Victor Sirl reports that the Queensland election is full of uncertainties and surprises, while the ALP has squandered some of its massive lead in the polls.
Queensland Premier Peter Beattie caught everybody by surprise when he called an election for February 7, allowing only three weeks for campaigning. An early election was expected, but not until after the parliamentarians had returned from holidays.
As Opposition Leader Lawrence Springborg raced backed from the farm it seemed the little master had done it again and wrong-footed his opponents, particularly as the Nationals had not endorsed candidates in some winnable seats. But then the Premier started taking friendly fire.
On the first day of campaigning the news broke that Merri Rose, the Tourism Minister, had been found guilty of bullying a former employee by an appeals panel of Q-Comp, a statutory body performing some of the functions of the old Workers Compensation Board.
Rose had attracted bad publicity prior to Christmas when it was discovered that she had been allowing her son to use her electorate car for such things as attending the Sydney rugby league grand final.
This was of course all replayed again on television. Rose resigned from the ministry after a meeting with the Premier.
A short time before, the Premier forbade his ministers from speaking to the media in relation to ministerial car usage, seriously damaging his own credibility.
At the same time another minister, Mike Reynolds from Townsville, was accused of bribing a Green candidate to run dead in the election by offering her support for a seat on the ALP-dominated Townsville City Council.
This matter has been referred to the Crime and Misconduct Commission. Reynolds denies the charges, but unfortunately for Labor stories are rife that the allegation is linked to internal ALP faction fighting.
While “Team Beattie”, as the ALP advertising calls the candidates, was off the rails and losing steam, the Coalition was chugging along with its policy announcements, rather than accelerating its attacks on Labor. No theme has emerged. It is just a day-by-day proposition but the campaign slogan is understood to be “Restoring the Balance”, an appeal to voters to cut Labor’s massive majority. By the time News Weekly goes to print the coalition campaign may have established its central message.
A poll published in the Brisbane Courier Mail declared the standing of the two sides as ALP 55% versus 45% for the Coalition, indicating a strong swing to the opposition. But this analysis on a two party preferred scenario is deceptive.
The Coalition faces the problem of independents holding what were once safe conservative seats, for example Peter Wellington in Nicklin, and the potential for other independents to win seats. In the sugar seat of Burdekin, held by the ALP, Independent Jeff Knuth is the front runner. The Nationals have an excellent candidate in Rosemary Menkens who may gather momentum as the campaign continues, but without strong preference flows, it is possible neither Knuth or Menkens will unseat the Labor Party. This scenario that may play itself out across the state.
In rural electorates no-one knows what impact Bob Katter-backed independents like Knuth will have on the election results. “Katter’s Crew” as they are dubbed could generate some of the unexpected results in seats effected by deregulation and turmoil in the sugar industry.
However, this provides the Nationals with a quandary. If it does not preference the independents, it will lose the opportunity to win more seats, but if preference deals result in helping more independents into parliament it becomes even more difficult to reunite the conservative vote and regain government – something the Nationals must feel grateful that the mainstream press has not discerned.
In Queensland the Beattie Government has introduced optional preferential voting, a situation that at last election gave them victory in some seats that they may have lost by as many as 1500 to 2000 votes previously. Hence, the number of seats that Beattie loses will depend heavily on the number of people allocating preferences.
In the last election in some seats as many as a third of conservative voters were not doing so, but polling in the Courier Mail indicates only a small number of people will not allocate preferences in 2004. While the voting system overwhelmingly favoured Labor last time, Beattie now has his own problems with preferences.
He has announced, to the outrage of rural producers, an end to all tree clearing in Queensland within three years, but many Green candidates are not allocating preferences. An increased Green vote under an optional preferential voting system could hurt ALP candidates. Labor has announced that it will follow the “Just Vote 1” strategy it used in 2001, costing it Green preferences, but Mr Beattie’s determined effort to make environmental issues central to his campaign shows that he is interested in Green preferences (if not primary votes).
Certainly, the Beattie Government deserves to be defeated. With a state government that has in the last six years delivered a series of scandals and debacles combined with the decline of One Nation, it must be said that the National Party should see anything less than a gain of ten seats as inadequate, with 15 or more an outstanding result.