The campaign for next fortnight’s Queensland state election has well and truly lived up to its promise as one of the most fascinating in recent Australian history.

It has been made so not by the political upheavals, party splits and voter alienation that normally characterise memorable electoral contests, but by a single act of human folly.

But for the Liberal National Party’s decision to foist a prospective new premier upon parliament through a kamikaze attack on a broadly green-left inner-urban seat, the election’s only point of interest would be the size of the landslide awaiting to be inflicted on a tired and discredited Labor government.

The LNP’s strategy is not so much audacious as profoundly confused: it seemed at once so frightened of Anna Bligh’s post-floods poll spike that it reacted with what looked for all the world like a desperate gamble, and yet so confident that it founded this gamble upon a hubristic tilt at a seat with a Labor margin of more than 7%.

The fear was clearly unfounded — one needed only to look at the aftermath of the Victorian bushfires in 2009, when Labor under John Brumby shot to an ephemeral 60-40 lead in Newspoll, to see that Queensland’s electoral rhythms would soon reassert themselves, as indeed they had by the middle of last year. And the confidence would have been correspondingly well placed, had it not been for the time bomb the party activated for itself with the Newman-for-Ashgrove strategy.

So obvious was this folly that even psephologists could see it. In a prescient piece at the time, the plot was hatched a year ago, Peter Brent of Mumble spoke of a “dumb move by a traumatised party”, which offered the government a “tiny hope of survival” it would not have otherwise had. Reminded of the 2006 election, when a Labor government encumbered by the “Dr Death” catastrophe won in a landslide thanks to confusion over which of the two conservative leaders should be treated as the premier-designate, I warned on my blog of “yet another mid-campaign implosion” if “polling were to emerge showing Newman falling short”.

So it has come to pass over the past few days. First came ReachTel’s Ashgrove poll on Thursday — the seventh such poll it has been able to conduct since September thanks to its low-cost automated phone poll methodology — which showed Labor member Kate Jones in a statistical dead heat with Newman, with Jones in fact having a headline-grabbing lead on the published two-party preferred figure.

One could always have argued that it wouldn’t do to read too much into such a result: the variability of polling is such that individual polls should be treated cautiously at the best of times, and ReachTel in particular is a new outfit that has produced some eccentric figures in its polling of other electorates (albeit that these have consistently taken the form of disastrous numbers for Labor).

But the bigger point is that it was never going to take much to activate concerns about Newman’s capacity to win Ashgrove, and hence to place grave doubts about the LNP at the centre of a campaign that should have been all about the disposal of an unwanted old government.

Then came The Courier-Mail’s publication on Saturday of a large-sample poll conducted by Galaxy, which uses tried-and-tested phone surveying and has as good a track record as any pollster in the game. This produced a still worse set of figures for Newman: he and Jones were level on 45% of the primary vote, which after distribution of Greens preferences pointed to a Labor win by a margin of 1.5%.

The final fortnight of the campaign will thus be entirely about what might happen should the result play out as polling indicates, with the LNP winning the election but Newman losing Ashgrove. The LNP has responded with yet more strategic confusion: voters at large are being assured defeat in Ashgrove won’t happen, while voters in Ashgrove are being scared into line with talk of dire consequences (“no plan B”) if it does.

Labor will thus go into the final fortnight of the campaign with a stronger hand to play than it could ever have dared hope.

And yet for all that, Newman still looks a better bet to carry Ashgrove than Labor does to fulfill its part of the bargain by winning the actual election. The reason for this is the one factor in electoral politics that overrides all others: the “it’s time” factor.

I have just spent an improving couple of hours playing with a dataset of mainland state election figures going back to the start of the 1980s, which points to a fairly robust association between a government’s time in office and its two-party preferred vote. The upshot is that a government of Labor’s longevity in Queensland has little right to anticipate a two-party preferred vote north of 45%.

This is even without accounting for the fact that Labor returned to power in 1998 after the fairly brief interruption of Rob Borbidge’s Coalition government, which lasted only from February 1996 to June 1998 — such that Labor has been in power in the traditionally conservative state for all but 2½ out of the past 21 years.

With the LNP merger having largely resolved the issues that helped Labor defy gravity before now, the circumstances of the coming election are such that the proverbial drover’s dog could have led the LNP to a handsome parliamentary majority.

Certainly John-Paul Langbroek, shunted aside so Newman could direct the opposition from the parliamentary visitors’ gallery, would not have had any trouble in persuading the electorate that he offered the requisite safe pair of hands.

Peter Fray

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