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

One of the threshold assumptions in elections in a single member constituency Westminster system is that each major party is in it to win. But how true is this when defeat looks inevitable for one, and victory certain for the other? A good example of such a scenario is last year’s New South Wales state election. The ALP, surely, was aiming to save as much “furniture” as possible, not to pull off a massively unlikely victory. Yet, psychologically, that’s a bad place for a campaign to be in.

This year’s Queensland election, now most widely tipped to be called next Monday for February 25 or March 3, is still, in the opinion of most pundits, and no doubt in the mind of the Liberal National Party, likely to be similar in outcome to NSW, if perhaps not of quite the same dimensions. A good example of such thinking is Peter Brent’s latest Mumble blog at The Australian, where for reasons not clear to me, he seems to assume a 10% nearly uniform swing to the LNP (the last Newspoll had the prospective swing somewhat lower).

Yet, as both I and William Bowe have been arguing, there is a good case for thinking that an LNP landslide is not necessarily the most likely outcome of this campaign (though it certainly is a likely outcome, and an ALP majority government the least likely).

Bowe gives a range of cogent arguments. I’d supplement his take by drawing out the uniqueness of the situation where Campbell Newman leads the LNP, is not opposition leader in nor holds a seat in the Legislative Assembly, and claims he must win Ashgrove to become premier.

Under these extremely unusual circumstances, it makes sense for the ALP to aim at two objectives, to win Ashgrove or run Newman close, and to minimise the scale of its statewide defeat. For instance, if Labor were to contain its losses to 15 seats, it would be a very good performance indeed. So, too, would be holding seats such as Brisbane CentralEverton and Greenslopes, where the sitting MPs are potential future leaders (as is member for Ashgrove Kate Jones, for that matter).

Parties fear a near wipeout of NSW dimensions (or Peter Brent’s scenario) not just because it makes it incredibly difficult to be competitive in the next election, but also because its effects on the composition of the caucus are so dire. Some sitting MPs who are not or are no longer ministerial material retain their seats against the tide, a leader has to be picked from a small pool, and promising up-and-coming MPs and ministers go down to defeat. So the future of a party needs to factor into its calculations about which baskets it puts its campaign eggs into.

So, in a way, if it aims to minimise its defeat and does so intelligently, the ALP is most rational in throwing an enormous effort into Ashgrove. Ignore the increasingly ubiquitous robo-polls. If there’s a credible Galaxy or Newspoll during the campaign showing that Newman is in real doubt in Ashgrove, then the entire election dynamic shifts.

If, for example, he is in the low 40s and Jones approaching 40, it could be reasonably assumed that given the effects of optional preferential voting and the huge field of candidates (with One Nation being the latest hat thrown into the ring), Jones would be favoured to have a good chance of re-election.

That event would then give flesh to claims that Newman is a stalking horse for parliamentary leader Jeff Seeney, or indeed former leader Lawrence Springborg or the ambitious shadow treasurer Tim Nicholls. If this were to transpire, then the sole issue of the campaign, particularly when the LNP is running a small target strategy, would be its leadership.

And the ALP has improved its vote markedly when LNP disunity has come to dominate campaigns in the past.

The LNP should be worried — now — that there’s talk around of Newman having a fallback strategy of forcing a byelection somewhere if his party wins, but he loses.

Similarly, and again because the “Can Do” strategy is negative and predicated on a large win, the issues agenda has the potential to spin out of its control. On coal seam gas, for instance, the ALP will run on its contribution to jobs, the Premier’s plan to put half the proceeds of royalties into an education fund, and the government’s claims that its regulatory framework is appropriate. The Greens and Bob Katter will both be highlighting the dangers of CSG exploitation. Newman faces a difficult task in fudging this one, because much of his base effectively agrees with the Greens and Katter. If this issue eats up a week of the campaign, then things may get very interesting indeed.

Queensland elections are always subject to quite different trends in distinct regions, across a state with the most dispersed population and a huge geographical extent. Had John-Paul Langbroek remained leader, he’d have been able to take his own safe seat for granted and to maximise his campaign presence where needed, but Newman faces the real risk of being pinned down in Ashgrove. If he is pushed somewhat closer to the issues agenda in inner Brisbane and further away from the issues of, say, Cloncurry, then the LNP’s ability to sing from the same song sheet in Mitchelton and Mt Isa will be diminished.

How locals in Ashgrove will react to an almost unimaginable frenzy of campaigning and their local LNP candidate being followed everywhere by a media pack (and probably tripping over Kevin Rudd campaigning for Kate Jones) is also quite the factor. Ashgrove will no doubt break every record for dollars spent per voter in an Australian seat.

So the most salient question in Queensland this year might not be who will win the election, but what effect the perception of who is winning in Ashgrove will have on the election in the rest of the state.

It will be fascinating.

*This article was originally published at Larvatus Prodeo