An early consensus has emerged that Queensland Liberal leader Bruce Flegg has blown the Coalition’s historic opportunity to defeat the Beattie government with an ill-advised declaration (since recanted) that Nationals leader Lawrence Springborg will become Premier if the Coalition takes power, regardless of how many seats the two parties win. Flegg was presumably over-mindful of the fact that he has been in parliament for only two-and-a-half years and in the Liberal leadership for only one week he has recently been fielding questions about his suitability even for the latter role given his lack of experience. An interesting account of the politics behind this episode is provided by Graham Young at Online Opinion. Young says Flegg’s statement was made to mollify the Nationals, whose plans for a campaign centred around Springborg’s leadership qualities were endangered by Flegg’s initial talk that he was "ready to lead". The dissatisfaction being voiced by Liberal sources is largely a product of the leadership ambitions of Chatsworth MP Michael Caltabiano, who according to Young would be better served devoting his energies to the seat he narrowly won at last year’s by-election.
As well as making the Coalition look divided and unprepared, the episode has drawn attention to the Coalition’s Achilles’ heel in Queensland state politics. In an age of presidential election campaigns, in which leadership appeal is at a premium, the Liberals remain shackled to the corpse of an agrarian political party that is incapable of presenting urban voters with the type of leader they are comfortable with (it should be remembered that Peter Beattie is from Atherton, but he is lacking in Springborg’s country boy demeanour). The best they could have hoped for under the circumstances was to have left a Bruce Flegg premiership as an unspoken possibility, while acknowledging when pressed that such a prospect was unlikely. Now that the Nationals’ dominance of the Coalition has been presented as a certified fact, the Liberals look certain to shed votes among swinging voters in the urbanised south-east.
Barring the unlikely prospect of a merger, it is surely only a matter of time before the Liberals overtake the Nationals as the senior partner in the Queensland coalition. Whether that time will arrive at next month’s election is harder to say. According to Jamie Walker and Steven Wardill of the Courier-Mail, the Liberals were "buoyed" by the paper’s Galaxy Research poll which showed the Liberals outpolling the Nationals 28 per cent to 15 per cent. While this is significant for what it says about the relative popularity of the two parties in modern Queensland, it doesn’t mean much in the context of an election with no three-cornered contests. During the Beattie government’s second term, Newspoll had the Liberal vote varying between 20 per cent and 26 per cent while the Nationals floundered between 8 per cent and 13 per cent. That all changed when the 2004 election was called, at which point voters became aware of the candidates they had to choose from in their own particular electorate. Polls taken during the campaign accurately predicted the final outcome, which was 18.5 per cent for the Liberals and 17.0 per cent for the Nationals (raising the question of how many potential Liberal votes instead went to Labor). That translated into only five seats for the Liberals and 15 for the Nationals because the former’s votes were wasted in metropolitan marginals where Labor achieved a clean sweep. On the other hand, it means that the most winnable seats are now on the Liberal Party’s turf.
To keep things interesting, it’s best to consider the situation in terms of best-case scenarios for the Coalition. Four independent and one One Nation MPs held their existing seats in 2004 and on balance seem likely to do so again this time. All but Gladstone independent Liz Cunningham represent traditionally conservative seats, and Cunningham supported a Coalition government the last time it came to the crunch in February 1996. The Coalition can thus hope to form a minority government if it wins 40 seats out of 89. Therefore, the lowest number of seats the Liberals will need to emerge as the senior partner in a Coalition government would be 21. This will be achieved if there is a uniform swing in Liberal-contested seats of 8.7 per cent and if Caltabiano can consolidate his by-election win in Chatsworth, which Labor won by 11.4 per cent in 2004. The other side of the coin is that the Nationals’ gains from 2004 would have to be limited to four seats. A 5.3 per cent swing would deliver three and consolidate their Gaven by-election win; their next opportunities are in a clump between 7.3 per cent and 8.5 per cent that includes Toowoomba North, Cook (which is probably safer for Labor than the margin suggests, given the unusual result in 2004), Mulgrave, Thuringowa and Redlands. Of these, only Redlands in located in the south-east.
To apply a broader brush to the same picture, the Liberals could emerge clearly on top if Labor suffered a 10 per cent swing in the south-east that was limited to 6 per cent in the rest of the state. In this respect, a tightly concentrated clump of seats just south of the city could prove highly significant for the future shape of the Coalition, provided it performs better than current indications suggest. These seats include Mansfield (8.6 per cent), Springwood (9.7 per cent), Mount Gravatt (10.3 per cent) and Greenslopes (11.0 per cent) along with Chatsworth (11.4 per cent in 2004, won at the by-election by 2.5 per cent), three of which were won by the Liberals in 1995 due to the Logan Motorway backlash. A Liberal performance of sufficient strength to carry some or all of these seats would presumably see them win everything else up to the 6.2 per cent mark, while retaining Redcliffe (7.1 per cent, won at the by-election by 1.2 per cent) and picking up Noosa (8.7 per cent, but former Labor MP Cate Molloy will split their vote by running as an independent). Under this scenario, the Liberals could win from 21 to 24 seats. To compete with that, the Nationals would need to win everything at least up to the 8.5 per cent mark.
In other news, work is proceeding on fleshing out the sketchy electorate summaries that currently populate the Poll Bludger’s state election guide. The updates are being added progressively starting with the most marginal Labor seats, the first five of which are now available for your viewing pleasure. For those of you who are in a hurry, the essentials of these contests are as follows:
Clayfield (Labor 1.2%): Inner Brisbane seat won by Liddy Clark in 2001 from the Liberals’ Santo Santoro, who has since assumed a place in the Senate. Clark was appointed Aboriginal Affairs Minister after her re-election in 2004, and her career went straight downhill thereafter. Within two weeks she was embroiled in the "Winegate" affair, and she later resigned when it emerged that her office offered to pay for two controversial Aboriginal community leaders to accompany her to Palm Island in the wake of the November 2004 riots, and then attempted to cover it up when the Queensland Police Union learned of the offer and called for Clark to be sacked.
Kawana (Labor 1.5%): This Sunshine Coast seat was won by Labor’s Chris Cummins with a 16.1 per cent swing in 2001, and retained in 2004 when the counter-swing was limited to 1.1 per cent.
Mudgeeraba (Labor 1.9%): One of Labor’s surprise Gold Coast wins from 2001, this was by won Dianne Reilly with an 18.4 per cent swing and retained despite a 5.0 per cent swing to the Liberals in 2004.
Indooroopilly (Labor 2.1%): A blue-ribbon Brisbane electorate until 1998, when Liberal member Denver Beanland’s troubles as Attorney-General contributed to a 12.5 per cent swing. A further 3.3 per cent swing finished him off in 2001, delivering the seat to Labor’s Ronan Lee who survived a 0.8 per cent swing to the Liberals in 2004.
Barron River (Labor 3.1%): The northern suburbs of Cairns and beyond, Labor’s precarious hold on this seat has been further weakened by the retirement of sitting member Lesley Clark.
UPDATE: More on Coalition shenanigans from Graham Young, whose Currumbin2Cook election blog will be required daily reading throughout the campaign. I particularly like his idea of colour-coding the electoral pendulum to note which Coalition party is contesting which seat, and plan to steal it when I get time.