It’s an hour before the ALP state campaign launch and the mood among Labor members is sober. Unlike the Liberal-National Party’s electric launch last Sunday, there are no supporters chanting, no placards. People aren’t optimistic so much as cautiously hopeful. In the past week, Labor watched with a quiet grin as the opposition made a series of campaign faux pas. In short: the LNP has a developed a lady’s issue, and the women of Queensland are vaguely grossed out.
First there was Campbell Newman’s description of how he touches his wife Lisa in public (“I’ve got a hand that tends to go below the waist”). Then came LNP candidate Mark Boothman, fighting for the seat of Albert, who was found responsible for an online car forum that featured “hot s-x scenes” and links like “Control Your Bitches”, “So much p-rn” and “hot teen”. (Boothman’s claim: hacked.) Naturally, Labor’s sitting member for Albert, Margaret Keech, walks into the ALP launch today beaming, laughing as she greets journalists and her yellow-shirted supporters.
That’s right: yellow. Unlike the LNP’s uniform army of blue, Queensland Labor supporters are clearly less disciplined with branding. Supporter shirts come in every colour: Classic Labor Red; Keep Kate Pink; Margaret Keech Yellow. Conservatives love this, saying Labor’s brand is now so poisonous in Queensland that candidates and MPs have to dissociate themselves from the ALP entirely. They’re probably right. Labor would argue it’s about focusing on the candidate and keeping the campaign grassroots, though one Keech supporter — who appears to have screen-printed her support onto a council worker’s fluoro yellow safety vest — seems to have taken it to the next level.
Poll numbers still appear fatal for Labor, but good for Ashgrove, the must-win seat for Newman. It’s odd. As The Courier Mail’s Steve Wardill wrote, the Queensland election has split off into two distinct battles: one for Queensland (LNP to win) and one for Ashgrove (Labor MP Kate Jones to win). The swing the LNP needs to win office (4.6%) is smaller than the one Campbell needs to win Ashgrove (7.1%).
Only a day before the ALP launch, The Courier Mail published a game-changing poll suggesting Newman will lose Ashgrove, leaving the state with an unknown LNP premier. The public is aghast. The media loves it. And for now, so does Labor.
In the Convention Centre hall, Deputy Premier and Treasurer Andrew Fraser name-checks the ALP leaders gathered today: Julia Gillard, Wayne Swan, Kevin Rudd (no one forgets Rudd any more), former premiers Peter Beattie and Wayne Goss and former lord mayor Jim Soorley. There is an indigenous Welcome to Country. Katie Noonan sings and says it’s “fantastic to be here today, supporting strong women” (it’s all about women; it’s all about women), and then come kids from the Gap State High School (it’s all about Ashgrove; it’s all about Ashgrove) singing the national anthem.
Then Labor unleashes a secret weapon: Josh Rivory, a young, likeable guy with Michael Cera-ish cute looks. He’s a first-time state election voter from the seat of — drum roll; any guesses? — Ashgrove. Rivory says he’s not a member of any political party, but journalists later joke about which Labor MP gave birth to the guy. Rivory offers a heart-wrenching story so moving it’s difficult not to yield to the searing emotional manipulation. Back in 2008, during storms that Gap locals still refer to as the Gapocalpyse, Rivory’s dad put a tarp on the leaking roof, slipped, and broke most of the right-hand side of his body. He was in hospital for seven months and confined to a wheelchair for almost a year.
“Without being asked, our local member stepped in,” Rivory says. “Kate [Jones] became a building site foreman [and] managed builders, plumbers and funding to help us create a wheelchair-friendly home for dad.” Shortly after Rivory says: “We are not her constituents but her friends and her neighbours”. People have risen to their feet.
Gillard comes on stage — speaking, as ever, like a friendly, animatronic bunyip. “I love coming and being with Queensland Labor when there’s a fight on,” she says, “because you are great fighters.” (Applause.) “When this state faced its most difficult hour, it was Anna Bligh, with her wisdom, her patience, her courage, her voice of reassurance, that led this state through. When this state needed rebuilding, it was Anna Bligh who set about the rebuilding, not talking in slogans about Can Do. Getting things done.”
Rapturous applause, an awkward hug with Gillard and Bligh enters to the sound of Triple J darlings Last Dinosaurs, instantly boosting her youth cred with a demographic horrified by the LNP’s ringtone jingle. For someone who chooses not to woo the Christian lobby, Bligh clearly has a job as a television evangelist waiting for her, if and when she loses this thing. Walking around and barely using the lectern, she preaches to the faithful, rarely referring to her notes. “We know that this contest is a contest between me and Campbell Newman,” she says, before breaking out into a grin. “But it’s also between me and Jeff Seeney. And me and Lawrence Springborg. And me and Tim Nicholls. And me and …”
She doesn’t finish her punchline because it’s drowned out by applause and laughter. “Friends, for all we know, it’s a competition between me and Bruce Flegg. The room erupts into more mocking laughter. Even the reporters and the camera operators can’t help themselves. Poor bumbling Bruce Flegg: the shortest-serving state Liberal leader in Queensland, whose election campaign gaffs is still considered the stuff of comedy gold.Bligh skewers the muddied personal finances of Campbell Newman, calls his Ashgrove bid into doubt and announces a slew of policies, all of which are solid but not awe-inspiring. She notes how Queensland created 17,000 new jobs, but doesn’t mention the 2009 election promise to actually deliver 100,000. There are new scholarships and free swim classes announced, but that feels vaguely local government in scale. The real kicker for Queensland parents is the promise of Australia’s first education trust fund ($4000 for every year 12 graduate from 2015 onwards), but doesn’t mention the phrase “coal seam gas”, the controversial industry that will fund it. She describes Queensland as having “the health system with the shortest median waiting list for elective surgery anyway in Australia”, without mentioning the payroll meltdowns, or the fraud scandal that led to her dismantling Queensland Health.
As Bligh finishes to another standing ovation, red balloons descend and music pumps out, like the end of a game show final. She is flanked on stage by family and key colleagues, including Kate Jones. In the crowd, Kevin Rudd looks on, clapping gently, flanked by no one in particular. Jones is the real asset here and everyone knows it. One important key is that she is overwhelmingly preferred by women, and Ashgrove has close to 700 more women than men of voting age. The LNP now has an image problem with women that will be hard to shake, and Campbell Newman knows it. He has already bemoaned female membership of his party (18% of this year’s candidates and MPs), while Queensland Labor can smugly claim 35% of its nominations are women.
As everyone leaves, Young Liberals have gathered at the wrong entrance of the Convention Centre, chanting to no one in particular. “Stop the rot,” they cry out. “Pay our nurses, pay our doctors”. And as I ride my bike away, I realise you have to look closely before you spot a single female chanter among them.