Sunday, 22 March 2009

A Failure in Victory

Everyone thought it would be close. It wasn’t. At 7:10pm Antony Green called the election for Labor. In truth it felt rather anti climatic. The ABC called it when only three seats changed hands and when it was clear the big swing to the LNP was not on. You’d expect me to be overjoyed, and I’ll probably be shot by my ALP comrades for saying this, but the ALP didn’t deserve to win, and the statistics suggest this. The only reason Bligh was able to retain government was due to its massive victories in 2001, 2004 and 2006. This election result more or less restored the balance to the Parliament, which has been so thoroughly dominated by Labor since the first of these victories.

After a good night’s sleep my feelings of bitterness have abated somewhat but I cannot help but think that Queensland deserves better. While that comment may seem overtly self serving given my party’s victory it remains true. I’ve talked before about how the campaign tactics of Labor were absolutely deplorable, and they still were. A victory does not change this. The more troubling thing regarding this is that the campaign strategists will claim this victory as a triumph, when in reality it is anything but.

Anytime there’s a 4.5% swing against the government people would expect it to fall. Swings of roughly that margin resulted in the defeats of John Howard and Paul Keating. Although the media will be drowning in history celebrating the fact that Bligh was the first woman to be elected in her own right, this ignores the cold hard facts. At this stage the ALP have lost 8 seats with more likely to come and margins have been severely dented in others. Take Treasurer Andrew Fraser’s seat of Mt Cootha for example. Going in he had a margin of 12% and now its been halved thanks to a Green primary vote of around 21%. Fraser is the best politician the Queensland ALP has and will probably succeed Bligh, but this is a terrible performance and symptomatic of a larger problem. Seats such as this are now legitimately winnable for the Opposition in 2012.

In retrospect, my prediction of small LNP majority was perhaps foolhardy. It’s not until election night that one realises the monumental task that the LNP actually had. Prior to the election the LNP held only two Brisbane seats out of 30. This time they only did marginally better picking up three, with two or three more still in doubt depending upon calculations. In this regard the LNP have failed to grasp the most basic lesson from their last two election defeats. Springborg does not appeal to Brisbane metropolitan voters. Now that he has resigned the media will probably shower him with praise instead of treating him like the abject failure that he is.

This victory runs particularly hollow for me because the ALP did so poorly on the Sunshine Coast. All seats swung against the party by margins of between 4 and 5%, clearly being the most dominant geographical area for the LNP. The thing that troubles me about this result is I thought we had reached bottom with the result at the last election, but this case the result in my opinion was far worse, given that I thought we had some credible candidates. I feel sorry for them because I know they have worked bloody hard in trying to fight the trend. However I hope my colleagues on the ALP Sunshine Coast see this as the poor result that it is rather than an indication that the ‘Sunshine Coast will always be against us’. Additionally party office treated the Sunshine Coast like its poor drunk uncle who is relegated to the back of the room. We were given absolutely no resources and perhaps most importantly Bligh did not visit us on her ‘30 electorates in 3 days tour’ indicating the lack of esteem that party office gives the region.

This election can be summarised in one word: failure. The major parties failed the voters, the media failed the public in actually reporting the issues that mattered, the LNP failed to provide suitable competition and the ALP failed to prove that they actually deserve to retain government. Ironic then that the last failure resulted in a victory. Come 2012 the party will not be so lucky.

Friday, 20 March 2009

MY Prediction

As much as the Laborite in me deplores to predict such an outcome I think the LNP will win by 2-5 seats. If the Gold Coast seats trend towards the LNP early on the ALP are in for a very long night. The Sunshine Coast seats will not change hands despite some early predictions that Kawana and Caloundra may turn red.

This will indeed be the election result the QLD ALP needs to have. A shit house campaign that was run poorly.

To quote Possom from today’s Crikey Liveblog…

Labor are over a decade old, with an increasingly dubious record, with a Leader that is factionally weak, running the most hopeless and tedious campaign in the history of hopeless and tedious political campaigns.

