Queensland (Australia) 2012
State elections were held in the Australian state of Queensland on March 24, 2012. All 89 members of Queensland’s Legislative Assembly were up for reelection. Queensland’s legislature is unicameral and has been since the state’s upper house was abolished (by its own members voting for its dissolution) in 1922. All other states in Australia retain elected bicameral legislatures. State elections since 1992 are run on the basis of optional preferential form of AV.
Queensland is the “Deep North” of Australia, similar to the United States’ “Deep South”. Like the American south, the traditional stereotype of Queensland is that of a rural, conservative and backwards state. Part of it likely comes from the fact that Queensland is slightly less urbanized than other Australian states. Less than half of the state’s population lives in Brisbane, the state capital, while in other Australian states this figure is often over 50% if not 60%. Queensland retains a good number of “regional towns” which have traditionally served as market towns for the state’s agricultural (sugar cane, cattle) and mining economy.
Queensland’s rich political history also contributes to the state’s reputation as Australia’s “redneck state”. While in the rest of Australia, the centre-right Liberal Party is usually the dominant force in Australia’s permanent right-wing Coalition alongside the much weaker agrarian and rural-based National Party, in Queensland the National Party has traditionally been the dominant force of the Coalition – though in the past that owed more to malapportionment than popular support. At any rate, the Country/National Party has had the upper hand in state government for most of the post-war era. The Country Party, as it was then known, won power in 1957. In 1968, power shifted to Queensland’s most emblematic political icon, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, who served as the state’s Country/National premier until 1987. Under Sir Joh’s semi-authoritarian rule, entrenched by the ‘Bjelkemander’ which served the interests of the rural-based Nationals, Queensland’s economy grew at a rapid pace under not so-clean circumstances: the government was notoriously corrupt and economic development on the Sunshine Coast was often done without much regard for the environment. Sir Joh ran the state with an iron hand and gained a nationwide reputation as a tough, authoritarian very conservative leader. Usually governing in coalition with a Liberal Party which he enjoyed enfeebling, after a 1983 split between the two partners, the Nationals governed alone and in the process crushed the Liberals for over a decade. He was popular with rural voters, but in the 1970s Sir Joh’s Nationals were successful in expanding their appeal into the state’s rapidly growing and urbanizing areas in the southeast, first and foremost the state’s world-famous Gold Coast. Ultimately, Sir Joh’s magic wore off, in part after his disastrous bid to become Prime Minister of Australia.
In 1990, the Nationals were defeated by Wayne Goss’ Labor Party. The Coalition returned to power in 1996 following a by-election held shortly after the 1995 election. However, Premier Borbidge’s Nat-Lib coalition was severely weakened by the dramatic success of Pauline Hanson’s far-right One Nation Party in 1998 when the party placed second ahead of the Nationals and Liberals. In 2001, the Labor government under Peter Beattie won a landslide reelection. Labor’s huge majority was not seriously endangered by a divided and fledgling right-wing opposition in the 2004 and 2006 elections. In these elections, the Liberals re-emerged as the most voted right-wing party but the Nationals still won more seats than the Liberals. The Nationals retained predominance over the Coalition in Queensland, but the Nationals needed a Liberal resurgence in urban Brisbane – the ALP’s main base – in order to win power, but such a resurgence would have threatened their dominance of the Coalition in the state. The state’s unusual nature of intra-right politics made a merger between the Liberals and Nationals far more feasible in Queensland than in the rest of the country. In 2008, the two parties merged into the Liberal National Party (LNP).
Labor Premier Anna Bligh was narrowly reelected in 2009, defeated Lawrence Sprinborg’s LNP. The LNP, which in a way snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, found itself in a bit of a tough spot, but thankfully for the LNP, the ALP’s final term in office was a trainwreck similar to the ALP’s final term in NSW. Anna Bligh boosted her ratings after a competent handling of floods in the state in 2011, but the ALP faced voter fatigue after being in power for 21 of the 23 years. Voter fatigue rather than massively unpopular policies were more to blame. Following the ALP’s claw back in polls in the wake of the floods, the LNP successfully drafted the popular Lord Mayor of Brisbane, Campbell Newman, to become the LNP’s leader – albeit without a seat in the legislature. Newman announced his intentions to run in the ALP-held seat of Ashgrove.
