Tomorrow, January 31, Queensland will go to the polls to decide whether to keep Premier Campbell Newman and his Liberal National Party, or install Labor led by Annastacia Palaszczuk. From a national perspective, the key issues would seem to be bikie laws and reef dredging, but in the Sunshine State voters are much more concerned about the economy.
A crippling inland drought and the falling price of coal means Queensland has a debt of around a quarter of the state's gross product, which is the highest debt-to-product ratio in the country. This has sunk the trend unemployment rate for Queensland to 6.6 percent, only second to Tasmania at 6.8. So the focus is on money, and that's fuelling everything else.
Let's start with some background. The Queensland division of the Liberal Party is called the Liberal National Party (LNP), which Campbell Newman led to a crushing win over Labor in August 2012. It was the worst loss a Labor government has ever suffered in Queensland it and decimated their influence down to seven out of 89 possible seats. As Queensland doesn't have an upper house ( it was abolished in 1921) ruling governments operate on a uniquely long leash, and the Newman Government very quickly made a raft of changes.
In September 2012 the LNP announced they were slashing 14,000 jobs from the public sector. A year later, a bill was unveiled to list 26 outlaw bikie clubs as criminal organisations and convict members accordingly. Along the way Newman has faithfully backed coal mining and advocated for the privatisation of the state's public assets. This has made him immensely unpopular among left-leaning voters, leading to Labor wins in bi-elections. However, Queensland's conservative powerbase still runs strong.
One subject conspicuously missing from the election discourse is the environment. Last year saw Barack Obama pointedly tell a G20 audience that the "incredible natural glory of the Great Barrier Reef [was] threatened." Despite this the LNP has continued to promote the state's coal mining industry, including its controversial expansion of the Abbott Point port and its subsequent dredging. Labor has vowed to ban dredging in the reef if they win office, but few other environmental policies have come from either party. Two weeks ago Campbell Newman even joined Jayakumar Janakuraj, the CEO of Adani Australia and owner of Abbot Point, to announce dredging would go ahead and that dumping dredge spoil in the reef was still an option, despite renouncing the plan last year. Clearly the environment has not been an election issue, even with Brisbane having its hottest Australia Day in 14 years.
So why the focus on the economy? Politics Professor Kath Gelber from the University of Queensland explains that the LNP have pledged to reduce debt as a priority, while spending large amounts on job training ($91 million) health ($583.4 million) and policing ($83.3 million). And to bankroll these disparate pledges, they'll privatise public assets such as ports, water, and electricity. "But the Newman Government knows that's not a popular idea, so they're saying they won't sell public assets but lease them out for 90 years. Labor is saying that's basically the same thing, so they've promised to not engage these leases." And the irony, as Professor Gelber points out, is that selling public assets is one of the issues that lost Labor the 2012 election.
Labor, led by the 45 year-old former lawyer Annastacia Palaszczuk, would need to gain 30 new seats to win government. This is an uphill mission she has evoked the customary "David and Goliath" cliches to describe, so obviously the LNP are in a good position. The only real concern for the Libs is that Campbell Newman's seat of Ashgrove needs a swing of only 5.7 for the premier to lose office. And as Professor Gelber highlights, "the LNP have resolutely refused to tell the public who they'd install if Newman lost his seat, so it's an interesting time."
The last notable detail of Queensland's election is how Tony Abbott has avoided Campbell Newman's campaign. Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten on the other hand, has visited Queensland no less than 11 times. "The Newman Government is trying to campaign on state-based issues," explains Professor Gelber. "It seems to be an attempt to distance themselves as much as possible from the federal coalition." Whether Queensland can avoid becoming a lightning rod for federal resentment, as was the case in Victoria, is yet to be seen.
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