“Queensland is Different” – that was the headline on PoliticsOz, the daily news digest from the Monthly, last Friday. And of course Queensland is different in many ways. It’s the only state with most of its people in the tropics and sub-tropics, and the only state with so many big cities outside of its capital.
It’s different in electoral matters too: distinctive for its lack of an upper house, and for its historically venomous relations between the non-Labor parties, which culminated in amalgamation in 2008. More to the point, its voting behavior has often been different, notably in the 1970s and ’80s when it was the only state where Labor remained stubbornly uncompetitive.
But since the mid-1990s, Queensland has looked much more typical. The sequence of the 1995, 1998, 2001 and 2004 elections was directly comparable to what other states experienced – for example, 1991, 1995, 1999 and 2003 in New South Wales. And more recently the LNP landslide of 2012 was almost a carbon copy of what had happened in New South Wales the previous year.
Every state parrots its own uniqueness, and even psephologists have a habit of unearthing local factors to explain every new result. But the reality is that for the last 25 years or so you’d have done much better picking Australian election results by attending to the established pattern than by looking at each state de novo.
So the question is whether Saturday’s stunning Labor comeback in Queensland is a portent for movement in the rest of the country. New South Wales, which goes to the polls in just under two months, is now the obvious focus of attention. The bookies’ odds of 12-1 being offered against Labor there are starting to look quite generous.
Nonetheless, I think there are still good reasons to think that Labor will probably fall short in New South Wales. The nationwide movement towards the ALP seems to be driven mostly by two things: the deep unpopularity of the federal government and its leader, Tony Abbott, and a corresponding resentment against state leaders that imitate (or invent independently) his anti-democratic style.
Mike Baird in New South Wales cannot do anything about the first – although a federal leadership change in coming weeks now looks a real possibility – but he seems to have done a reasonable job in avoiding the second.
Moreover, whatever movement there is tends to be amplified by Queensland’s distinctive demographics. Greater Brisbane is much more socially homogeneous than Sydney or Melbourne; reduced class loyalty makes voters more likely to swing, and seats change hands at a greater rate for a given amount of swing. In terms of votes, Labor’s 2011 performance in New South Wales was worse than in Queensland the following year, even though it held on to many more seats.
Queensland also looks as if it may be repeating some of its own history. The Newman government now looks a lot like the Borbidge government of 1996-98: brought in on a big swing for one term, then ejected by a narrow margin and a hung parliament.
That election ushered in 14 years of Labor government. If state government really is as difficult a gig as it seems to have been recently, there’s not much chance of that being repeated – nor does it look as if the current leadership crop have quite the same media skills as Peter Beattie. But stranger things have happened.