Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk (Image: AAP/Darren England)

This story was originally published by InQueensland.

Elections shape up as either a referendum or a choice — will voters deliver a judgement on the performance of the incumbent or will they choose between two leaders and their visions?

The last federal election, held a year ago this week, is a textbook example of these competing models.

Bill Shorten’s Labor opposition was desperate to make the election about one thing: a referendum on six years of Coalition government spinning through the revolving door of dysfunctional leadership, covering the Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison years.

Given the collapse in the Coalition vote after the toppling of Turnbull by Morrison in September 2018 — reflected by a record run of losing Newspolls — this was the best strategic course to follow.

However, Morrison and his cunning campaign team — who had nothing to lose — identified and zeroed in on the key fault in this strategy. Shorten, the guy pushing the referendum strategy and presenting himself as the alternative prime minister, was consistently unpopular and, saddled with a policy agenda both poorly explained and too bulky, was easily painted as a risk.

During the weeks leading up to the campaign and through to polling day, the Coalition constructed the case for voters making a choice between Morrison and Shorten.

While voters might have had misgivings about the years of Coalition dysfunction, the choice between the competing leaders and their agendas held sway and Morrison came out on top, creating his self-styled miracle.

The same shifting of the electoral sands is emerging in Queensland. The LNP Opposition has always framed its best chance of beating Annastacia Palaszczuk’s government by making the October 31 election a referendum on the last two terms of Labor in power.

Three major themes were at play: a sluggish economy where the regions were often left behind, perceived and actual dominance of major unions and the laundry list of scandals attached to South Brisbane MP Jackie Trad.

The LNP campaign was almost too easy to write and looked like the most likely winner, especially if the influence of Pauline Hanson and Clive Palmer is reduced through lower voting outcomes and a more disciplined pro-conservative preference flow.

This game plan shifted when just over a week ago Trad resigned as deputy premier and treasurer following the ramping up of a Crime and Corruption Commission probe into an education department scandal in which she found herself embroiled.

Trad had become a lightning rod for anger and antagonism towards the Palaszczuk government, especially outside the southeast corner of the state. Removing her from the scene can only improve Labor’s chances and it diminishes the impact of the referendum strategy pursued by the LNP.

The other positive for Labor in Trad’s removal is that the government has in Cameron Dick a treasurer who speaks Queensland, especially the language understood outside the southeast. He wasted no time in telling voters he appreciated the importance of the state’s economic drivers — mining and agriculture.

Dick also demonstrated he was willing to have a go, launching a robust bid to help rescue the ailing Virgin Airlines with conditions on keeping the headquarters and most staff in the state, as well as maintaining the regional routes.

The Virgin gambit is in flux but his handling of it has most probably been a positive with voters.

The economic triumvirate of Dick, State Development, Tourism and Innovation Minister Kate Jones and Anthony Lynham, who looks after Natural Resources, Mining and Energy, gives the government a chance to reframe the jobs and growth agenda and argument, especially coming out of the COVID-19 economic fallout.

The government is working with local government and businesses to construct a big job-creating development plan, expected to be rolled out in the middle of June.

All this allows Labor to shift the looming election battle to a choice between Palaszczuk and the LNP’s Deb Frecklington.

Palaszczuk is not the asset she was in November 2017, when she turned a minority Labor government into a majority with a net gain of eight seats. Despite having lost some political paint in the battles of the last three years — and the cost of carrying Trad — the Premier remains competitive against Frecklington who has failed to make any real impact with voters.

It’s damning for the LNP and Frecklington that most conversations around the opposition leader involve whether she should be replaced, with whom and how it might be done.

Gold Coast MP David Crisafulli is most often mentioned as an alternative. Originally from far north Queensland, the former TV journalist and later Townsville MP was a minister in the short-lived government of Campbell Newman before heading south to find a safer seat and get closer to his leadership ambition.

While he’s articulate and presentable, Crisafulli suffers from a reputation as something of a lightweight and some in the LNP doubt he has the goods to win an election.

Frecklington’s deputy Tim Mander is also in the mix and he is someone who’s definitely not afraid to take the fight up to Labor. He has a strong appeal among males in their 30s and 40s — a key demographic weakness for the ALP.

The departure of Trad has turned up the volume of the draft Crisafulli campaigners in the hope of neutralising some of the choice argument.

That we’re in the middle of an unprecedented and unpredictable crisis, more than five months out from the election, means the number of moving parts in the coming contest has grown exponentially. Saying the outcome of an election is anyone’s guess is usually dismissed as a cliche. Not this time.

Dennis Atkins is InQueensland‘s political analyst.

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