Highlights of week one

This time last week, the Queensland Coalition’s 51-49 lead in a Courier-Mail/Galaxy Research poll contributed to a frisson of excitement about its prospects at the election which, it was correctly anticipated, would be called three days later. A second Galaxy poll published today shows just how much has changed since then. Labor now leads 53-47 on two-party preferred with a primary vote up 3 per cent to 45 per cent, while the Coalition is down from 43 per cent to 40 per cent. When a baggage-laden government seeking a fourth term faces a divided, incoherent opposition, you can usually expect a big vote for minor parties and independents, particularly in Queensland. However, so far the polls have shown no evidence of this. Galaxy has the Greens on 5 per cent, Family First on 3 per cent and the rest on 9 per cent, with Newspoll telling a similar story. This amounts to an unspectacular 3 per cent increase in the total non-major party vote since the 2004 election.

Beyond the polls, much less is being heard from minor parties of the right than was the case at the last election, never mind the two before. One Nation are only fielding two candidates, including their last remaining MP, Rosa Lee Long in Tablelands. Nothing has been heard from Bob Katter, who in 2004 endorsed a loose grouping of independents campaigning on sugar industry issues. If any other independents are generating momentum in country seats, they are doing so under the radar of the print media (Greg McMahon might be about to change this in Bundaberg – see below). Even Family First has disappointed by deciding to run only in country seats. On the other side of the divide, the Greens have had the Traveston Crossing dam to campaign against and, if demographer Bernard Salt’s comments in today’s Australian Financial Review are on the money, an increasing constituency of "sea-changers and tree-changers" who are "leaving the metropolitan areas for the coast and taking on distinctly Green values as they do so". They would thus be disappointed that the polls have their primary vote going backwards, although they can console themselves with the knowledge that the polls underestimated their vote in 2004.

Just as I was preparing to post this entry, another poll hit the news stands – this time a TNS survey published in tomorrow’s Sunday Mail, covering 200 voters in each of Bundaberg, Chatsworth, Noosa and Broadwater. The extremely small sample size is not the only reason to disbelieve the result in Bundaberg, where Labor supposedly leads 58-42. The 62-38 Labor lead in Chatsworth also seems excessive. Broadwater probably errs in the other direction, the 54-46 Coalition lead pointing to an 8 per cent swing against Labor. More persuasive is the narrative of Cate Molloy splitting the Labor vote as an independent in Noosa and opening the door for a Liberal win. Results after distribution of the undecided are as follows, with Cate Molloy denoted by an asterisk (the primary vote figure for Noosa actually indicates those who selected "Independent Candidate").

Noosa 25 40 9 26* 45* 55
Bundaberg 47 35 18 58 42
Chatsworth 55 36 9 62 38
Broadwater 38 48 14 46 54

As if to demonstrate the adage that a Queensland election really is 89 by-elections, the past week has provided a gold mine of material for Campaign Updates in the election guide. Unfortunately, the effort required has prevented the promised expansion of electorate summaries from proceeding as quickly as Poll Bludger readers deserve. Nevertheless, Keppel, Cairns, Hervey Bay, Broadwater, Aspley, Burleigh and Bundaberg have all been brought up to speed since the last update. The Campaign Update entries are as follows:

Bundaberg (Labor 5.3%): Burnett MP Rob Messenger has enjoyed immense prestige for his role in uncovering the Bundaberg Hospital "Doctor Death" scandal, and he heavy-handedly drove the point home when Peter Beattie visited the hospital on Thursday. After struggling to get a word in amid Messenger’s heckling ("you stand in a hospital where you have blood on your hands"), Beattie cut short a press conference called to announce that the hospital would receive a $41 million upgrade. The previous day, Lawrence Springborg and Bruce Flegg had been in town to promise that an entirely new hospital would be built at a cost of $250 million, which did not go down as well as they would have hoped. Yesterday, The Australian carried a devastating article from Michael McKenna which reported that the idea was hurriedly cooked up by Messenger without reference to Flegg, who conceded to an unnamed source that the election announcement left him "standing there like a stunned mullet" with "no time to research". The proposal was also criticised by high-profile victim support group leader Beryl Crosby, who said staffing rather than facilities were the issue, and that Beattie’s cheaper proposal was a "much better option". Messenger also copped a blast from Crosby three weeks ago after he covertly taped a support group meeting he attended, which he claimed was necessary because members of the group had been threatening to sue him for defamation. On the other side of the ledger, Labor candidate Sonja Cleary’s cause has been damaged by the announcement that former party branch secretary Greg McMahon will run as an independent. McMahon is an associate of Brian Courtice, the former federal member for Hinkler, whose wife Marcia Courtice was defeated for preselection in controversial circumstances. It was also reported in the Courier-Mail on Wednesday that Cleary had suffered a "damaging blow" when the Coalition raised her position on the district hospital council at the time a letter was written in support of Jayant Patel. The current newsworthiness of the letter is debatable, given that it was published in the News-Mail letters column in March 2005 under the name of council chairman Viv Chase, who was questioned about it at the commission of inquiry the following August.

