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 second of a series of reports from Larvatus Prodeo, we look at Labor’s chances …

Last year was, paradoxically for the ALP which spent the whole year behind in the polls, a good year for Anna Bligh. The distressing events of the Queensland floods, during which more than 90% of the state was disaster declared, allowed the Premier to rebuild her standing in the eyes of voters, impressing with her compassion, command of detail and leadership. Though Bligh’s poll ratings never recovered their pre-privatisation heights, she did put to bed rumours of challenges, and her performance enabled her to establish herself as an authoritative figure, and I’d argue, also enabled her to project a more charismatic, appealing and well-rounded persona.

Bligh has largely taken a position above the hurly burly of daily politics, with Paul Lucas’ replacement as Deputy Premier, Andrew Fraser, taking the fight up to the LNP. Among those MPs and ministers signalling an intention to retire are some who were controversial and disruptive. Her ministry now looks more united and capable, and the LNP has been placed under real pressure, particularly on policy and on Campbell Newman’s reluctance to disclose his own financial interests.

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On policy, the Labor government played a bold hand.

Announcements towards the end of last year that half the proceeds of gas royalties would be diverted to an education fund, and that Queensland Health would be abolished, should capture voters’ attention. Similarly, the introduction and passage of the Civil Partnerships Bill by Fraser, as a private member’s bill, contributes to an unfinished agenda of human rights and legislative reform.

The timing of the election is uncertain. Parliament is due to sit again on Valentine’s Day, and it is highly probable that if an election is not called earlier, it will be dissolved and we will go to a poll five weeks later. It’s also quite possible, given that the ALP has now returned to a position that is at least competitive, that we’ll have an announcement in late January for a February election. Complicating matters is the fixed term of local governments, where all local elections in the state will be held on March 31. On one hand, Labor could benefit from having its BCC candidates attacking Campbell Newman’s performance as Brisbane mayor. On the other, there’s a need to have some clear air between the two elections.

It’s unlikely, though constitutionally possible, that the election will be in April or May.

But whenever we go to the polls, the ALP has huge challenges, mostly ones of long incumbency. In health for instance, the government seeks to highlight the doubling of funding for hospitals over the past few years while at the same time, defuse the stink of scandals such as an alleged theft of millions of dollars by a health bureaucrat. The ALP’s health policy for the past few elections was, in effect, “we’ll fix it this time”. Despite the fact that, arguably, they just might this time, it becomes an increasingly difficult position to take.

Similarly, some of the real achievements of the Labor governments over the past decades are somewhat immaterial, and liable to be taken for granted. The modernisation of National Party Queensland, its democratisation, its transformation to a position closer to the Australian norm in terms of service provision and the liberties of citizens; all are somewhat impalpable, and prone to being forgotten. There was a conscious project to shift the norms of governance and life in the state, a work in progress that has succeeded to great degree. But those norms have shifted, and the baleful spectre of the Joh Bjelke-Petersen era is now faint.

The ALP, then, has problems of success, and of failure.

This makes it more difficult to paint a positive picture of the future, though that effort will be made.

Queensland — and Brisbane — have quite a distinct social and electoral demography. In yesterday’s post, I argued that the path to an LNP minority government lies through independent and Katter success in the regions and the bush and an underwhelming performance in Brisbane. That’s also the path to an ALP majority government, but it’s a steeper one. With the exception of several electorates on Brisbane’s southern and northern outskirts, the ALP has few really safe seats. Brisbane has never had the same organised working-class traditions and patterns of labour discernible in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, which created ultra safe Labor seats.

So, we have inner-city seats, particularly Brisbane Central, Ashgrove, Mount Cootha and Greenslopes, which are amenable to LNP wins (and not to Green wins). Anna Bligh’s seat of South Brisbane would fall in the same category were she not Premier. Further out, and the suburbs begin quite close to the CBD in Brisbane, there are numerous suburban seats that are all, to greater and lesser degree, swinging. All the resources of incumbency will be deployed, but over a very large number of electorates.

There, too, the ALP has a problem in grassroots campaigning, given the continued legacy of the 2009 privatisations on party membership and its base, as well as continuing ructions within unions.

The ALP cannot rely on what has been its mainstay since 2004: the disunity and hopelessness of Tory campaigns. There will still, obviously, be an attempt to incite and provoke that, but it will not be enough. There is also the related question of whether a win this year would lead, inevitably, to a NSW-style retribution (or, in Queensland psephological history, one akin to 1974) next time around. The prospects that Labor could end up holding about 11 or 12 seats out of 89 are now remote, but would be real again in the event of a sixth-term victory. Conversely, an LNP loss would place an unstable formation under great pressure, perhaps fracturing in the process.

The Queensland Labor Party needs to continue its renewal, and to offer a vision and an agenda not just for the next three years, but for a decade at least, and to articulate convincing reasons to vote Labor, which are grounded in values and politics. This will have to occur in conjunction with defensive and hyper-local campaigning, as well as a persuasive and multifaceted attack on the LNP and all its works.

It is something of a tall order.

*This article was originally published at Larvatus Prodeo. Read yesterday’s report on the LNP here.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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