Psephologically speaking, the looming election in Queensland has an impossible act to follow, coming as it does after two of the most extraordinary elections results in Australian history. The first was the result in 2012 that reduced Labor under Anna Bligh to seven seats in a parliament of 89 a result made all the more remarkable by the fact that the successful Liberal National Party leader, Campbell Newman, was engaging in an unpredented run for the premiership despite not holding a seat in parliament. No less remarkable was the Newman's failure to defend what was perhaps the most commanding parliamentary majority in Australian history at the 2015 election, with fully 35 of the state's 89 seats changing hands at consecutive elections including his own seat of Ashgrove. Labor emerged one seat short of a majority, requiring only the support of an independent, Nicklin MP Peter Wellington, to install Annastacia Palaszczuk as the thirty-ninth Premier of Queensland.
The LNP will be led into the election by Tim Nicholls, who served as Treasurer throughout the period of Campbell Newman's government. The party originally returned to the leadership of Lawrence Springborg after the election defeat, but he was deposed by Nicholls in a party room vote in May 2016. Neither party has achieved ascendancy in the polls, although most pollsters have credited Palaszczuk with a solid lead as preferred premier.
If the election has the potential to match the shockwaves of 2012 and 2015, it most likely resides in the Pauline Hanson factor, following One Nation's spectacular return to national prominence at the 2016 federal election. The high water mark of the first One Nation tide was at the Queensland state election of 1998, at which it won 11 seats. Opinion polls have had the party in the mid to high teens, but support for it is always volatile, and much depends on the party's capacity to run a more orderly campaign than it did at the Western Australian election in March. Much may depend on the party's policy on preferences, and this too has been complicated by the experience in Western Australia, where a deal between Liberal and One Nation did serious electoral damage to both parties.
The ascendancy of One Nation appears to corner the market in a regional protest vote that drove support for Katter's Australian Party in 2012 and the Palmer United Party 2015. The former scaled back its ambitions considerably at the 2015 election, at which it succeeded only in defending its two existing seats.
Queensland's lack of an upper house has meant the Greens have failed to make their mark on state politics, with the party yet to succeed in a lower house seat at an election. However, the party's hopes were boosted when it won The Gabba ward at the Brisbane City Council election in March 2016, which almost precisely corresponds with Deputy Premier Jackie Trad's seat of South Brisbane. The government's efforts to accommodate Adani's proposed Carmichael coal mine have given it a strong issue to campaign on.
Labor in government
Annastacia Palaszczuk's path to the premiership began in 2006, when she succeeded her father, Henry Palaszczuk, as member for the safe Labor seat of Inala in Brisbane's south-west. She had earlier worked as a policy adviser for various Labor ministers, and been studying for a law degree. Promoted to cabinet after the 2009 election as Disability Services Minister, then gaining promotion to Transport Minister in February 2011, Palaszczuk was one of seven members to survive the party's great electoral disaster of March 2012, and three who had served from cabinet. Despite having been outranked in the Bligh cabinet by Mackay MP Tim Mulherin, she emerged unopposed as leader.
Labor emerged from the shock election result of January 2015 one seat short of a parliamentary majority, with 44 seats out of 89, and secured the requisite extra vote from independent Nicklin MP Peter Wellington circumstances identical in every particular to 1998, when Labor under Peter Beattie defeated the short-lived Coalition government of Rob Borbidge. However, the comparison does not seem to have extended to the supremacy that Beattie was able to establish once in government. Labor's position was soon weakened by the forced resignation from the party of Cook MP Billy Gordon over his failure to disclose past criminal convictions on his preselection nomination. This was followed a year later by the resignation of Cairns MP Rob Pyne, who complained of bullying and a lack of action on coal seam gas, mining lobby influence, political corruption and liberalising abortion laws.
