1. The election was in large part a referendum on Queensland’s border closure and the right wing decisively lost
The Palaszczuk government’s victory in the Queensland election, the first state election held in Australia since the onset of the COVID crisis, is a defeat for the business lobby that has for months demanded profits be prioritised over public health. It is a triumph for the good sense of ordinary people who have rejected their cruel calculus.
The main issue at stake in this election was whether the Palaszczuk government’s strategy of keeping the state border closed to the southern states for several months, with only gradual reopening, would receive popular support. The measure has done much to minimise the impact of the coronavirus in Queensland—there have been only six deaths in the state since the start of the pandemic and, other than a brief outbreak in July when the border was briefly reopened, case numbers have been extremely low since April.
Despite this success, the government has been under a sustained attack by business lobby groups, the Murdoch press, the Morrison government and, until recently, the state LNP Opposition. They have run an aggressive campaign demanding that the border be reopened. Even now, when restrictions have been eased substantially, they haven’t let up. Nothing but the complete abandonment of precautionary public health measures is enough for these people. As far as business is concerned, there is no right more sacred than the right to make money, something that must trump the right of the population to escape the risks of a deadly pandemic.
The media have been a reliable voice for this right-wing campaign. Most news bulletins and every newspaper have made time or space for tourism operators, and retail, hospitality and accommodation bosses to whinge about the business impact of the border restrictions. The election result, which will see Labor representation on the floor of the 93-seat parliament rise from 48 seats to a likely 52, is a sharp public rejection of this campaign and a slap in the face for those who would subject us to the risk of an out of control pandemic.
It is obvious to most people, given the situation in Europe and the Americas, that prematurely or recklessly lifting public health restrictions could easily, and quickly, lead to a public health disaster. That is why the border closure helped the premier’s approval rating rise to unprecedented levels and why Labor, which was looking likely to lose before the pandemic, has now been returned to office for another term with a 5 percentage-point increase in its primary vote, taking it above 40 percent for the first time since 2009.
Given the popularity of the border closure, as revealed by regular polling in the last six months, the LNP was forced to back away from the campaign some weeks before the election, but this did not shield it from public censure for its earlier positioning. And the conservatives’ supposed commitment to following the advice of the chief health officer is obviously insincere—its MPs take every opportunity to talk about the supposed harm being caused by the border closure.
The LNP identified ten of Labor’s marginal seats it thought could fall its way. The party ended up going backwards in all of them and losing several of its own. It will now have just 34 on its side of the chamber. The LNP has now gone backwards in each of the three elections since its landslide victory in 2012 under Campbell Newman.
Some of the loudest voices demanding the border be reopened have been on the Gold Coast. In several Gold Coast electorates, normally safe turf for the LNP, many voters demonstrated their hostility to these demands by switching to Labor. In Burleigh, Surfers Paradise, Southport and Coomera, Labor gained positive swings in the two-party preferred vote and may pick up Currumbin, right on the border. In only two Gold Coast seats did the LNP make ground on Labor.
The same is true on the Sunshine Coast, one of the state’s other major tourism centres. At Ninderry, Nicklin, Buderim, Caloundra, Glass House and, closer to Brisbane, Pumicestone, Labor’s two-party preferred swing was even bigger—5-6 percent. Labor won Caloundra and is on track to win Pumicestone as well.
Nearly 2,000 kilometres to the north, voters in another tourism hotspot, Cairns, also shifted to Labor, with the ALP making gains in two of its marginal seats, Cairns and Barron River, while holding onto Mulgrave. Cook, the offensively named electorate covering Cape York, also looks safe in Labor’s hands.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that some of the trend to Labor on the Gold Coast was the result of elderly LNP voters, for whom COVID-19 may well be a death sentence, shifting to the party. This was also obvious in the 11 percent swing to Labor in Hervey Bay, a coastal haven for retirees. The ALP has taken the seat for the first time since 2009.
The election outcome in Queensland sends a clear signal of the strong public support for putting public health first despite the tantrums from the cashed-up and well-connected business lobbies and conservative politicians.
2. The LNP’s racist law and order campaign in Townsville and Cairns didn’t pay off
When the LNP wasn’t trying to undermine the border closure it was doing its best to drum up a law and order scare campaign targeting Labor as “soft on crime”. It zeroed in on Townsville and Cairns and, with the help of local racists and the media, stirred up a vigilante atmosphere. The LNP barely tried to disguise its intention to drive Aboriginal teenagers off the streets. Local thugs, encouraged by the politicians, took matters into their own hands and assaulted young Aboriginal men and women. Both Labor and the LNP were happy to boast their “tough” credentials, but the LNP took things up to another level when it promised to introduce a night-time curfew in the two cities.