Labor came out with corruption allegations on Newman, claiming that he had bribed a member to resign his seat to allow him to run in a by-election. In the campaign, these corruption allegations backfired on Labor as it became clear that they had little evidence and indeed Newman was cleared of any wrongdoing. At the end of the campaign, Labor was so certain of its defeat that it came out with crazy ad conceding defeat to the LNP but telling voters to not give the LNP too big of a majority.
Preliminary results are (first preferences only):
LNP 49.68% (+8.08%) winning 78 seats (+44)
ALP 26.95% (-15.3%) winning 7 seats (-44)
KAP 11.5% (+11.5%) winning 2 seats (+2)
Greens 7.27% (-1.1%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Family First 1.37% (+0.55%) winning 0 seats (nc)
ONP 0.1% (-0.28%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Others 3.14% (-3.44%) winning 2 seats (-2)
Voters did not heed Labor’s pleas to limit the scope of the LNP’s victory. The ALP suffered a 15% swing and was reduced to a mere 7 seats. Premier Anna Bligh was one of the few ALP incumbents who saved their seats, the bulk of them being rock-solid poor suburban seats in and around Brisbane. Premier-elected Campbell Newman won the Labor-held seat of Ashgrove easily, taking 56% on 2PP after scoring 53% on first prefs against only 36% for the ALP incumbent.
After 14 straight years in power, if not a full 21/23 years, the ALP suffered the wrath of voters who were simply tired of a government which was exhausting itself. The suburban swing seats which often decide Australian elections swung heavily against the incumbent Labor government, in line with the rest of the state. Faced with a LNP led by a popular Brisbane-based figure, who ran on a platform which was ultimately not all that different from the ALP’s platform, is stood no chance. The ALP’s negative campaign against Newman did not help matters much. The negative campaign backfired against the Labor government.
In hindsight, the ALP will find itself regretting its narrow victory in 2009. It would have been in a much stronger position today if it had lost the 2009 election by a hair rather than winning it narrowly but losing by a phenomenal margin this year. Stuck in the unenviable position of being a tiny opposition bench to a government with a huge majority in the legislature, the ALP faces a long road to recovery. The Queensland right did not recover from its 2001 defeat until the LNP’s creation and the 2009 election. The Queensland ALP did not recover from its thumping in 1974 at Sir Joh’s hands until it returned to office in 1989. Unless the LNP performs poorly in government, it can be expected to win re-election fairly easily as the Queensland ALP, like the NSW ALP – which suffered a landslide defeat in 2011 (though, ironically, not as bad as this one) – licks its wounds.
The election saw the appearance of Katter’s Australian Party, a newly founded right-wing populist protectionist party led by the federal member for Kennedy, Bob Katter, who was a National until 2001. His newly formed party won two seats, with his son Rob picking up the rural ALP-held seat of Mount Isa (which is covered federally by Katter’s seat) and holding the neighbouring seat of Dalrymple which was held by a LNP defector to Katter’s populist party. Another sitting KAP member, Aidan McLindon (a LNP defector) was defeated by the LNP in the southern rural seat of Beaudesert. Katter’s rural populism, mixing Old Left economic views (opposition to privatization, deregulation; protectionism) and unabashed social conservatism has always found a receptive electorate in rural Queensland, perhaps getting to a base similar to that of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party. Katter likely benefited from the support of rural populist National Party supporters who disapproved of the LNP’s new urban focus and “urban image” of Campbell Newman, a Liberal big city mayor.
Ultimately the election was fought more on state issues and the ALP’s defeat based heavily on the state ALP’s exhaustion after so long in power. Yet this is hardly a good sign for the federal ALP government. State and federal politics in Australia are much more related than in Canada, where they are almost entirely separate. Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s minority ALP government in Canberra still trails the opposition, led by Tony Abbott, in most polls. She recently fended off a leadership challenge from her predecessor, Kevin Rudd. The carbon tax and its handling has hurt the federal government, and the party has been found losing support leftwards to Greens (because of its tough stance of refugees, opposition to gay marriage and less aggressive climate policies) and rightwards to the Coalition (because of a perceived dependence on Green support and the carbon tax issue). The Coalition is not in a position to benefit more from the government’s troubles, because the very conservative Abbott remains a controversial and polarizing figure who perhaps cannot appeal as much to more centrist swing voters.