electorates of many of their supporters.

It’s also worth noting that the Federal Libs hold the regional Qld seats of Leichhardt, Herbert and Groom. The majority of state seats in those electorates are contested by Nats not Libs.

My conservative guess would be that these factors would improve Labor’s 2PP position by 1-2%. This would then make it a pretty good result for Labor and doesn’t take account of the damage that would be done if the Libs and Nats couldn’t come to an agreed position and brawled publicly.

Charles Richardson responds:

I think that’s very true. The contrast between state and federal results in Queensland is especially striking; federally, the Liberals are very much the senior partner, and on the occasions when there are three-cornered contests the Nats get killed (in last years Senate election, for example, the Liberals outvoted them about six to one). But at state level the Nationals insist on being treated as the senior partner, and the Liberals are too gutless to stand up to them.

It can hardly be coincidence that Labor walks all over its opponents in state elections, but has failed to make up any ground federally.

Of course there’s nothing new about this – the Queensland Liberal Party has been a boneless wonder for as long as anyone can remember. But as Queensland becomes more urbanised and cosmopolitan it becomes a more and more serious problem, and the place of the Nationals as senior Coalition partner becomes a more and more glaring anachronism.

More feedback

And a Queensland Gnat bites – sorry, writes:

What is Crikey psephologist Charles Richardson on? His analysis of the Queensland non-Labor vote in yesterday’s sealed section was so far off the mark that it beggars belief. (No offence Charles.) [None taken – our psephologist gives as good as he gets]

Charles actually believes that the first Newspoll after an election reflects a potential electoral outcome. But in every post-election Newspoll since at least 1998, the Liberal Party has had a spike in support that hasn’t carried through to the next election.

Take for example the 1998, 2001 and 2004 elections. In the ’98 Queensland state election the Liberal party achieved 16.1 percent against the Nationals’ 15.2 percent. The next Newspoll on the archive shows the Liberals jumped to 26 percent against the Nationals 13 percent. Two years later, at the actual election, the Liberals achieved just 14.3 percent, against the Nationals 14.2 percent. Next Newspoll had the Liberals storming ahead again to 25 percent against the Nats’ nine percent. At the 2004 election the Liberals achieved the rather less impressive result of 18.5 percent against the Nationals’ 17 percent. So, quel surprise, the first Newspoll after the ’04 election has followed the pattern of the last six years, putting the Liberals way ahead and the Nats way behind.

But it is a self-defeating nonsense for Conservative voters to think the Newspoll twists and turns reflect what will happen at the next election. Check the recent history.

And for Charles to suggest that three cornered contests are the way to political success for Conservatives in Queensland in an electoral system dominated by the “just vote one” tactic is sheer lunacy. Charles says that given a choice between the Nationals and Labor, Liberal voters switch to Labor. To quote the Prime Minister “Hello.!” The Liberal Party stood in more than 30 Brisbane seats at the last state election against Labor and won only one of those. On Charles’ logic, given the choice between the Liberals and Labor, even Liberal voters switched to Labor.

A final nit-pick on Charles’ point about the race between the Greens and the Nationals to be the third political force at the Federal level. The proof of that pudding is in bums on seats – to mix my metaphors. No House of Reps seats and four Senate seats for the Greens versus 12 House of Reps seats and five Senators for the Nationals (starting July ’05). It’s hardly close. Polls are just polls, they are not results.

Richardson’s response:

The figures from past Newspolls just further illustrate my point. The polls say people want to vote Liberal, and in the federal election that’s what they do, but in the state election they don’t. Isn’t it logical to explain that by the lack of Liberal candidates?

I didn’t say that three-cornered contests are the route to non-Labor success. A better route would be a more sensible division of seats between the two non-Labor parties. But if the Nationals won’t agree to that, then I think accepting the short-term pain of a few three-cornered contests is a lesser evil than the present situation.

As to Nationals vs Greens, it’s true the Nationals have five senators, but three of them were elected on joint tickets with the Liberals. They would never have won in their own right – Barnaby Joyce in Queensland, their strongest state, only just scraped in.