On securing government, Palaszczuk emerged at the head of a compact cabinet of 14 that included five parliamentary newcomers and five veterans of the Bligh ministry, three of whom had returned to parliament after losing their seats in 2012. The cabinet was notable for being the first in Australia to have a female majority, of eight out of 14, which became nine out of 17 when the cabinet was expanded the following December. The government has suffered three ministerial resignations: Bundamba MP Jo-Ann Miller, out as Police Minister after a bungle involving Crime and Corruption Commission documents; Bundaberg MP Leanne Donaldson, dumped in November 2016 over her failure to pay nearly $8000 in council rates; and Sandgate MP Stirling Hinchliffe, who fell foul of mass rail service cancellations as Transport Minister in January 2017.
The LNP in opposition
The LNP will be led into the election by Tim Nicholls, who deposed Lawrence Springborg as leader in May 2016. Nicholls entered parliament in 2006 after six years on Brisbane City Council, and unsuccessfully sought leadership positions with the Liberal Party in November 2007 and the LNP after the 2009 election. He then emerged as a key backer of the Campbell Newman plan in April 2011, and served as Treasurer through the term of his government from 2012 to 2015.
Nicholls' close association with the Newman administration was such that its defeat in January 2015 dented his prestige, and he did not emerge as a contender for the leadership of the election. The position instead went back to Lawrence Springborg, who had led the opposition as Nationals leader from 2003 to 2006 and LNP leader from 2008 to 2009, in which time he lost three elections. John-Paul Langbroek, who had led the LNP from 2009 to 2011, became the deputy leader and Shadow Treasurer, with Nicholls demoted to more junior portfolios.
Perhaps inevitably for a twice-recycled three-time election loser, Springborg soon became the subject of mutterings that he was failing to make an impact. The situation came to a head in April 2016, when the LNP was blindsided in parliament by Labor's cross-bench deal on compulsory preferential voting. As reports circulated that he would imminently face a challenge from Tim Nicholls and Tim Mander, Springborg called their bluff by bringing on a vote on May 6. Springborg led the first round of the ballot with 17 votes to 14 for Nicholls and 10 for Mander, but the exclusion of Mander in the second round clinched the result for Nicholls by 22 votes to 19. Langbroek stepped aside as deputy leader, with Nanango MP Deb Frecklington chosen to succeed him without opposition.
The LNP suffered a defection from its parliamentary ranks in February 2017, when Buderim MP Steve Dickson jumped ship to One Nation, saying he was disaffected by both major parties' reluctance to grant an amnesty to parents who provided medicinal cannabis to their children. This gave One Nation its first seat in the state since the defeat of Tablelands MP Rosa Lee Long at the 2009 election.
Queensland's state politics over the past century can be divided into three epochs, separated by the Labor split of 1957 and the defeat of the Nationals government in 1989. Labor's first period of dominance ran from 1915 to 1957, when they won 14 elections of 15, losing power only in the term of 1929 to 1932. This came to a decisive end when Premier Vince Gair was expelled from the ALP in 1957, with the effect that two rival Labor parties contested an election held under first-past-the-post. The split appeared to be a catalyst for decisive shifts in voting behaviour in regional Queensland, with seats including Gympie, Gregory and Southern Downs passing permanently from Labor to conservative dominance at this time.
There followed a 32 year period of conservative rule, first under Frank Nicklin and then briefly under Jack Pizzey, who died six months after taking office in July 1968. Thus began the reign of Joh Bjelke-Petersen, who held an at first tenuous hold on the Country Party leadership, before coming into his own as a thorn in the side of the Whitlam government. A crushing win over Labor in December 1974 confirmed Bjelke-Petersen's place in the conservative firmament, but even greater triumphs lay in store in the following decade. The Nationals secured a majority in their own right at the 1983 election, thanks to a frontal assault on a rebellious Liberal Party that yielded eight seats six won at the election, followed by two post-election defections. The feat was unexpectedly repeated in 1986, fuelling the delusions that led Bjelke-Petersen to mount his abortive campaign for the prime ministership the following year.
