That woozy, sinking feeling

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

Tags: , ,


9 responses to “That woozy, sinking feeling”

  1. F on 2nd February 2015 8:37 am

    You can add to this to the bizarre attempts of certain sections of the media to point out Shorten’s very obvious flaws. Yes, we can all see that. You don’t have keep pointing out the obvious.

    Also, all the weird chatter about Shorten “not standing for anything”…what they mean is not standing for the things they think are important. It is perfectly rational to imagine an election based on rewinding a governments poisoned legacy: hello, 2013!

    One thing missing from above is the way the media, and especially the Murdoch tabloids, now obviously side-lined and de-fanged. Voters just aren’t listening, or aren’t ‘seen’ to be listening, if they ever were. The myth of Murdoch is that he picks the winners, has his hand on the pulse so to speak. We have just had two elections where this has proved to be totally false, and he has ended campaigning for the loser. What’s the point of flinging money into newspaper black-holes if they can’t sway the unwashed anymore?

    I think the shock of this has yet to fully permeate through political class.

  2. Riccardo on 2nd February 2015 11:02 am

    We should add that the Qld ALP can send moderates to Canberra as well. Bill Hayden only wasn’t PM by an accident of Hawke’s ascendency, there was nothing inevitable about it. The drovers dog would have brought a calm moderation to the job, less flamboyant than Hawke.

    I’m more interested in the deeper issues. Sure, the Australian settlement in the early C20th gave Australia (excluding Qld) an industrial base…but who wanted one? Maybe the Queensland plantation-ocracy is the natural order of things in an agricultural colony.

    I used to think it was just about being tropical, that small holdings of sugar and tropical crops meant the Victorian dream of close rural settlement was more feasible there than further south, hence a better sponge for soaking up migration, which in Victoria required manufacturing. But now I think the plantation size doesn’t matter, it was deliberate intervention to create a manufacturing base, and hence an industrialised labour force.

  3. Tony Simons - ( Balmain) on 2nd February 2015 3:24 pm

    Great article. At the National Press Club Tony Abbott failed to reboot and outline a coherent plan. Instead we got the stale and contradictory rhetoric of lower taxes and more infrastructure and attacks on the previous government. He has again failed to show leadership and his colleagues will replace him. As some of his back benchers have said recently, Tony is TOXIC. Surely the LNP is embarrassed by his obvious failings. Like his heroes Thatcher and Howard, Abbott is not for turning, apologising or admitting mistakes. Three very unpleasant people and the electorate is saying this loud and clear. Stark contrast to Malcolm Fraser and the late Whitlam and Uren who all had decency and integrity.

  4. The Interpreter on 4th February 2015 2:55 pm

    Are the Liberals facing their own communist split?

    Are the Liberals facing their own communist split?

  5. Rob on 5th February 2015 4:17 am

    Love your work, but a spot of editing wouldn’t go astray. Campbell Newman isn’t a double-barreled surname, for starters.

  6. The Piping Shrike on 5th February 2015 4:23 am

    I have even fewer sub-editors than Fairfax, but thanks for the heads up.

  7. Dianne on 7th February 2015 4:26 am

    ‘Unexpected turns’ = Scott Morrison?

    The ALP are demonstrably ready for Turnbull. I think he would would be easy.

    I wonder if they are prepared for Morrison?

    I am. I am under the bed.

  8. Graeme on 18th February 2015 9:52 pm

    Small correction. The Liberal stronghold is the sprawling north and south coast – property developer and tradies heaven. PUP is the default option there. Labor (and Greens) rule the capital city, with Labor ruling Ipswich and the greater metropolitan area, the provincial coastal cities and the North. The old Nats and the Katter gnats then sweep the interior and rural regions., It’s three states for the price of one.

  9. The Piping Shrike on 19th February 2015 8:07 am

    Oh Queenslanders always think they’re so complicated!

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