Monday, 2 February 2015
Queensland does it again. When it’s not sending political figures to Canberra to shake up the major parties, it sends electoral disasters to do much the same.
Perhaps it’s best to start with the historical context – just to show there isn’t any.
In 1957, the Labor government sacked its Premier, split in half and ran against itself in the subsequent election. In that disaster the two halves of Labor each got around the same vote the entire, united Labor party achieved in 2012.
The 1989 election came after the Fitzgerald Inquiry found widespread corruption leading to the top of the Queensland government, resulting in the Cabinet splitting, Bjelke-Petersen forced to retire in disgrace, and soon followed by his unpopular successor. The National and Liberal vote at that election was better than they got on Saturday.
Numerous reasons are being given for the huge swing suffered by the LNP on Saturday (comparable to the one suffered by Labor three years before): arrogance, broken promises, privatisations, job losses etc. All of these are far enough, but don’t really grasp what happened. Was the Campbell Newman or the Bligh governments seriously the worst ever? Even worse than the Bjelke years?
In part the extreme volatility has to do with the peculiarities of Queensland where the two party system has historically been weak, much as a result of low levels of urbanisation, industrialisation and external immigration. This especially explains the absence of a Labor heartland that means a similar vote in 2012 to what Labor received south of the Tweed in 2011 can see Labor’s representation almost vanish.
Conversely on the Coalition side, the lesser importance of the metropolitan centre has the Liberals as a weak junior partner with little clear social base outside of Brisbane. It was the Liberals who took the brunt of the swing on Saturday, losing a swathe of seats in Brisbane. But the involvement of the Liberals in the defeat went beyond just the seats lost.
Campbell Newman was the first Liberal Premier, drafted in partly from frustration at the Nationals’ Springborg’s failure to break into Labor’s metropolitan seats. Ironically, the Liberals took the leadership in the Coalition just at the time when their state branch had effectively collapsed into what was a reluctant merger with the Nationals.
The result was that Campbell Newman was effectively walking on air, with no real base in the LNP (pressure of destabilisation may have been a reason for going early) but no real party organisation with roots in society at large.
In any other area of life, a weaker position would encourage timidity, but it’s in the nature of politics that detachment can encourage reforming zeal. Ignorance is ideological bliss. But the result was that not only did Campbell Newman antagonise interest groups, like doctors and lawyers, that would normally be allies of the Liberals, but smelling weakness, even the timid unions were emboldened to take a shot.
This disjuncture between a radical agenda and a mandate to deliver it is, of course, familiar in Canberra, where we have a government with a weak mandate trying to over-compensate with an ideologically driven agenda it can’t deliver. So the Queensland disaster was unsettling because it only served to underline the lesson that was already being learnt in Canberra.
But it was also unsettling because it brings the Liberals closer to a leadership challenge in Canberra they don’t want to have. As Paul Kelly notes, undermining Abbott also risks bringing back to the surface the tension between the “conservatives” and the party’s left-wing that emerged under Turnbull and that Abbott was supposed to settle. In reality, he didn’t really. It was just that the tension was submerged not only by Labor’s wrangles, but the high praise that Gillard and the power brokers (and later Rudd) gave to that conservative agenda by bending to it themselves.
At the heart of that tension for the Liberals is the basic dilemma between an agenda that maintains the party’s identity, but means electoral death – and that is what Queensland disaster is bringing home. The irrelevance of the conservative agenda is, of course, invisible to conservative commentators like Miranda Devine, who laughably thinks Abbott’s problem is that he hasn’t been dogmatic enough. But it is the need to balance the need to maintain the right’s political identity against electoral needs that explains why Abbott can come up with decisions, like the Prince Philip knighthood, that can seem politically bizarre.
But it makes any leadership challenge to Abbott dangerous in that this dilemma could resurface and take unexpected turns. As we saw when Abbott took over in 2009, it also means that what happens next in Canberra will confuse those who think this is all about polling.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 2 February 2015.Filed under State and federal politics, State of the parties