At first blush, the looming Queensland state election appears to lend itself to a straightforward diagnosis. Labor will go into the campaign encumbered by an ever-expanding list of unfulfilled commitments and policy failures, a formidable “it’s time” factor born of 20 years in government out of the past 22, the disastrous unpopularity of the government’s federal counterpart, and an LNP leader who strongly out-rates the Premier in opinion polls.

Under normal circumstances, the only point at issue would be the precise scale of the impending conservative landslide. Not for the first time though, Queensland is showing itself to be an exceptional circumstance, with the poll looming as the most complex and fascinating contest to confront the Australian election watcher since the state last confounded the nation with the Pauline Hanson earthquake of 1998.

Crikey’s seat-by-seat review of the state’s 89 electorates offers at least some sort of guide through the minefield, with the entry page laying out the seats by order of the margins recorded at Anna Bligh’s historic win in 2009 — still the only parliamentary majority ever secured by a woman leader in an Australian federal or state election, albeit that Peter Beattie would have us believe it could just as easily have been the first ever election won by a dog.

The conventional means of plotting the likely outcome of an election, as pioneered by Australia’s psephological godfather Malcolm Mackerras, is to observe the trend of the more reliable opinion pollsters and count the number of seats the insurgent party would net in the event of a uniform swing, under the more-or-less safe assumption that the inevitable variations will cancel each other out.

On this basis, Labor enters the election with a considerable advantage: it would take a uniform swing of 3.2% and an overall two-party preferred result of 52.3%-47.7% in the LNP’s favour to cost Labor seven seats and their majority, the seat of Whitsunday marking the tipping point on the pendulum. If the election of four independents in 2009 were repeated, the swing required for an LNP absolute majority would be 4.2% and the two-party preferred result 53.3%-46.7%.

However, there are several reasons to question the value of such an exercise on this occasion.

It is often noted that the campaign period seems to be unusually important in shaping the outcome of elections in Queensland, such that opinion polls a few months before the event are a more than usually unreliable guide. This seems to be due not so much to peculiarities of Queenslanders’ psychology (though no doubt there are a few of those) as to the tendency of campaigns to show up the fractious state of conservative politics in Queensland.

Whereas pre-election opinion polls give respondents a painless opportunity to vent anger over the government’s failures, elections in the decade before the LNP merger forced voters to confront the unresolved questions of Liberal-Nationals rivalry: which of the two leaders should be considered the alternative premier, and how could the respective parties’ urban and rural orientations be reconciled to voters on the other side of the divide?

Such difficulties were concealed by the Nationals’ dominance in the 1980s, but the abolition of Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s infamous system of rural vote weighting after Labor came to power in 1989, together with the population explosion in Queensland’s urban south-east, made the party’s seniority within the Coalition more and more anomalous as time went by.

When the Beattie government came to power in 1998, the conservatives thus found themselves on the horns of a dilemma: so long as the Liberals were the junior partner the Coalition stood little chance of winning the south-east Queensland seats on which modern elections have hinged, and those seats were the very ones the Liberals had to win if seniority was to be attained.

It took three devastating election defeats in a row, in 2001, 2004 and 2006, to force the two parties to look past their vested interests and cultural differences and accept the logic of a merger as their only shot at becoming competitive at state level.

So it was that the conservatives were finally able to present a united front at the 2009 election as the LNP — superficially at least, since the merger terms continued to reflect the Nationals’ greater parliamentary strength at the time it was negotiated. This meant the unmistakeably rural Lawrence Springborg was sent out to battle against a polished and highly marketable Brisbane-based opponent in Anna Bligh, a fatal weakness given the strongly presidential style of modern state election campaigns.

Even so, the merger proved its worth by bringing home a swag of seven new south-east Queensland seats, which has helped give the LNP the urban complexion it has so badly needed. However, this has not been without a cost, the submerging of the Nationals having provoked yet another rebellion against major party politics in rural and regional Queensland — this time in the shape of Katter’s Australian Party.

Even before the election, Bob Katter’s new outfit has peeled two seats off the 34 the LNP won in 2009, with the defection of Dalrymple MP Shane Knuth and Beaudesert MP Aidan McLindon. A third member, Rob Messenger in Burnett, also quit mid-term to sit as an independent.

Knuth is considered a near certainty to retain Dalrymple, and Katter’s son Robbie and former Test cricketer Carl Rackemann look strong prospects in Mount Isa and Nanango, respectively held by Labor and a retiring independent. There have also been suggestions that further LNP members might yet follow in the footsteps of Knuth or McLindon, either before or after the election, with Howard Hobbs in Warrego looking an especially likely candidate for disaffection with the Campbell Newman-led LNP.

Katter’s party presents the LNP with a further difficulty owing to the operation of optional preferential voting and the increasing tendency of voters to exercise the “just vote one” option, the rate of which among rural independent voters in 2009 was put at 54% in a ballot paper survey conducted by the Electoral Commission of Queensland.

This suggests that for every 10% the LNP loses to Katter candidates, it will suffer a penalty of at least 5% in terms of the contest against Labor — which could greatly complicate the task of winning regional marginals such as Cook (with a Labor margin of 2.2%), Barron River (2.3%), Whitsunday (3.2%), Townsville (4.0%), Cairns (4.7%), Mundingburra (6.6%), Keppel (7.6%), Mulgrave (8.1%) and Thuringowa (8.5%).

The double whammy of a big complement of independent and Katter’s Australian Party members and a tougher job of winning regional seats from Labor could thus require the LNP to look at urban seats much further up the pendulum if they are to gain a majority and govern in their own right.

Opinion polls continue to suggest that a sufficient swing is more than likely, but there remains another wild card in the deck — the appalling risk the LNP has taken in pitting its prospective leader against Kate Jones in Ashgrove, which the popular incumbent holds with a margin of 7.1%, and the possibility that the wheels might fall off yet another conservative Queensland election campaign if indications emerge that he might fall short. There will be a lot more to say about that when the campaign unfolds.

Peter Fray

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