Saturday’s Stafford byelection result was not the first thrashing Queensland Premier Campbell Newman’s government has suffered at the polls this year, but it was by far the more alarming of the two.
When the outer-northern Brisbane seat of Redcliffe swung to Labor by 17% in February, Newman could at least console himself with the knowledge that he still had over a year in which to repair his electoral stocks before an election likely to be held next March.
But a further five months have since run down on the clock, and little that has occurred in the interim has suggested that the government is finding its rhythm as it enters the business end of the electoral cycle.
A controversial new Chief Justice appointment and fiercely criticised changes to the appointment process for the Crime and Misconduct Commission have damaged the government’s internal unity and public image, while even an apparently populist measure such as draconian anti-bikie laws has proved to be a misreading of the popular mood.
The Stafford byelection was born of such troubles, with outgoing member Chris Davis attacking the government over the CMC issue and health cutbacks as he resigned first as assistant health minister and then as an MP in May.
That the LNP was not anticipating the judgement of the voters to be any kinder was evident from the campaign it ran, which carried a whiff of desperation that recalled Labor’s disastrously counterproductive attacks on Newman in the 2012 campaign.
“The rub for Labor is that the size of the swing in Stafford, just like those in Redcliffe and Miranda, is as much a measure of the devastation the party suffered at the last election as its electoral health at present.”
Nine days out from polling day, The Courier-Mail found itself able to report that Labor candidate Anthony Lynham, a maxillofacial surgeon at Royal Brisbane Hospital, owed money to Queensland Health for overpayments he received during the troubled rollout of its new payroll system.
Inevitably, the fact of a candidate’s personal information coming to public light at so inopportune a time proved as much a topic of discussion as whatever the material might have indicated about Lynham’s rectitude, notwithstanding the government’s inevitable denials that it was responsible for the leak.
This was followed on Saturday by a Supreme Court order directing the LNP to cease displaying material at polling booths that claimed Lynham did not live in the electorate, which had ceased to be the case shortly after he won preselection in March.
The LNP’s yield from such tactics was an adverse swing of 18%, which has been surpassed historically only during the terminal phase of the previous Labor government in New South Wales, and more recently by the O’Farrell government’s freakishly heavy defeat in Miranda last year.
A particularly intriguing feature of the booth results was a swing approaching 30% at Prince Charles Hospital, which is tempting to attribute to a massive loss of confidence in the government on the part of workers in the health sector — which, as former Labor Senator John Black noted in The Australian, accounts for 11% of Stafford’s workforce.
While the waters were muddied by the absence of a Palmer United candidate, Labor would also have been encouraged by the fact that the result offered no indication that voters deserting the LNP were of a mind to record a protest vote. The 17% drop in the LNP primary vote went directly to Labor rather than minor parties, and there were none of the other classic signs of a pox-on-both-houses effect such as low turnout or a high informal vote.
Of course, the rub for Labor is that the size of the swing in Stafford, just like those in Redcliffe and Miranda, is as much a measure of the devastation the party suffered at the last election as its electoral health at present.
Applying the rough rule of thumb that byelection swings tend to be a bit more than double those at the subsequent general election, Labor looks to be on course for a swing approaching double digits — a major shift by normal standards, but not enough to cover the 62-38 that separated the parties in 2012.
For the LNP, the fly in the ointment is Campbell Newman’s security in his seat of Ashgrove, located immediately to the west of Stafford, where the 5.7% margin is looking distinctly fragile in the present electoral context.
There are already indications that Stafford has caused Newman to recognise the depths of his predicament, with reports emerging today of looming government backdowns over CMC appointments and bikie laws.
However, Newman’s immediate response to the defeat yesterday, in which he scolded voters for failing to “appreciate actually how much of a mess the state was in”, suggest that other political lessons about contrition and humility are taking longer to sink in.
The prospect of running an election campaign in which the leader is in danger of losing his seat cannot be a welcome one for the LNP, but party hardheads might nonetheless have cause to wonder if Newman’s potential demise might not have an upside.