Friday, 13 March 2009

It's All About Strategy

Last night was my local ALP branch meeting, and the old campaign war horses sat around the tables looking as tired as I felt. A week out from polling day it seems we all felt the same way and wished polling day was tomorrow. For more reasons than one we have a gut feeling that we will not only lose all the seats on the Sunshine Coast, (again) but we will probably lose government too. For me at least, the sense of doom is made all that much worse by the fact that the probable loss of the ALP is all the doing of the party, and not based on the strength of the Opposition.

This election has been squandered because the overall tactics of the campaign strategists have been downright terrible. All campaigns have an overall theme. Kevin Rudd was all about ‘New Leadership’ in 2007, John Howard spoke ‘For All of Us’ in 1996, even Mark Latham had his ‘Ladder of Opportunity’. This year Anna Bligh talks about ‘Keeping the Economy Strong’. Translation: ‘We like what we’re already doing, vote for us if you want more of the same’. This is not the message a party should be sending after being in power for 11 years. Voters in Australia don’t vote for more of the same after 11 years, they want something dynamic.

Instead why not pitch Anna Bligh as a completely different leader to that of her predecessor? Superficially she is different from Peter Beattie. She is from the ALP Left, she is a woman, she is an inner city suburban dwelling ‘working mum’, whereas Beattie was the larrikin boy from the bush, from the Centre of the ALP who you could take to the footy, and had the potential to knock a few heads together if need be. This is chalk and cheese, not more of the same.

The campaign could have been built around the theme that Bligh knows what it takes to confront the odds, (both personally and politically) to lead the government in unreliable economic times. More importantly she has a different approach to achieve this, by being socially, environmentally and economically responsible, creating ‘New Pathways for the Future’.

To me ‘New Pathways for the Future’ emphasises all that Bligh has going for her without trashing the Beattie legacy. This would allow Bligh to project a new, vital image of a leader who can respond to the problems of the present and challenges for the future. It could also open up the ALP to the Greens a bit more, (including abandoning the Traveston) rather than the current mess the party faces now where we are preferencing them in all 89 seats and the Greens are giving the ALP scant regard in just 12 seats. This strategy also allows the opportunity for the ALP to run a mostly positive campaign.

The conventional wisdom of the campaign should have been to completely ignore the LNP, as Springborg is an horrendous campaigner (as has been proven this time around too) and the only angle of attacks should be focussed upon party unity. Even now do the voters of Queensland know who will be holding the key portfolios in his Cabinet? As it stands the campaign ads have been far too negative and have been focusing on Springborg rather than the fractured party he leads. When the party has attempted to stray from this formula it is using a pale imitation of the Kevin 07 strategy.

Anna says: ‘…protecting jobs is in Labor’s DNA’

Kevin says: ‘...being an economic conservative is in my DNA’

The Queensland ALP says: ‘Sorry Mr Springborg you won’t get my vote’

The Federal ALP says: ‘Sorry Mr Howard you won’t get my vote’

Tired strategies from a tired campaign.

The only consolation I take from a probable LNP victory is that they won’t have much of a majority, and combined with their own internal struggles they will struggle to govern effectively for the next three years. Unfortunately that doesn’t help the people of Queensland, because given the quality of the two campaigns thus far neither major party deserves to lead the state.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

The 2009 Queensland State Election: The Populism Contest

It’s hard for me to view the current Queensland election campaign with any sense of reality. I’m working at the coalface as a volunteer for some ALP candidates and all the while I’m studying how Labor Premiers of the past decade operate for the purposes of my thesis. They are two diametrically opposing forces clouding my mind when trying to make a reasonably accurate prediction as to its outcome.

The first thing to know about Queensland politics is that it is like no other. When I was living in South Australia we used to laugh at Queenslanders. After all they elected Sir Joh Bjelke Peterson premier for near on two decades, let him get away with excessive corruption, all the while looking like a bumbling fool. Well we were wrong, Joh was indeed corrupt morally and otherwise, but he was certainly no fool. He’s arguably the first populist premier of the new era. He could charm rural residents and mix it with the inner city crowd, all the while making Labor and Liberal politicians look completely out of their depth.