Robina (Liberal 8.8%): The Liberal Party preselection to replace recently deposed leader Bob Quinn will be held tomorrow, and it is causing as much friction as would be expected of a short-notice contest for the party’s second safest seat. There was initial speculation that leadership aspirant Michael Caltabiano might be tempted by a safer haven than his very shaky electorate of Chatsworth, though he quickly rejected this as "ridiculous". Sean Parnell wrote in The Australian yesterday that the front-runners are 24-year-old Aaron Debattista, backed by the Bob Tucker faction that includes Bruce Flegg, and 28-year-old Mark Powell, supported by Flegg’s leadership rival Michael Caltabiano and his federal allies, Senator Santo Santoro and Moncrieff MP Steve Ciobo (Powell’s former employer). Other candidates include Ray Stevens, former Gold Coast mayor and 2004 Gaven candidate, and what Parnell describes as "relative unknowns". The outcome will have a crucial bearing on the numbers for any post-election leadership showdown, providing Caltabiano can hold his seat of Chatsworth. UPDATE (20/8/06): Ray Stevens wins.

Broadwater (Labor 4.1%): Peter Beattie has announced that the controversial cruise ship terminal proposed for Southport Spit will not proceed because of concerns raised in an environmental impact study. The announcement has displeased Gold Coast mayor Ron Clarke and been greeted warily by the anti-development Save The Spit Alliance. The site in question is on the cusp of Broadwater, Southport and the less electorally interesting Surfers Paradise, and was of sufficient interest to the broader region to have been a major issue in the Gaven by-election campaign. Writing shortly afterwards, Peter Cameron of the Gold Coast Bulletin reported that "National Party scrutineers at some booths were astonished on Saturday night that Greens preferences went to their candidate, Dr Alex Douglas … The message will not be lost on the Coalition which is certain to intensify its opposition and tactics to the cruise terminal on The Spit".

Hervey Bay (Labor 4.0%): Media attending Lawrence Springborg’s opening of Nationals candidate Jan Rohozinski’s electorate office were quick to pounce when they noticed three "young children" left unattended in a nearby car emblazoned with Rohozinski’s campaign logo. Campaign workers quickly drove it away, and it was not clear whether the car or its occupants were hers. Rohozinski has also made the papers by refusing to resign from her position on Hervey Bay City Council in accordance with a contentious provision forbidding sitting councillors from running at Queensland state elections. It appears that her position will be vacated automatically when the Electoral Commission processes her nomination, but most councillors observe the formality of resigning beforehand.

Southport (Labor 10.0%) and Kawana (Labor 1.5%): Among Labor’s bonanza of health promises is a new hospital at Kawana on the Sunshine Coast and an upgrading of existing plans for a hospital at the Griffith University Gold Coast campus, in the electorate of Southport. It had earlier been decided that the Sunshine Coast hospital would be located at nearby Sippy Downs, but this was withdrawn following allegations the then Health Minister, Gordon Nuttall, had favoured a developer with links to the Labor Party, which is the subject of an ongoing investigation by the Crime and Misconduct Commission. The Griffith University facility will now have 750 beds rather than 500 and will be delivered two years earlier than originally scheduled, at a cost of $1.23 billion rather than the original $500 million.

Gympie (Independent 10.0% vs Labor): Elisa Roberts, an independent who won the seat as a One Nation candidate in 2001, announced on July 19 that she would not contest the election, then said she might reconsider a week later, then said she had "made her decision" not to run another week later, and has now said that she will run after all. Also running is Labor’s candidate from 2001 and 2004, Rae Gate, this time as an independent. Like most locals, Gate is not pleased with the Traveston Crossing dam proposal that will inundate between 450 and 600 farms in the electorate.

