Thoughts from afar on the Queensland election

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For me, commenting on the Queensland election is like an astronomer explaining the geography of Jupiter’s moons — there’s a lot of data, but ultimately I’m a long way away from the action.

Nevertheless, as an arm-chair election campaigner in this case, I thought I’d add to the countless blog posts and articles pawing over the entrails of QLD Labor.

My starting points and assumptions are:

  1. Anna Bligh lost a lot of legitimacy after the last election when she announced the asset sales and privatisation, after campaigning against privatisation. Crikey at the time (in 2009) noted that about 10 points were wiped off Bligh’s popularity when she did this, and she never recovered (the floods notwithstanding).
  2. Fourteen years is a long time, and the “it’s time for a change” factor was a massive element in the swing. People were ready for a change of government, and combined with an unpopular premier who had broken trust with the electorate before, they were prepared to hand any credible party the reigns, regardless of potential scandal or competency.
  3. The anaemic state of Labor’s branch structures (in dire straights across Australia, and I haven’t seen anyone claim that QLD is a hotbed of grassroots Labor activism) meant that on election day, many booths were understaffed (or unstaffed altogether). It’s an election truism that not having someone handing out how to vote cards at a polling booth significantly depresses a party or candidate’s vote.
  4. Labor federally and at a state level has pursued unpopular economic policies that are driven by ne0-liberal (economic rationalist) ideology that is fundamentally at odds with its labourist, progressive, social democratic values. Privatisation, cuts to the public service, public-private partnerships, and so on are examples of brand-erosion (see more here). This has caused voters to become confused about what Labor actually stands for — and strengthens the principle that if Labor introduces Liberal Party policies, why not just vote Liberal.
  5. Aerial wars are useless if you can’t fight the ground war. You can’t win an election with television advertising and centrally produced direct mail alone. The volunteers on the ground, door knocking, holding street stalls, putting up garden signs, talking to their neighbours, are important. This is why the hollowing out of the Party is so destructive to Labor.

On reflection, I think that the primary cause of Labor’s election loss is the fact that they were an old government that had been in power for a long time. It is difficult for Labor (but also for any party) to govern for over a decade. After a while, governments become stale, they lose touch and they accumulate scandal, unhappiness and ill-will. By far, this in my view explains large state or nation-wide swings. Of course, they can be exacerbated by other factors.

There’s an interesting report by Ian McAllister from the ANU who looks at demographics and Labor’s support. The report looks at where Labor lost its support between 2007 and 2010 (I would argue that 2007 was a high water mark) — and the two groups that swung away from Labor the most were union members and public service workers.

Thinking about the QLD election (and of course we won’t know until some post-election polling/research is done), two groups that were severely alienated by Labor’s and Bligh’s privatisation and public-service job cuts decisions were union members and public servants.

Anecdotally, many of the people who volunteered for Labor election after election over the decades were teachers and public servants. In 2010, teachers who had volunteered for their entire lives stayed at home.

Given the stories that I’ve heard about the QLD election, where some electorates couldn’t staff booths, it seems to me that not only have public servants and union members switched away from Labor, but the activists within those groups have given up. In 2007 and 2010, I’m told that Queensland Labor struggled to cover every polling booth. In 2007, this was blamed on the Your Rights At Work campaign siphoning volunteers, but this excuse can’t be made in 2010 or for this state election.

This point ties more broadly to my assumption that aerial campaigning — that is, direct mail, television and radio advertising, winning the media cycle — is no longer enough for Labor to win elections. You can’t win a war with air supremacy alone. You need ground forces — and for election campaigns, that means lots of volunteers and party members.

While an army of volunteers won’t win an election against a massive “it’s time” swing, it will help keep swings from their extremes. A good recent example of the success of people power is the “Keep Carmel” campaign in inner-Sydney of Marrickville. Carmel Tebbutt’s campaign showed that a large contingent of volunteers can contribute to a close election victory against the tide of a large swing. I’d also add in Jane Garrett’s campaign in Brunswick in Victoria, which relied on grassroots campaigning rather than just direct mail and TV ads.

I’m not convinced that Labor’s negative campaign against Campbell Newman was a liability — negative campaigns do work.  However, they are only effective however, if they tap into something that the populace are already concerned about. Negative ads will miss the mark if they make outrageous, unrealistic or incredible claims. The question remains about whether Labor tapped into an existing view of Newman. Did Labor wait too long to go negative — should Anna Bligh and Labor have tried to build the context for Newman as soon as he became LNP leader? Perhaps the negative ads needed a third-party to make the claim, so there was a “credible” external source.

Of course, this entire post is written from the point of view of someone very far away from Queensland. I don’t have any insider insight into the election campaign, and I only peripherally followed the campaign itself, on and off, as it appeared in the media in Victoria.

Someone who is in Queensland (and is, admittedly, a Greens Party voter, so not very representative of the populace) is John Quiggin, who’s analysis appeals to me. He argues that Labor’s problem stemmed from its adoption of conservative economic policies (e.g. the privatisation), which struck against Labor’s traditional platform and beliefs:

The idea that you lose votes by doing something that’s directly opposed to your platform, that you’ve promised not to do, and that voters hate, seems not to compute

Needless to say, there will be many in QLD Labor who may disagree with this academic, Greenie point of view. No doubt many in Labor will defend the asset sales or the various other neo-liberal policies that Beattie and Bligh introduced, as being “economically responsible”. I disagree — and I’ve written about why over several posts here, here and here.

UPDATE

Piping Shrike argues that the sudden collapse of Labor is structural:

While Labor’s end-of-politics technocrat model had some appeal, in reality it was built on sand. It never restored Labor’s social base that it lost with the declining influence of the unions, except maybe from public service employees, and even those it lost with the sale of state assets and an attempt to offload the costs of running the services. What was often under-estimated was the conflict between those who demand better services, without paying too much for them, and the interests of employees who had to provide them.

I also agree with PS that the solution to this rout is not Gillard spending more time in Queensland, as Peter Beattie suggested on Insiders.

UPDATE II

Brian at Larvatus Prodeo makes the point that like NSW Labor, the Queensland Government had the accumulated burden of several major scandals and failures, going back to Beattie. The Dr Death scandal in 2006, the Health Dept pay debacle and ongoing problems with the two-speed economy. Combined with Bligh’s breach of faith over asset sales, this made a toxic combination. Compared to the Victorian election loss, with endemic (rather than crisis) policy problems (MyKi, public transport, north-south pipeline, desalination), the Queensland and NSW elections were precipitated by more serious issues.

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Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Alexander White - March 26, 2012

    Yet another blog post talking about the QLD election: "Thoughts from afar on the Queensland election" – http://t.co/x1ZXNHx6

  2. Christopher Anderson - March 26, 2012

    Yet another blog post talking about the QLD election: "Thoughts from afar on the Queensland election" – http://t.co/x1ZXNHx6

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