Although described in the news as a surprise, the timing of the Queensland election was fairly predictable. The government wants to keep the campaign separate from the local council elections in March, and to avoid going after the elections which may turn out badly for Labor in Brisbane following the mishandling of Jim Soorley’s retirement. Since no one wants to campaign over Christmas, the timing is a forced move.
I’m in the happy position of agreeing with the pundits that Labor is virtually certain to win and in welcoming this. The current crop of Labor state governments may be unexciting, but they are uniformly preferable to their opponents.
In the case of Queensland, Labor has an advantage that does not seem to have been remarked on. The only plausible alternative government is a Liberal-led coalition, but for historical reasons, this isn’t on offer. In fact there are only three Liberals in Parliament and of these only one is running for re-election. Instead the Opposition is in effect the National Party (there are also the remnants of One Nation and assorted independents). Even though the Nationals have held office for most of the past fifty years, I don’t think we’ll ever see another National Party premier.
The dominance of the Nationals (previously the Country Party) rested on three main factors. The first was the gerrymander inherited from Labor, which favored rural seats (going back even further in time, the votes of rural workers favored Labor and particularly the Australian Workers Union). The second was the fact that Queensland was substantially less urbanised than other states. The third was the fact that the Nationals held lots of seats that had been rural but had become urban, notably in the Gold Coast.
None of these factors applies any longer. The gerrymander has been replaced by a one-vote one-value system with optional preferential voting, which marginally favors Labor. The share of the rural population has declined – more than 60 per cent of voters now live in the ‘South-East corner’ (Brisbane, the Gold and Sunshine Coasts and Ipswich) with a another large share in coastal cities like Townsville and Cairns. The people living in these areas, even outside Brisbane itself, have no more natural affinity with the Nationals than does the average resident of, say, Newcastle or Geelong, Finally, the National Party lost most of its Gold Coast seats in the wipeout in the last election. Once the advantage of incumbency is lost, the natural alternative to Labor in these seats is Liberal, not National.
In my view, therefore, and barring disasters, it will take three more elections for Labor to lose. The Liberals need one to become a credible party rather than a trivial joke, a second to become the leading opposition party, and a third to beat Labor.