While Peter Beattie obviously could have hoped for a smoother start to his campaign, The Poll Bludger is not getting too excited about either the Merri Rose resignation or Mike Reynolds’ localised troubles in Townsville. Taking a step back for a moment, one need only look at the last two years’ Newspoll results to get an inkling as to why the Coalition can’t get a sniff no matter what disasters befall the government. Throughout that period the senior coalition partner, the National Party, were lucky to make it into double figures, and despite edging upwards in the past few surveys they are currently on a well-short-of-respectable 13 per cent. Even though the conventional wisdom says that the Liberals have been performing little better, they have left the Nationals in their wake in each survey, the current margin of 22 to 13 being the closest the Nationals have managed to get during the period in question. Put simply, the National Party has no business being the senior partner and the Queensland Coalition will not become competitive until this archaic anomaly is corrected.
In theory the Goss government’s introduction of one-vote one-value should have done the job by now, but the Nationals have carried on in their time-honoured habit of winning more seats than the Liberals from fewer votes. To an extent this can be explained in terms of the geographically concentrated nature of National Party support relative to the Liberals, an invaluable asset in single-member electorate systems, as well as the deep-rooted institutional dominance the Nationals attained throughout the long years of National/Country Party hegemony, notoriously secured by a system of malapportionment and gerrymandering that did more damage to the Liberals than Labor. This was in part perpetuated by National members lingering on in seats that could theoretically have been won by the Liberals, but weren’t due to the convention that challenges not be made against sitting members. However, attrition (and there was a great deal of that in 2001) should have rectified this over time.
The fundamental reason for the Liberals’ failure to assert themselves has been the devastating effect of the Pauline Hanson phenomenon upon their representation over the last two elections. The outcome of the last election left no room for argument about the necessity of avoiding three-cornered contests, but with only three MPs to show for themselves the Liberals entered negotiations from a pitifully weak position. The deal that was cut allowed the Liberals to contest 43 of the 66 Labor-held seats, which sounds good until you go through the Mackerras Pendulum* from The Australian on Wednesday and mark the electorates being contested by the Liberals (and if there are any eligible ladies out there, yes I’m still available). In the unusually well-stocked section of the pendulum featuring electorates held by Labor with margins of 20 per cent or more there are 16 seats to be contested by Liberal candidates against five allocated to the Nationals. Moving down to the other end of the Labor column, let’s say Malcolm Mackerras is right and there really is a uniform 7 per cent swing to the Coalition (yes I know he doesn’t really say that, but indulge me here). Assuming no changes to the One Nation and independents situation (and it would be to the Nationals’ benefit if there were) that will mean an extra eight seats to the Nationals and only six to the Liberals.
It could be that the significance of recent poll results is that those six electorates (Noosa, Clayfield, Kawana, Indooroopilly, Aspley and Mudgeeraba) are more likely to fall the Coalition’s way than the eight in the Nationals’ firing line (Burnett, Burleigh, Toowoomba North, Charters Towers, Broadwater, Thuringowa, Burdekin and Redlands). Certainly the Poll Bludger hopes this is so because a rejuvenated Liberal Party is the essential element for a revival of Queensland as a two-party state. At present though it appears it will take more than one election to effect this outcome.
* By the way, Mackerras has some different figures from the ones used in my list as he is using projections to calculate two-party Labor versus Coalition results in many cases where the ultimate two-candidate preferred outcome included independents, One Nation or both. I’m sticking with what I have because I’m interested in how close the seats came to changing hands last time, rather than the two-party contest.