October’s state election will mark the first time Queenslanders have been asked to determine who should govern since the state introduced set four-year terms. In a state of traditions, that will take time to bed in our psyche.
Another tradition up for grabs in this poll is that Queensland voters have, for most of the past 30 years, elected state Labor governments while giving the conservatives the federal seats they need to run the country.
This will be the 12th election since Queenslanders last had the chance to vote for the folk hero of conservative politics, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen. They have only elected a conservative government, run by Campbell Newman, in one of them and it was sent packing in an electoral drubbing after just one term.
In that same period, voters have gone home strongly and sometimes overwhelmingly with John Howard, Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison at a federal level (the exception was the Rudd-slide in 2007).
This bifurcation is one of those curious traditions of Queensland politics. Part of Labor’s success at a state level it is to do with the regional nature of the state. Big centres outside of Brisbane — like Cairns, Townsville, Rockhampton and Mackay — are big enough to matter in the seat count and have urban characteristics that attract their voters to the ALP.
There’s also the grenade permanently planted in the conservative knapsack by Bjelke-Petersen, who blew up the possibility of conservative Coalition governments by rebranding the Country Party as the National Party and bringing it into the city. A unified conservative party was the result but it still needs to straddle both urban and regional interests in a way that has so far defeated it.
The reality is that it’s almost impossible to win state government in Queensland without a solid regional showing, but it’s actually impossible to win without dominating Brisbane. The “National” side of the LNP needs to bring home the regions, with the “Liberal” side needing to deliver the city.
One other ingredient is needed to succeed: a team, and a leader, that can convince voters they’re up to the job. That’s where the “Liberal” side has failed. This is due to its emphasis on holding national government and a readiness to sacrifice the state house by sending its best people to Canberra.
The Queensland conservatives have sent a squadron of their best lieutenants to Canberra over the past 20 years — Peter Dutton, Ian Macfarlane, Karen Andrews, Steven Ciobo, George Brandis, Warren Entsch and Ted O’Brien among them. That means a weaker team here, with a leadership vacuum.
Then there’s the other factor: the malcontents. Whether it’s One Nation, the Katter Australia Party, Clive Palmer’s various vehicles or even the old Confederate Action Party, there will always be a grassroots force leaching votes away from the LNP in regional Queensland. Without a term or two in government to demonstrate support for the bush, the conservatives will increasingly carry the label of being a city party.
This election promises more of the same. One likely outcome is that the LNP will be able to form government with the support of cross benchers led by Robbie Katter, whose members will represent seats that were solidly conservative and still are federally. But even his support is no certainty.
And that makes the quadrennial Queensland election a suitable curtain raiser to another event fixed in the calendar: the Melbourne Cup, where it’s always hard to pick a winner in a field of roughies and blue bloods.