I don’t often agree with former ALP Senator John Black’s political analysis — he places too much weight on demographics for my liking — but I did nod my head vigorously when reading his piece on the Queensland election in yesterday’s Financial Review.

Black argued that the same cohort of voters who Peter Beattie held through three successive landslides, who swung to Kevin Rudd and the federal ALP in 2007 after a long incarnation as “Howard’s battlers”, are in danger of deserting state Labor tomorrow. These voters are on low to middle incomes, socially conservative and worried about services and jobs. Many of them are the same voters, or coming from the same place, as the folk who gave One Nation 25% of the state vote in 1998. They’re also the same voters who swung some regional seats further in Labor’s direction in 2006 out of anger at WorkChoices.

While there’s often been an assumption in speculation about this campaign that Lawrence Springborg couldn’t easily be sold in Brisbane, few seem to have asked — until the swing became obvious — whether Anna Bligh could hold onto Beattie’s vote on the urban fringes and in the regions. Under Beattie, the very model of a blokey Queensland populist, a complex backflip could be executed where he surrounded himself with urbane Ministers — think Matt Foley and one Anna Bligh, talked up biotech and creative industries and cosmopolitanism, but still projected down home Canberra hating parochialism and praised Joh to the skies on well timed occasions. But all the hard hats in the world haven’t dispelled Bligh’s urbane image.

There’s more to the puzzle than this. Lawrence Springborg is no Barnaby Joyce, and doesn’t bang the populist drum like Nationals past. He’s more attuned to the monotonous tone of moderation. So neither leader has really convinced — anywhere much.

The other side of the coin is that a big chunk of the urban base Labor relied on is fleeing at a frightening rate of knots — parked with the Greens, not so much out of conviction, but out of disappointment at a Labor party that appears directionless and managerialist yet without the competence. Two party preferred votes are almost meaningless in Queensland’s optional preferential system. The key is the primaries. If there’s a high rate of exhaustion, and Labor is far enough behind in a lot of city seats, all the greenwash and social policy stuff from the last week won’t lure those voters back. They’re disengaged and not in a mood to be wooed. Outside Brisbane, it looks like a wasteland.

As I’ve been arguing throughout the campaign, neither party has succeeded in reviving Beattie’s state wide appeal, or even looked convincing talking of “plans” which appear too nakedly and opportunistically targeted to particular regions and interest groups. But while the campaign has been boredom incarnated, the electorate is exceptionally unpredictable. The outcome could be anything from a very narrow Labor win through a hung parliament to a small LNP majority. The latter appears most probable, but really we’re all guessing — locals wouldn’t make the same mistake as Peter Van Onselen and write of a swag of Labor seats in “southwest Queensland” — but all the same this is one of the most difficult of recent elections to read.

Aside from the obvious early election angle, there will be a motto here for the Rudd government. It’s this — sooner or later, maybe sooner when the economy’s in strife, it becomes impossible to hold together a coalition of urban denizens and outer-urban and regional voters. You need quite exceptional political skills — a la Beattie — to pull it off. You can’t do it with the political strategist’s soundbite laden focus grouped book of oh so clever tricks.

Peter Fray

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