Caloundra (Liberal 1.3%): The Coalition has criticised Peter Beattie’s decision to allow Labor candidate Tony Moor (who according to AAP has only been a party member for three weeks) to continue his medical practice if he is elected, in light of Labor’s attacks on Bruce Flegg for doing the same thing.

Family feuds

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.

Mixed messages

As the election campaign in Queensland gets under way, a lot is being made of Saturday’s opinion poll in the Courier-Mail showing the Coalition leading 51-49 on two-party preferred. This is partly because it is the nearest poll to hand, and partly because its finding that the government is in danger makes good copy. However, there are a number of reasons to be cautious. The poll seems to be the first Queensland state survey ever conducted by Galaxy Research, whose emergence during the 2004 election campaign was noted here. Given Queensland’s complicated electoral terrain, it seems reasonable to suggest that a new agency would face a steep learning curve. Secondly, unless there’s something in the print version that I’ve missed, the Courier-Mail provides no indication of the sample size (UPDATE: Gary Bruce in comments notes that the sample was 800, as reported here). Presumably it would be in the ballpark of the surveys conducted for the paper until recently by TNS, which polled about 500 people – well below half the samples used by Newspoll and Roy Morgan. Last but not least, the result is at odds with every poll published in the current term, except for the TNS/Courier-Mail poll published on February 3.

August 12 (Galaxy) 42 43 49 51
June 3 (TNS) 40 38 52 48
February 3 (TNS) 42 43 49 51

Newspoll and Roy Morgan tell different stories, both from the Courier-Mail and each other. Newspoll’s has the greater ring of truth. Despite the fairly constant pace of upheaval during the Beattie government’s past term, it tells of a game of two halves – of a government maintaining its supremacy in the first half and facing a stiff challenge in the second. The obvious dividing line is the politically calamitous Dr Death scandal, which erupted early in April 2005.

The numbers indicate the timing of 1. the "Winegate" episode involving Indigenous Affairs Minister Liddy Clark, 2. Clark’s resignation as minister, 3. the emergence of the Dr Death scandal, 4. Labor’s defeat in the Chatsworth and Redcliffe by-elections, 5. Gordon Nuttall’s resignation as Health Minister, 6. Labor’s defeat in the Gaven by-election, 7. the Mary River dam announcement, and 8. the failure of the proposed merger of the Coalition parties.

Roy Morgan, whose most recent poll came out yesterday, paints a rosy picture for Labor even by its own world-famous standards. Indeed, every single poll it has conducted since the 2004 election – and they have come at regular bi-monthly intervals, with samples of around 1200 – has shown Labor set to increase its primary vote, and the Coalition parties struggling to break even.

At best, a very mild Dr Death effect can be determined through a narrowing of the two-marty margin from October 2005, but even Labor’s worst result had them in a better position than at the 2004 election. However, care should be taken even with plausible-sounding two-party figures for Queensland, which has optional preferential voting and a tradition of strongly performing independents and minor parties.

Roy Morgan at least has the advantage of being up-to-date. Events since Newspoll’s last survey include the state budget, the Toowoomba recycled water referendum, Beattie assuming the role of Water Minister and Bruce Flegg’s rise to the Liberal leadership – not to mention the first day of campaigning which, as a quick look at The Australian makes clear, has not gone well for the Coalition. Among the articles featured is an assessment from Malcolm Mackerras that Beattie will survive with a five-seat majority.

Ready, set, go

As I type, Peter Beattie is speaking at a press conference announcing a Queensland state election for September 9. Following a very late night last night, I have knocked into shape a partially completed election guide that might be wanting for a bit of proof-reading. At this stage it is limited to outlines of the electoral history of each seat, which will be fleshed out in due course with further detail on the areas covered by the electorates and commentary on the main candidates. Completion of this will probably limit the amount of blog commentary in the first week or so of the campaign, but we’ll see how we go.

For Pete’s sake

Word around the campfire is that Peter Beattie will pay a visit to Government House on Tuesday to call a Queensland state election for September 9. While this may yet prove to be the product of elaborate bluffing on Beattie’s part, the speculation is being taken very seriously by the Courier-Mail and the ABC, and also by Antony Green, whose election guide is now open for business. I am currently very hard at work whipping my own effort into shape and hope to have it up by next weekend.