Anna Bligh is expected to take Queensland back to the polls within weeks, clinging to power in the face of a resurgent Liberal-National Party under Campbell Newman. In the first of a series of reports from Larvatus Prodeo, we look at their chances …

It’s a rule of thumb that Queensland elections are always interesting, sometimes surprising, and invariably full of colour and movement. Through most of 2011, it appeared that the next state election would depart from that pattern. Campbell Newman’s elevation to leader of the Liberal National Party (though not opposition leader, as he is not a state MP), in the opinion of many pundits, ensured that the 2012 election would be a lay down misere.

The fact that the LNP still appears to believe this is one reason why it is likely not to be.

The LNP ended the political year with the gloss coming off its polling lead, though the December Newspoll still showed the amalgamated conservative party on course to win very comfortably in its second electoral outing.

The fly in the ointment is that Newman, the former Brisbane lord mayor, must win Kate Jones’ seat of Ashgrove, currently held by the ALP with a margin of 7.1%. Talk on George Street in December was that the vultures were starting to circle Newman, with speculation rising that the LNP might win despite a loss by its Premier In Waiting. The LNP party room, led in Parliament by former Nationals leader Jeff Seeney, also contains two previous LNP leaders, the deposed John-Paul Langbroek and Lawrence “The Borg” Springborg, as well as shadow treasurer Tim Nicholls, who fancies his own leadership prospects.

Ads highlighting their continuing ambitions are as predictable as a summer storm after a hot Brisbane day.

There was also talk that Newman was busy preparing an agenda for his first 100 days in government, and allocating portfolios to candidates who are not yet elected. The rural rump of the Nationals, not Seeney fans, have already been muttering publicly about the eclipse of the bush in Can Do Campbell’s push, and the defection of Dalrymple MP Shane Knuth in October to Bob Katter’s Australian Party is a straw in the wind.

The LNP, rightly in a way, believes that elections are won and lost in South East Queensland. Hence, first the amalgamation, and secondly, the successive leaderships of urbane Gold Coast MP Langbroek and Newman.

But this presupposes two things.

First, the LNP has to improve on its dismal record in Brisbane. The party only holds four seats in the Brisbane City Council area, and has always been prone to accusations that its agenda is driven by rural parish pumpers and Bible thumpers. Newman is the antidote to this symptom, but the debate over the Civil Partnerships Bill may convince voters that socially conservative forces are now dominant in the LNP, which lost most of its “liberalism” in the implosion which accompanied the Liberal Party’s takeover by the Nats.

Additionally, Newman has a lot of negatives from his reign in city hall, including a poor relationship with The Courier-Mail, and a disappointing fiscal record, with little to show for his tenure but tunnels. Newman’s fight to win Ashgrove pins him down to Brisbane to some degree, potentially alienating regional voters, and paradoxically highlighting his lack of local cred in a seat in which he doesn’t live.

It may actually be that Langbroek would have been the better bet. Though his performance was widely seen as underwhelming, the former dentist presents well, is generally inoffensive, has a slight claim to fame as Kate Langbroek’s brother, and his general lack of any discernible politics meant that his potential negatives were few.

Meanwhile, because Seeney is formally opposition leader, it’s he that has state entitlements to campaign across the broad expanses of Queensland by air. Either Newman and Seeney become an unlikely flying duo, or the questions that have dogged the LNP over the funding of Newman’s leadership return to haunt it.

Secondly, if the LNP needs to win in South East Queensland, it also needs to hold its base. Here, the twin factors of rural discontent (often expressed through the coal seam gas issue) and Bob Katter should worry it. Popular Mayors are lining up to run in some electorates, CSG opposition may throw up more independents (perhaps even troubling Seeney in his seat of Callide), and the pattern of Katter support shows some parallel with the One Nation vote in outer suburban areas and regions like the Lockyer Valley, which cruelled the coalition’s re-election chances under Premier Rob Borbidge in 1998. There are six independents sitting in the Queensland Legislative Assembly, and two KAP MPs. If rural bushfires are lit, the outer suburbs and the regions cannot be taken for granted.

So, what of the campaign?

Newman is known to have a short fuse, and no doubt Labor will be seeking to light it. The LNP is also largely a policy free zone, not just because its strategy is largely a negative anti-incumbent one, but also because there’s real disunity on several issues, and little idea or vision in a party long out of government. The LNP has previously been pre-occupied by its internal divisions, and there’s not much evidence that much policy rethinking, or indeed thinking, has taken place.

Its campaign is likely to be a combination of heavily negative anti-Labor themes, and assertions that Campbell “Can Do”. But what he can do, what he plans to do, and how he would do it are all questions that so far have few answers.

The opposition must still be favoured to win, but largely because the mountain the ALP has to climb in achieving a sixth term is simply so high. Labor, also, has formed government after every general election since 1989, with the interlude of the coalition government from 1996 to 1998 arising from a byelection loss. But in presuming that its time has come, the LNP may be sowing the seeds of its own undoing.

All this means that the campaign will be vital to the outcome, and that its result cannot be presumed. An LNP minority government, for instance, is far from impossible, if the bush catches fire.

*Tomorrow: can Labor hold onto power? This article was originally published at Larvatus Prodeo.

Peter Fray

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