I arrived in Queensland a few months after Peter Beattie became premier. At the time I didn’t think he would last long at all. However he managed to turn every adversity into a triumph. First, the ALP is found guilty of branch stacking electorates in Townsville, so he called an election to ‘fix the problem’ and in doing so increased his majority. One could say ‘only in Queensland’ except he did it twice more retaining a huge majority using concerns about the Department of Children’s Services and the health care system to trigger successive election victories.

Beattie was willing to accept responsibility for his policy failures and was prepared to change unsuccessful policies through a policy ‘back flip’. Such a back flip would occur when Beattie acknowledged that he had to listen to the public, and on the strength of public opinion altered his policy. This was the key to his electoral success as Paul Williams explains…

The anatomy of the mea culpa is deceptively simple: Beattie anticipates, and then circumvents, media criticism with a pre-emptive admission of wrong-doing, an unambiguous acceptance of personal responsibility and, most effectively, a humble apology…

In effect, Queenslanders have continued the traditions of the Joh years by voting in a presidential manner: for the person, not the policy. In each successful Beattie campaign he was able to make the election about him and not about fixing these so called ‘crises’. Not only did it ensure his continued success, but it came to define his tenure as Premier. In the book Yes, Premier chronicling the rise of Australia’s 21st century Labor premiers John Wanna and Paul Williams conclude their chapter on Peter Beattie in this fashion:

Beattie is not a policy entrepreneur. He has not attached his popularity, or political instincts to the marketplace of policy ideas. Instead, policy to Beattie is more a technical set of questions and issues, the details, which usually fall to professionals once the main message has been conveyed to the electorate.

He is a seller, not a builder and now he has gone what the ALP currently face is the challenge of not only selling their policies, but also actually delivering them. There’s no doubt in my mind the ALP provide the best alternative to lead the State, even though Anna Bligh is far from Peter Beattie in the populist stakes.

The Opposition for as long as I’ve been in Queensland have been a bunch of negative campaigners who struggle to provide alternative policies even on the best day. Even worse they continue to fight internal battles to reform a party that has seemingly lost its relevance in a state that is becoming increasingly urbanised. Although the Liberal and National Parties have merged to form the Liberal National Party (LNP), it seems to be more of a marriage of convenience than anything else, satisfying neither the young urban elite that dominate the South East Queensland Liberals, or the rural communities that populate the rest of the state who support the Nationals.

Essentially the election contest has come down to branding. On one side we have the ALP remanets of the Beattie era under Bligh, a leader who should really be dominating in the current political climate, but is treading water. On the other hand we have the LNP, who is completely devoid of leadership qualities and policy acumen. There’s something wrong here no? One only has to look at my local area of the Sunshine Coast to see the problem, where the branding concept will be brought to the fore.

My local area of Buderim represents arguably the most conservative area of the country, politically speaking. It has only voted for a Labor Federal Member once in the past one hundred years, and for a Labor State Member twice in the past century. It’s the classic chicken and egg argument at work. If the Liberal/National member were in a hospital bed for the duration of the campaign, the electorate would still vote for the Liberal/National brand. It took the enormous groundswell of the first two Beattie re-election campaigns and the consensus building mantra of the third Hawke Government to dislodge the brand and elect an ALP member in Buderim. Is it a coincidence that both leaders were pure populists?

When you’re up against statistics such as this, its no wonder the ALP have struggled to field decent candidates in Buderim. Luckily this time the party has one that will provide a decent competition to a Liberal candidate who has become so complacent that he moved electorates so he can be sure to secure victory. The sad thing is that he will in all probability win and the residents of Buderim will be no better for it.

However, Buderim is merely a microcosm of the wider problem that Queensland politics currently faces. In the triumph of populism over policy, populism always wins the day. This is not only a concern for the Queensland voter, but also for the ALP and Anna Bligh as they try to escape the lengthy shadow of the master populist Peter Beattie.