The Queensland tally room should be a heady mix of busy journalists, tired political staffers, and know-it-all former pollies. Instead, at 5:30 on election night there’s just a wide, vast space. It’s dead quiet. The ABC is broadcasting from its new South Bank studios. Team Campbell has moved its set-up across the river to the Hilton. And at the last minute, Anna Bligh has decided she won’t be making a tally room appearance. There are more people on Channel Nine’s panel of experts (make that eight) than on the tally room floor (that’s also more seats than Bligh’s party will manage to retain but more on that later …)
By 5:45pm it’s obvious where the action will be tonight: Team Campbell’s party.
The LNP ladies sipping celebratory Champagne at the Hilton are sporting sequins and spangly earrings — and they’ve been waiting a while to whip out the Jimmy Choos. It’s a little like an Oscars after-party, but with less J-Lo and more Joan Sheldon.
And yet, as the numbers start to roll in and it’s clear this isn’t going to be just a victory but a political massacre, the mood is surprisingly, bizarrely, restrained. LNP volunteer Raphael Tenner, in blue and yellow Can-Do attire, explains why there isn’t more fist-pumping. “We’re conservative people,” he says wryly. “We get in and govern well, without all the bells and whistles,” he says shrugging.
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By 6:15 I need a drink. But by god, Team Campbell is serious about this strict economic management stuff … there is no bar tab. Not even for the poor suckers who’ve been at polling booths all day, and the party faithful who hung in there while the Conservatives lurched from one leader to another (even poor Dr Bruce Flegg got a run — every child wins a prize!). Surely these folk deserve a bloody drink?
It’s 6:45 before the room begins to get rowdy. A middle-aged businessman sidles up and he’s keen to chat. Philip Higginson admits to feeling under dressed among the sea of sequins. “We were told casual attire,” he says laughing. Philip admires Newman’s grit. “He didn’t blink when he was under pressure a few weeks ago,” he says, hinting at Labor’s smear campaign against the LNP leader. “I think standing erect has paid off,” he asserts. I suppress the decidedly unrestrained urge to giggle.
A moment later the face of Labor’s Ashgrove MP, Kate Jones, flashes up on the television, fresh from her uphill battle against Campbell Newman for the seat. Someone takes a photo of her on the TV and holds it up to the crowd. The gesture wins only a mild laugh, as if some LNP members are actually sorry she’s part of the collateral damage. The response is vastly different when it’s the face of the Treasurer and MP for Mt Coot-tha Andrew Fraser. As the current figures — showing the LNP’s Saxon Rice with 60% of the vote to Fraser’s 24% — glow across the TV, the room erupts. The faithful can’t hide their loathing for him, even if they try.
At 7:15 in comes former Queensland Libs leader and Expo 88 boss Sir Llew Edwards and his stunning wife Jane Edwards, who runs one of Brisbane’s biggest PR firms. Sir Llew looks genuinely shocked that the result is so resounding. “I cannot remember it being anything like this since the ’74 election,” he tells me, shaking his head in disbelief.
Then the most riotous cheer of the night erupts — it’s for LNP candidate Michael Pucci. The former US Marine is going to win the seat of Logan, south of Brisbane. Now it’s clear this is a thumping of epic proportions. If the LNP can win Logan — a seat full of blue-collar workers on low incomes and with an ALP margin of 13.9% — then all bets are off.
At 7:35 when the LNP claims Ashgrove for Campbell Newman, there’s only mild applause. In fact, everyone’s incredibly reserved. The phrase “we’re humbled” falls from the lips of one LNP candidate after another, as if modesty was demanded via a talking points memo from party HQ. Later, campaign director James McGrath tells Crikey there’s been no such stage management. “No, we are genuinely humbled to think we’ve won this election and that Labor has … been punished,” he affirms.
Almost simultaneously, @couriermail tweets that the atmosphere inside the room is “electric.” The Courier-Mail needs to get out more. The mood here mirrors Sir Llew’s subdued shock at the scale of the victory.
Then there’s Richard, who mysteriously tells Crikey he’s not a member of the party but “just wanted to support my man Campbell”. He worked the polling booth at Mitchelton in the seat of Ashgrove earlier today and admits that, anecdotally, more people walking in seemed to be voting for Kate Jones. He thinks the former lord mayor and Ashgrove’s new man is fantastic, but also cautions: “I think Newman’s now been given too much power.”
The “too much power” line strangely echoes Labor’s line. In the past week of the campaign they resorted to ads that begged voters not to give unfettered power to the LNP. The bunting at polling booths also looked odd. There was Campbell Newman grinning from the LNP posters. And then … there he was again — his face plastered all over the ALP ads. If you didn’t read the tag line (and really, who does?) then you could be forgiven for thinking even Labor was rooting for him. Then again, was Labor rooting for anyone?
The team of LNP workers strongly out-numbered the red ALP volunteers at Windsor State School in the seat of Brisbane Central, held by Labor until tonight. At nearby Wilston State School, Heather Beattie, wife of former Premier Peter Beattie who held the seat for years, was working alone. She was not wearing red. No ALP shirt or hat. She looked defeated.
At 7:35pm the TV shows a rapid succession of fallen Labor MPs. Former union boss Grace Grace, gone. Kate Jones, gone. Health minister Geoff Wilson, gone. Transport minister Rachel Nolan, gone.
Everyone is pushed from the foyer into the main ballroom. Anna Bligh starts speaking at 8:15pm and the LNP crowd is quite courteous as they watch her on screen. They do allow themselves the pleasure of cajoling loudly when Bligh pays tribute to her treasurer Andrew Fraser and her claims that “Labor has steered the state through the economic crisis”.
Then, like a brisk school principal, federal MP and former Brisbane City Councillor Jane Prentice marshals the disciples into a neat line to make way for their messiah. The crowd starts chanting “We want Campbell, we want Campbell” but the war cry peters out quickly. By 8:35 everyone’s a bit sick of waiting.
At 8:40 the premier-elect arrives and here comes that ringtone. Newman’s flanked by his ever-present wife Lisa and teenage daughters. His walk to the stage is slow and measured as the crowd yells “Campbell, Campbell”. His mother, former politician Jocelyn Newman, and his sister are on stage too. Lisa nods earnestly in all the right places, her eyes closing. She starts to well up as her husband speaks. When Newman pays tribute to Bligh’s leadership during cyclone Yasi and the Queensland floods, the crowd claps. But the loudest cheer comes as Newman thanks his wife. Everyone’s waiting for the pash. It’s not unlike that moment at a wedding, as the congregation wonders if the happy couple will throw in a bit of tongue in front of the in-laws, or whether they’ll keep it tidy.
The passion’s restrained, the crowd remains muted, and all signs are pointing to the exit. And then flamboyant mining magnate and LNP backer Clive Palmer blusters in like he’s just been anointed himself.
“Anna Bligh is the most disastrous leader in Australia’s history. No one’s lost by so much as she has,” he bellows. “Five, six members. They haven’t even got a cricket team,” he chides. But he saves his biggest jibe for the now former treasurer. “Andrew Fraser, get an honest job for a change!” Palmer hoots.
If the LNP did send out a memo about being gracious in victory, Palmer didn’t get it.
*Kellie Riordan is a Queensland journalist who has reported for 612 ABC Brisbane, Triple J’s Hack program, and ABC News. She has written for The Drum website, Time Off magazine, the Sunday Mail, Fodor’s travel guides, and the Edinburgh Evening News (Scotland). She’s been the winner of several Queensland media awards.