Labor finally saw off a Coalition government crippled by the Fitzgerald inquiry and leadership instability in 1989, since when the conservative parties have only won a parliamentary majority on one occasion. The Coalition's brief return to power from 1996 to 1998 was achieved with the support of an independent, and it ended amid the extraordinary result of 1998, when One Nation won 11 seats. Exploiting Coalition disunity over its response to the challenge of Hansonism, Peter Beattie led Labor to a series of crushing victories that extended into blue-ribbon Brisbane seats such as Clayfield and Indooroopilly, and led Labor to a dominance on the Gold Coast it had never accomplished either at federal or state level before or since.
The complication to the story of Labor's post-1989 ascendancy is the devastating scale of the defeat in 2012, which offered a perfect storm of the it's time factor, a perceived broken promise on asset sales, and fierce hostility to the Labor government federally (echoing the elections of 1974 and 1995). But rather than usher in a new epoch of conservative dominance, the result instead stands as testament to the extraordinary volatility of modern voting behaviour, at least at state level.
With the two parties evenly matched at the 2015 election, Queensland's electoral map broadly resumed familiar contours. However, there were a few distinctions to be drawn between Annastacia Palaszczuk's winning coalition in 2015 and Anna Bligh's in 2009. Labor under Palaszczuk nabbed difficult regional seats including Bundaberg, Maryborough and Mirani, but fell short in metropolitan Chatsworth, Everton, Mount Ommaney and Mansfield, and emerged empty-handed on the Gold Coast.
Redistribution and electoral arithmetic
Labor fell one seat short of the 45 seats needed for a majority in 2015, with 42 LNP members elected along with a cross bench of three: Robbie Katter and Shane Knuth of Katter's Australian Party, and independent Peter Wellington. The latter's determination to pursue the simplest available option had the effect of freezing out the two re-elected KAP members, Robbie Katter and Shane Knuth, from a decisive role in the formation of government. The major parties reached parity following the resignations from Labor of Billy Gordon in March 2015 and Rob Pyne in January 2016, but both resolved to continue supporting Labor on confidence and supply. However, the LNP suffered a defection of their own in February 2017, when Buderim MP Steve Dickson quit to give One Nation its first seat in parliament since 2009.
The creation of four new seats in the redistribution has given rise to the new notionally Labor seats of Macalister, Jordan and Bancroft at various points on the fringes of Brisbane, and one new notional LNP seat apiece on the Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast. This is balanced by the abolition of the Labor seat of Mount Coot-tha in Brisbane's inner west. The redistribution also has the effect of nudging three marginal LNP seats (Burdekin, Mansfield and Mount Ommaney) to the Labor side of the pendulum, with one marginal Labor seat (Pumicestone) going the other way. All told, this suggests Labor would have made it to a majority of 48 seats out 93 if the 2015 election had been held on the new boundaries, with the LNP unchanged on 42. Taking subsequent defections into account, Labor would have fallen below the majority threshold with 46 seats, while the LNP would still have been down to 41.
Of the now six cross-benchers, all will be recontesting their seats except Peter Wellington, who is bowing out from the naturally conservative Sunshine Coast seat of Nicklin. Given the ease with which they were re-elected in 2015, it can be presumed that the two Katter's Australian Party members are strongly placed, although both have had their lives complicated by the redistribution: Knuth's seat of Dalrymple has been transformed into Hill, drawing only about half of its voters from his existing seat, while Katter's Mount Isa electorate is now Traeger, from which nearly a third of the voters are newly acquired. Billy Gordon's and Rob Pyne's seats are little changed, but their drawing power as independent candidates is untested.
Hanging over electoral prognostications is the unknown quantity of One Nation, which recorded 9.2% of the statewide vote for the Senate at the federal election in July 2016, and has been recording nearly double that in opinion polls over the last year. It took the party 22.7% of the vote to achieve its haul of 11 seats in 1998, and modelling by Kevin Bonham suggests its return would drop steeply as it fell below that level, reducing to a handful of seats at 17%. The party's strongest prospect would appear to be the seat of Lockyer, covering the area between Brisbane and Toowoomba: Pauline Hanson narrowly failed to win the seat herself in 2015, the party's local Senate vote was comfortably the highest in the state in 2016, and the LNP sitting member, Ian Rickuss, is retiring. Most of its other strongest seats are in naturally conservative rural areas, but Labor could come under threat in its regional seats of Mirani, Maryborough and Bundaberg.
