Now then, to what happened on Saturday and why. The following list is by no means exhaustive:
Negativity. Many decades from now, election campaigners will still speak in hushed tones of the day the Crime and Misconduct Commission’s announced it would not proceed with an investigation into Campbell Newman, forcing Anna Bligh to concede: “Right now all I have is questions, I don’t have enough answers from Mr Newman or enough material.” It was then that the Labor’s position deteriorated from disastrous to catastrophic. It is rapidly becoming the fashion to view this election as a morality tale about the dangers of negative campaigning, but this needs to be kept in perspective. When I assembled links to both parties’ television advertising on an earlier post, I found that the LNP campaign consisted of five positive ads and five attacks ads, which is presumably no coincidence: it is exactly how you would expect a balanced and effective campaign to look. The issue for Labor was the entirely personal nature of its attacks, to the extent that it took the appalling risk of involving Newman’s wife. As Dennis Atkins of The Courier-Mail reported on the eve of the election, Labor’s assault did have the LNP spooked in the middle of the campaign, albeit that it clearly need not have done if Newman hadn’t set himself the bar of Ashgrove to clear rather than just the foregone conclusion of a parliamentary majority. So clearly attacks on personal probity can achieve their desired end, but only if they squarely hit their mark. If they don’t, watch out. And if such attacks are all your campaign has had to offer, don’t expect voters to be receptive if you spend the final week pleading for sympathy.
Ashgrove. Labor’s other giant gamble was its total focus on thwarting Campbell Newman in his bid for Ashgrove, on the basis that uncertainty over that result was its only weapon to encourage waverers across the state back into the Labor fold. So it was that Labor wasted little of its campaign breath on the more traditional type of negative advertising that might have done the job — cuts to services under a conservative government being the ever-reliable standby for Labor at state level. A more artful strategy might have integrated such attacks with its anti-Newman theme, portraying the well-connected wheeler and dealer as out of touch with your proverbial working families. The irony for Labor was that the very collapse of its get-Newman strategy was what drove the polling into a tailspin in the final week, which appeared to convince many Ashgrove voters that it would be highly indulgent of them to decapitate an LNP that was unquestionably going to win the election.
It’s time. I’m going to be provocative here and leave Labor’s broken promises and policy failures off the list. My rationale is that the Peter Beattie went into the 2006 election encumbered by the “Dr Death” fiasco, and emerged with almost all of his huge majority intact. The fact is that every government has baggage that accumulates throughout its time in office, and a tipping point inevitably arrives where it can no longer carry it all. As this election shows, the consequences can be disastrous if the government scrapes over the line for one last term in office, which it very often achieves on the back of promises it proves unable to keep. This leaves the government with the problems noted previously: unable to convincingly run on its record, desperate scare campaigns and personal attacks are all it has left. By very stark contrast, it is simplicity itself for the opposition to offer the balance of positive and negative, which, as noted previously, is the cornerstone of a successful campaign.
Anna Bligh. Going into the campaign, Anna Bligh’s poll ratings were not impressive in absolute terms, but relative to Labor’s disastrous figures on voting intention they were remarkably strong — stronger certainly than Julia Gillard’s, who for all her much-touted difficulties leads a government with a two-party preferred rating in the upper half of the 40s. Clearly the shine from Bligh’s response to the floods had not entirely worn off. This made her a net asset to the party, which, used effectively, would have been a key factor in any less-bad-than-New-South-Wales defeat. However, Labor demolished all that by not only pursuing its personal attacks on Campbell Newman, but placing Bligh at the centre of them. For Bligh herself to use parliamentary privilege to suggest Newman might be imprisoned jettisoned the fairly elementary axiom of political strategy that leaders should be seen to be above this sort of muckraking, which should instead be left to a designated ministerial attack dog. Labor’s contrary rationale seemed to be that Bligh was the only thing the government had going for it, and that she thus had to bear the whole burden of its public communications. The entirely predictable effect of this was that Bligh’s personal ratings tanked as the campaign progressed, taking with it one of Labor’s few remaining assets.
Federal factors. “This was a state election fought entirely on state issues,” went John Howard’s Sunday morning mantra throughout the 2000s, as his state counterparts mopped up the blood after yet another electoral drubbing the night before. Yesterday came the turn of Labor interviewees on Insiders and Meet the Press to trot out this very same line. Howard of course was routinely mocked for this, but he usually came up looking pretty good when his own time to face the voters came around. Are things any different this time? I tend to think that they are. “Voters are intelligent enough to distinguish between federal and state issues”, politicians are wont to say, by way of finessing state election defeats and flattering their target market besides. However, one politician who memorably demurred was an earlier Queensland premier, Wayne Goss, who after losing office in the twilight of the Keating years remarked that voters had been “sitting on their verandahs with baseball bats”, waiting to take a swing at the first Labor government that came along — which, through not fault of his own, happened to be his own. That there was an element of this on Saturday cannot be seriously disputed: the only question is how much. Certainly federal Labor is doing quite a bit worse in Queensland polling than John Howard was at the time the Coalition was crushed at the 2001 Queensland election. In the corresponding Newspoll result, Howard’s Coalition trailed in Queensland 54-46, while John Howard’s personal ratings were 37% approval and 53% disapproval. This hardly seems a ringing endorsement, until you compare it with the most recent figures for Labor in the state: a two-party deficit of 59-41, with Julia Gillard on 25% approval and 65% disapproval.
Electoral geography. Compared with NSW, Labor looks to have performed about 2.5% better on the primary vote and 2.0% better on two-party preferred (I believe they are shooting at a bit below 38% on the latter count), but on seats their performance is much worse. This is because Labor’s support in Queensland is spread more thinly throughout Brisbane than in Sydney and Wollongong, where Labor enjoys concentrations of support that translate into a greater number of unloseable seats.
The media. Well, no, actually. From where I’m sitting in Western Australia, this looked nothing like the 2008 WA election campaign, when barely a day went by without The West Australian deploying its front page in pursuit of a vendetta against the Labor government, entirely irrespective of whether or not the day’s events had furnished it with any material with which to do so. Far from being annihilated, that government actually came within a handful of votes of clinging to office. Murdoch tabloid though it may be, The Courier-Mail contented itself with reporting what was actually happening. No doubt it was a different story on talk radio, but that is a medium that preaches to the converted: it is monopoly daily newspapers that truly have the power to shape the campaign agenda, and The Courier-Mail exercised that power even-handedly and responsibly.
Women’s issues. Women leaders contesting state elections are now batting one from seven (although the picture is somewhat rosier at territory level). It’s true that this is partly down to Labor’s apparent habit of turning to women when their governments are running out of puff and headed for defeat in any case, but there might also be a peculiarity of Australian culture at work here. On a possibly related note, female representation has taken a knock with the LNP’s triumph, as only 16 of their 89 candidates were women.
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Labor’s issues. Landslides copped by Labor tend to be a) bigger than those inflicted on the conservatives, and b) suffered from government rather than opposition. But that is a subject for a future post.