Kevin Andrews was going to be in Brisbane on Friday. Now he’s not coming. But Kim Beazley’s coming to Cairns today — to talk about WorkChoices. Neither decision is at all surprising if the Coalition and Labor are getting similar results from their qualitative polling as Graham Young and I got from an online focus group we moderated last night for The National Forum

There were two intriguing stories voters in the focus group told about federal issues and the state campaign.

Right at the start of the focus group, before any issues or leadership images had been raised, participants were asked to discuss the most important aspects of the state campaign. WorkChoices was the first issue raised. And right from the start it was clear that it was a vote-changer. Opposition to WorkChoices was shifting votes to Labor and holding votes Labor would otherwise have lost on state issues. And Beattie’s leadership was viewed by some participants as vital in standing up to Howard to defend state awards. These voters saw IR as the central bread and butter issue for themselves and their families.

Health and water, nominated by most commentators as the central issues of the campaign were indeed preying on voters’ minds. But Beattie seems to have neutralised health in part by shifting blame to the Feds. Again, participants raised the Howard government’s role in health unprompted.

The fascinating thing about the discussion of these two issues was that in a sense they are not issues. Population growth was highlighted as causing most infrastructure problems, and climate and technological change respectively were identified as causes of the water and health crises. Voters were sceptical of big ticket promises from both sides, but the key factor is that the issues are being discussed in the terms in which Beattie has framed them.

Part of that frame is blaming Canberra. Beattie hasn’t studied Sir Joh’s career just out of interest. Having blown the opposition out of the water in the first phase of the campaign, Beattie can throw bombs at Canberra in the next.

Importantly, IR has not yet been raised as a campaign issue. But John Howard himself has sown the seeds in voters’ minds, which state Labor merely needs to water for them to flourish and grow. If John Howard comes to Queensland, he should keep a sharp eye out for Queenslanders’ proverbial baseball bats. And he shouldn’t believe his own line on September 10 that the election was all about state issues.

Voters may be tiring of Beattie, but the negatives on the state Coalition are so strong that he can campaign on federal issues and leadership, and win hands down on both.