The Queensland election campaign has been blown off the front pages of the papers by Steve Irwin’s death – just at the point when the Coalition needed maximum focus on their campaign launch to try to dispel the overwhelming impression of incompetence generated over the first three weeks of the campaign.
If Steve Irwin’s death was an unlikely event which could almost be characterised as an act of God, it only reinforces the perception among voters that the gods have smiled on Peter Beattie’s trademark grin.
Interestingly, the third online focus group Graham Young and I conducted for The National Forum found that participants had more recall of the three key Coalition initiatives that Lawrence Springborg announced on Sunday than anything Peter Beattie promised at the Labor launch.
But all were discounted – the hedged around promise to cut stamp duty and supposedly make property more affordable for first home buyers, the pledge to pay for operations in private hospitals if life saving surgery couldn’t be delivered publicly, and a 10 cents rebate on ethanol fuel.
Peter Beattie has proved himself the reigning Australian master of the art of politics in this campaign, if not of governing. Voters are well aware of his failures. Yet he has framed the issues such that voters don’t hold him responsible.
Beattie wants voters to perceive infrastructure, health and water as problems that are largely caused by demographic growth. A little noticed, and if noticed at all, dismissed by the pundits as populist, statement by the Premier a few months back has proved to be one of the two keys to this campaign.
Beattie blamed the problems the Sunshine State has on the increasing influx of Southerners. This might be one message the ALP sent that cut through to voters who only pay intermittent attention to State politics. It works brilliantly for him two ways.
Firstly, it plays to the “Queensland is different” factor – to State parochialism – a much stronger factor than in other States. Secondly, it suggests to voters that Beattie – and the booming Queensland economy for which he claims responsibility – have succeeded in convincing hitherto recalcitrant Mexicans to come and grab their share of the sun and the lifestyle. The implicit message pulls on the Queenslander heart strings at the same time as it deflects responsibility for the failings of public administration under the last eight years of Labor government.
The Coalition, by contrast, is confusing its messages. Part of the Joh era legacy was to make a virtue of Queensland as a low tax state. Promises to abolish State taxes, and hyperbolic and unfunded spending announcements in the billions, make a mockery of the traditional Nationals attack on the big spending socialists.
The Labor Party won’t be worried if no-one can remember the specifics of its promises. That’s not the point. The whole Team Beattie campaign is premised on neutralising all State issues and making the only issue the incompetence and disarray of the Coalition. In this aim, they’ve tapped into a rich vein of distrust and dislike of Howard government policy – Telstra, WorkChoices, and interest rates. Beattie is following in the footsteps of his template Queensland Premier – Sir Joh. He’s made the election into a referendum on the opposition. And despite voters’ tiredness of his record, he will win a victory on Saturday Joh rarely equalled – except in 1974 when Bjelke-Petersen identified himself with the essence of Queensland and tapped into voters’ suspicion of the Whitlam government.