The LNP thought it was on a winner here. Townsville swung against Labor at the 2017 election and its three seats were lineball as a result. Winning all three was part of the LNP’s roadmap to power. It ran as candidates a former army officer, a police inspector and a real estate agent who ran the local branch of Crime Stoppers.
They failed badly, Labor retaining all three Townsville seats with swings towards it of around 3 percent. In Cairns, the law and order campaign failed to gain any traction. This doesn’t mean Aboriginal youth are going to escape police harassment: the Palaszczuk government has promised to boost police numbers by 2,000 and has already reneged on an earlier promise to prevent ten-year-olds being held in police watch houses, but the worst attack has been fended off for now.
Something else can be taken from the LNP’s failure in Townsville and Cairns. When Labor is asked why it pursues right-wing policies on so many fronts—crime, racism and the fossil fuel industries in particular—its supporters often suggest that they have no alternative because they won’t get a hearing in north Queensland unless they do so.
But the fact that Labor publicly rejected the curfew in the face of a hysterical law and order campaign and still gained votes demonstrates that the so-called redneck north is not irredeemably racist and a lost cause for progressive politics. The problem is that Labor just accepts the demands of capital and assumes workers do too. But this election points to the fact that workers in north Queensland can be won. If the unions came out and fought, progressive politics would stand a fighting chance.
3. One Nation tanked
At the 2017 state election, One Nation stormed back into contention as a political force in Queensland after making a similar breakthrough at the 2016 federal election. This time around the party crashed. Compared to the last election, its primary vote fell by half or more in many of the seats it contested. One particularly welcome development was One Nation’s failure to build support in the more working-class areas south of Brisbane: in Toohey, Stretton, Mansfield and Algester, where One Nation made inroads in 2017, its primary vote fell from 10-15 percent to 2-7 percent. Likewise, in the four seats in Ipswich and its surrounding district, historically a happy hunting ground for One Nation, the party’s primary vote halved.
Party leader Pauline Hanson barely made an appearance in the campaign, which hurt the party’s vote, but the fact that many of its 2017 supporters went to Labor this time around suggests that the party’s elderly supporters did not appreciate Hanson’s attempt to make light of COVID-19 and in particular her attempt to raise money for a High Court challenge to the border closure. It’s also possible that Palaszczuk’s position fighting the federal government appealed to the parochial sentiments of Hanson’s supporters. Being booted from breakfast television, combined with the closure of many regional newspapers, which historically have given her extensive exposure, may have been another factor in limiting Hanson’s audience this time.
4. The Greens pose an increasing threat to Labor in inner Brisbane
In the run-up to the election, the Greens hoped to win four seats and hold the balance of power. It didn’t come to that—the party added just one seat. But they did well in the seats they targeted, all in inner Brisbane. The main scalp was former Deputy Premier Jackie Trad in South Brisbane. The existing Greens MP in leafy Maiwar, Michael Berkman, who the LNP believed it could defeat, easily won re-election with a 14-point increase in his primary vote. In Cooper and McConnel, the Greens fell short. But with a primary vote of 30 percent and some momentum, the party poses a challenge to Labor’s dominance of inner Brisbane. If current trends continue, the Greens will be on course to win those four seats.
The Greens’ increasing electoral popularity is a welcome sign of growing public opposition to Queensland Labor’s right-wing policies. The Greens have campaigned on a broadly social-democratic platform for some years, focusing on public housing, education, health and transport. They have called for the closure of the coalmining industry. As the Greens boast, this is attracting support for the party. Over the past decade, their primary vote has doubled. But unless the progressive sentiment that the Greens vote reflects is tied to practical campaigning, more than just door knocking for politicians, it will remain impotent.
Government doesn’t change hands frequently in Queensland. Only twice since the Joh Bjelke-Petersen era came to an end in 1989 has Labor lost office. If it serves out what is now a fixed four-year term, by 2024 it will have been in office for 30 of the last 35 years. But as its track record has shown, we can’t expect much from Labor in office. On issues that matter—such as climate change, economic inequality, public services and Aboriginal rights—we’re going to have to keep fighting and mobilising in the streets to make progress.