If the polls and betting markets are correct and Labor pulls off a narrow win in Queensland tomorrow, the election will be recalled as one in which the actual campaign period made a difference.
The state’s voters have looked ready to trade in their government for most of the past term, a situation that was not fundamentally transformed by its success in containing COVID-19.
Like every other incumbent around the country, Annastacia Palaszczuk has enjoyed booming personal ratings throughout this year, but the polls suggested this was a largely voteless recovery, with the Liberal National Party opposition maintaining a modest but persistent advantage.
However, the campaign process seems to have raised the salience of leadership evaluations to the clear advantage of Palaszczuk, who has come a long way as a media performer since she emerged as Labor’s only plausible contender out of the seven members who survived the 2012 election debacle.
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Her opposite number, Deb Frecklington, is markedly less polished in front of the cameras, and ran a distant second in the audience straw poll that followed Wednesday’s televised leaders debate.
Frecklington has also been forced on to dangerous turf in her pursuit of product differentiation strategies on COVID-19, in common with opposition leaders elsewhere.
As such, Clive Palmer has probably done her more harm than good by once again dominating the advertising space with his loud anti-Labor attack ads, in which a call for open borders has shared equal billing with a made-up claim about Labor plans to introduce a death tax.
Frecklington was also done a disservice by Gladys Berejiklian, who asserted on Wednesday that she would have opened the border with New South Wales “months ago” had she been in government.
Reflecting a dynamic that has also been evident in the US presidential race, COVID-19 appears to have driven traditionally conservative older voters to the left, giving Labor an opportunity to poach seats on the traditionally difficult terrain of the Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast.
For all that though, Labor strategists are being kept awake at night by the path to victory that remains open to the LNP in the same parts of the state that savaged Labor at the federal election.
When the federal seats of central and northern Queensland recorded swings upwards of 10% last year, the effect was certainly demoralising for Labor, but the impact was limited by the fact that there had only been one seat there for them to lose — the Townsville-based seat of Herbert, which the party gained by a paper-thin margin in 2016.
At the state level though, the region is so richly endowed with Labor marginals that a locally concentrated swing could deliver the LNP victory even if it loses the statewide two-party vote, as the latest polls suggest.
All six of the seats that cover Townsville and Cairns are held by Labor, but only one of them has a margin of more than 4.1%, and three are held by less than 2%.
Both cities are struggling economically, with Cairns having been hit hard by the COVID-related tourism downturn, and the LNP may have found the mark with its racially inflected policy to impose curfews on local children and teenagers.
The LNP also stands to benefit from a collapse in support for One Nation, whose voters appear to have recovered their enthusiasm for the LNP after it exchanged Tim Nicholls, the city-based member who led the party to defeat in 2017, for the regionally based Frecklington.
Conversely, the growing threat to Labor from the Greens in the inner-city could cost them not only South Brisbane, where Jackie Trad is struggling to hang on after being forced to resign as deputy premier and treasurer in May, but also the central business district seat of McConnel, potentially giving them a cross-bench presence of three in a state where they had never won a seat before 2017.
Given the ongoing challenges Labor faces in Adani country, the prospect of clinging to power in a minority government propped up by the Greens is so uninviting that it might almost be better off with a clean defeat.