Election preview: Queensland

There are two interesting elections happening on Saturday: I’ll preview Georgia (the country, not the state) tomorrow, so for now let’s have a look at Queensland.

Queensland is often regarded as Australia’s most conservative state, but the centre-left Australian Labor Party has held office there for 26 of the last 31 years. Current premier Annastacia Palaszczuk won the job in 2015, beating the then Liberal National Party (centre-right) government after a single term, and was re-elected in November 2017. She is now seeking a third term.

The 2017 victory was underwhelming; Labor had only 35.4% of the vote to 33.7% for the LNP. On a two-party-preferred basis that came out at about 51.3% to 48.7%. In seats it looked a little better, but not much: Labor won 48 of the 93 seats to the LNP’s 39. Minor parties and independents had more than 30% of the vote but only won six seats: one to the far-right One Nation, one to the Greens, three to Katter’s Australian Party (a regional north Queensland party, also tending far right), and one independent.

That means the LNP needs to make a net gain of three seats to have a shot at forming government with the help of the minors (excluding the Greens); that would require a uniform swing of just 1.1%. Realistically it would want at least five; the independent, Noosa’s Sandy Bolton, is non-aligned, and relying on One Nation would be political poison.

Even five seats equates to only a 1.6% uniform swing, so you certainly wouldn’t want to write the LNP off. But it’s been a good year for incumbents in Australia, and Palaszczuk has won support from her rather insular constituents by firmly keeping the border with the southern states closed as a preventative measure against Covid-19. In the last week or so, pundit opinion has swung around to the view that she will be re-elected.

Any late swing in voter opinion, however, will be less significant than usual because so many Queenslanders have already voted. Antony Green has been tracking the pre-poll and postal votes, and reports that 25.8% of enrolled voters have already pre-polled, while another 26.6% have received postal votes (not all of which will be returned). It looks as if there will be only about a third of the electorate voting on polling day.

The betting market has Labor as unbackable favorites at five to one on, with the LNP three to one against. But the market for individual seats looks a bit different. If every seat was won by its favorite as of this morning, Labor would win only 44 seats to 39 LNP, three Greens, three Katters, one One Nation, one independent, and two too close to call – one between Labor and LNP, and one between LNP and Katter.

That would be a bare majority for the Labor-Greens combination. But Palaszczuk would very much prefer not to have to rely on the Greens; Queensland Labor is a pretty conservative beast (that’s how it stays in power), and the premier’s enthusiastic support for the coal industry has not endeared her to the Greens – or to voters in a number of inner-city seats that the Greens are now threatening.

So Queensland may join the list of places where relations between the Greens and the centre-left are a central and contentious political issue. At one end of the spectrum is the Australian Capital Territory, which we looked at briefly last week. There, the Greens made big gains in local elections, finishing with six seats to Labor’s ten and the Liberal Party’s nine. Labor and Greens will continue their successful and reasonably harmonious coalition.

At the other end of the spectrum is Tasmania, where both major parties have had unhappy experiences working with the Greens in government. Or perhaps Austria, where the Greens have entered the national government as coalition partners of the centre-right. Or even Baden-Württemberg, where the same combination governs but with the Greens as the senior partner.

The LNP in Queensland is too far to the right to give the Greens much of an option; if Palaszczuk needs them, there’s no doubt they’ll support her. But my guess is that the seat predictions are lagging behind the overall result (as they did in Victoria two years ago), and that Labor will hold onto a majority in its own right.

The LNP’s problem is the same as it has had for a long time, which was patched over but not solved by the merger of its constituent elements in 2008. Until it does well enough to win a parliamentary majority (and perhaps not even then, if 2012-15 is any guide), its party room and organisation are dominated by right-wing rural elements. But the votes it needs to win are in south-east Queensland: more urban, more cosmopolitan and more progressive.

Urban Queensland is reasonably homogeneous, so there are lots of marginal seats. When a swing is on – as in both 2012 and 2015 – huge numbers of them can change hands. No-one thinks Saturday will be like that, but even a fairly modest recovery in the Labor vote could end up netting enough LNP marginals to give it quite a comfortable buffer.

For more detail on the election, don’t miss Antony Green’s preview; William Bowe also has a comprehensive guide. Madonna King summarised the key points in Crikey the other day, and Graeme Orr at the Conversation discusses the issues, especially in terms of the Covid response.

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