Constitutional and electoral law reform
Queensland has witnessed three significant changes in its constitutional and electoral arrangements during Labor's short time in office. The first was the introduction of four-year terms following a 53.0% yes vote at a referendum in March 2016. This made Queensland the last state to introduce such a reform, the other states having done so between 1972 and 1997. An earlier attempt by Wayne Goss's government was unsuccessful, winning only 48.9% support at a referendum in March 1991. With future elections fixed for the last Saturday in October, the change had an important bearing on the immediate calculations of the Palaszczuk government. Since the amendment takes effect in the fourth calendar year after the year of the election, the government stood to lose nearly a full year from its prospective term if political calculations caused it to favour an election in late 2017, rather than early 2018.
A second change has been an increase in the size of parliament, the first in the state since 1986. This was pursued by the LNP and cross-benchers members, reflecting a concern common to both though not one keenly felt in the electorate about the persistent tendency for electoral redistributions to abolish seats in the stagnating regions and create new ones in south-east Queensland. Bills to achieve this were introduced by the LNP and Katter's Australian Party in 2015, and in early 2016 a formulation was settled on that secured the support of a parliamentary majority, while continuing to be opposed by Labor. The result is an increase from 89 seats to 93, which achieved the desired effect of preventing the abolition of regional seats, while adding four new ones in the south-east.
The legislation to enlarge parliament loomed as an embarrassing defeat for the Labor government, but they turned the tables on the LNP with a surprise amendment that piggy-backed a return to compulsory preferential voting to the bill. Despite the total absence of a consultation process, or any prior indication that the government was considering such a move, the amendment won the required support from cross-benchers who recognised that their flow of preferences from major party voters would greatly increase if they were required to number every box.
The preference factor
Labor's enthusiasm for compulsory preferential voting, and willingness to wear the opprobrium for the underhanded means by which it was accomplished, arose from a desire to lock in preferences from the Greens. When required to number every box at federal elections, Greens voters in Queensland, as elsewhere, typically favour Labor over the Coalition by a ratio of four to one. However, voters generally, and Greens voters in particular, increasingly favoured numbering a single box later during Labor's previous time in office. According to Antony Green's calculations, Labor's share of Greens preferences fell to around 40% in 2009 and 2012, with 40% to 45% exhausting, before dramatically recovering to around 60% in 2015, with only 25% exhausting. This gave Labor's statewide two-party vote a boost of around 1%, and reducing the exhaustion rate to zero through compulsory preferences promised to repeat the dose.
What Labor had not counted on was the comeback by One Nation the following year, which turned preference calculations on their head. During One Nation's first wave, optional preferential voting made a significant contribution to Peter Beattie's electoral supremacy by facilitating a splintering in the anti-Labor vote. Now there was the prospect that Hanson's party would reel in voters who had turned to Labor without enthusiasm in 2015, and deliver their votes to the LNP through a preference deal. Such a deal was clearly in prospect, with a view taking hold within conservative ranks that arrangements with Hanson were both necessary and defensible.
However, the preference narrative took another turn with the Western Australian state election in March 2017, at which a deal between Liberal and One Nation appeared to have disastrous consequences for both parties. Controversy surrounding the decision drowned out the Liberal campaign, contributing to a defeat that exceeded the party's worst expectations. For their part, One Nation became embroiled by infighting over the decision, which was bitterly criticised by a number of their candidates, and their election result failed to live up to the predictions of pre-campaign opinion polls.
Nonetheless, it did appear that around 60% of One Nation's preferences flowed to the Liberals, compared with around 50% in the small number of seats the party contested at the 2016 federal election. As polling confirmed the impression that One Nation was headed for strong performances in a number of regional seats on tight margins, Tim Nicholls refused to rule out a deal. However, it was now questionable whether One Nation were interested, given that Pauline Hanson herself said the Western Australian deal was a mistake, and intimated that the party was considering returning to its policy from the early 2000s of directing preferences against all sitting members.