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 third of a series of reports from Larvatus Prodeo, we look at the impact of the independents and third parties …

One of the many peculiarities of Queensland politics is the entrenching of the “just vote one” culture under an optional preferential voting system. In 1998, Labor was able to form government because One Nation exacerbated the conservatives’ perennial plague of preference drift and exhaustion. Peter Beattie subsequently trumpeted the refrain that voters should not allocate preferences, to a degree where it became almost the rule rather than the exception. (Antony Green has a useful and informative post on OPV’s political impact.)

The formation of the LNP was a response to this dynamic. But it’s now coming back to bite the ALP, as its primary vote continues to slide. But the fact that there are long-term independents well dug in, and renewed disunity on the Right through the emergence of Bob Katter’s Australian Party, suggests that there are also pitfalls for the conservatives.

Thus, unless the landslide of LNP dreams does come to pass, the Greens, Katter and independents have significant potential to affect the shape of the campaign and its outcome.

Queensland has not traditionally been fertile territory for the Greens, in part because in a state with a unicameral legislature and a massive metropolitan council, they have, until recently, been unable to build a base of elected representatives. Labor MP Ronan Lee defected to the Greens in 2008, but lost his seat of Indooroopilly to the LNP in 2009. Larissa Waters was elected as the party’s first Senator only in 2010.

Because they lacked elected representatives, the Greens have also lacked resources and organisational capacity, and have often been unable to fully leverage their voting potential. There’s much evidence of that potential in some inner-city results, particularly in Mount Cootha and in Andrew Bartlett’s strong performance as a candidate for the federal seat of Brisbane.

Ironically, perhaps, some of the best organised and most successful Greens branches are in Sunshine Coast territory where the LNP piles up huge majorities. While in Cairns and to a lesser degree Townsville, potential strength is poorly articulated, probably to Labor’s benefit.

So most eyes will be on Deputy Premier Andrew Fraser’s seat of Mount Cootha, and on Kate Jones’ seat of Ashgrove, where Campbell Newman is the LNP candidate.

Antony Green has written a suggestive piece mapping the 2010 federal results onto state boundaries. If the Greens’ 2010 vote was reproduced in Ashgrove, Mount Cootha and Brisbane Central, all three Labor seats would probably fall to the LNP because of preference exhaustion.

In fact, Fraser and Brisbane Central MP Grace Grace are likely to have more resilient primaries, though nothing can be taken for granted. The Greens have sometimes fancied their chances in these contiguous electorates, but those chances would probably be higher if the LNP were the incumbents. Nevertheless, former Bob Brown adviser Adam Stone will give Fraser a run for his money, and in doing so, impact on Labor tactics.

The contest for Ashgrove, of course, has the potential to be the pivot for the entire campaign. Campbell Newman was right to say that his tactic of running for premier from outside parliament is a high-risk game. The electorate straddles leafy, wealthy and hilly districts around Ashgrove, Red Hill and The Gap and the lower lying and poorer Mitchelton, Gaythorne and Enogerra, with significant indigenous, military and public housing populations.

Greens candidate Dr Sandra Bayley has been campaigning across the electorate, emphasising environmental issues, particularly surrounding coal seam gas. It’s yet to be demonstrated whether CSG is a vote changer, but there is no doubt that as an issue for inner-metropolitan voters, it symbolises concerns about the future in a way not dissimilar to climate change.

Word on the ground is that, as with incumbent Kate Jones’ campaign, the Greens’ door-to-door campaigning is having an impact, highlighting Newman’s incapacity to deal with either local issues or, convincingly, with broader environmental issues, where he falls back on stock generalities about his council record. Complicating the Greens’ prospects are a lack of awareness of optional preferential voting, and the extraordinary hyperbole haunting Ashgrove, which is proving a strange attractor for candidates of all stripes and none, making it much more like a first-past-the-post contest.

If there is a credible chance that Newman will not win, and that is not implausible, the implosion of the LNP statewide campaign will almost necessarily follow.

More broadly, the Greens will run on issues of integrity and performance, citing their federal record, something of a double-edged sword for the Labor response, given the reality of the agreement that constitutes the Gillard minority government. Waters’ profile is not yet sufficient to be a determining factor, but Bob Brown can be expected to add some heft to the campaign. Issues of public sector pay, workers’ rights and IR may also play a role; issues which expose some of the divisions within the ALP and its union base.

The central theme of the Greens’ campaign will be the dangers unrestrained mining activity poses to the natural and social environment of the state.

Newman’s small target strategy implies a narrow focus on “cost of living” and “debt” and “mismanagement”. It is, though, difficult to see how some of his attempts to fudge social and environmental issues can be maintained, particularly since it is also in the ALP’s interest to highlight at least some of these.

There are unlikely to be many electorate level preference deals between the ALP and the Greens, which will also shape the campaign by necessitating an ALP appeal on issues of concern to intending Greens voters over the heads of the Greens themselves.

The impact of Katter’s push is less easy to quantify, though such polling evidence as does exist points to a weaker reflection of the One Nation pattern of demographics and geographical distribution. In a way, Katter is offering a much more consistent package than Pauline Hanson’s: essentially agrarian socialism with a mixture of old school Laborism. There’s no doubt that’s a message with great power to resonate in many pockets of Queensland.

But he faces similar problems to Hanson as a leader without a coherent and established party.

Yet, Katter may cause profound trouble to the LNP in particular, though he should also at least worry the ALP in seats around Ipswich, the northern outskirts of Brisbane and in regional cities. It’s quite possible that KAP will hold its two seats (both LNP defections), and with five of the six independents recontesting, the LNP’s road to majority government becomes a more rocky one.

OPV, the decreasing ability of the ALP and LNP to straddle both sides of the fence on several key questions, the potential loss of control over issues driven the need to respond to and defuse the Greens and to Katter, and the very evident volatility of the electorate and the configuration of political forces: all these ingredients, and the cauldron of Ashgrove, make for quite a heady potion.

*This article was originally published at Larvatus Prodeo