The Sunshine State’s political season has begun early, waking Queenslanders from their summer torpor with two bombshells: the extension of public sector cuts to senior commissioned police officers and a discussion paper released by Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie on electoral reform. Bleijie claims to be surprised that canvassing the abolition of compulsory voting has become a flashpoint for debate.

But Bleijie has somewhat of a history of being provocative, for example pushing an agenda favoured by conservative religious groups within the LNP for the reversal of same-s-x surrogacy rights.

The cynical might be forgiven for thinking Bleijie’s latest proposal is a smokescreen for proposed changes more likely to be legislated and with potentially deeper implications; changes to political donations, which include measures potentially restricting union funding to the Labor Party. If it is a diversion, then it has worked.

Julia Gillard tweeted to her followers she would vociferously oppose voluntary voting, and Barnaby Joyce argued compulsory voting protects the state against extreme forces.

It’s significant the Prime Minister also alluded to the potential distortion of politics by “cashed-up interest groups”. It’s also significant as another weapon in the ALP’s armoury in its quest to leverage Campbell Newman’s record for Labor in the federal election.

The electoral system has long been controversial in Queensland, from Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s gerrymander to Peter Beattie’s masterful exploitation of a “just vote one” strategy to use optional preferential voting to further divide disunited conservative forces. Perceptions often outweigh reality in these debates. A mooted change to compulsory preferential voting from former Labor attorney-general Cameron Dick probably would have made little difference to the 2012 state election result, according to ABC electoral analyst Antony Green.

Joyce is probably right that the Greens would benefit from a system that favours the ability of activists to organise to get out highly motivated voters. However, whether or not there’s partisan calculation behind the support within the LNP, it may not benefit the governing party. Crikey blogger Possum Comitatus has argued on Twitter that most such speculation is meaningless.

“The bigger issue here goes to the lack of any really independent arbiter for the rules of the electoral game … in a state that proverbially lacks checks and balances to disproportionate power.”

What’s really interesting in all this controversy is another perception — that, under the guise of a desire for transparency and accountability, the LNP might be acting to protect its own shaky political interests.

As I wrote recently in Crikeythe LNP’s fall from grace has been quick, though the party if not the Premier can still be confident that the polls show it a likely winner of an election.

LNP figures have been suggesting that Newman’s plunge is a case of first-term blues, and the ship of state will right itself as the financial situation stabilises and the government’s “Four Pillars” policy begins to bear fruit. But as Possum also argues, Essential Research polling discloses the government’s performance on a range of issues is rated very poorly by voters.

The Newman government got off to a bad start on accountability, effectively locking the ALP out of parliamentary offices, and a series of unfortunate incidents — including the December defection of Dr Alex Douglas over his removal as chair of the Parliamentary Ethics Committee investigating former Liberal MP and departmental head Michael Caltabiano — will no doubt have muddied the waters of the public mind.

Then there’s the downfall of Housing and Public Works Minister Bruce Flegg, and complaints from parliamentary committees dominated by the government about legislation being rushed through with inadequate consultation. The Labor Party opposition under Annastacia Palaszczuk has made accountability a theme.

It’s this context that informs the LNP’s voluntary voting proposal: does it add to an existing preconception that the party is prepared to play fast and loose with the rules for its own partisan advantage?

The bigger issue here goes to the lack of any really independent arbiter for the rules of the electoral game — a key omission of the Fitzgerald reforms in a state that proverbially lacks checks and balances to disproportionate power.

Whether or not the LNP is bringing further political pain on itself is the real question, not whether a putative move to voluntary voting would advantage one side or the other. We don’t know the answer yet, but we do know we’re already in another fascinating Queensland political year.

*Dr Mark Bahnisch is a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development and a Brisbane-based social and political analyst

Peter Fray

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