LNP landslide in Queensland: what went wrong for Labor?

by Dr Alison Smith

In these times of economic upheaval, dramatic electoral results have become commonplace in Europe.   Despite avoiding recession, Australia has also seen big political swings in recent years, with Saturday’s Queensland state election a case in point.

On 24th March, the Liberal National Party (LNP) won a landslide victory over the Australian Labor Party (ALP) in the Queensland state election, winning 78 seats in the 89 seat Parliament with 49.73% of the first preference vote.  The Australian Labor Party was reduced to only 7 seats despite winning 27% of the first preference vote.  A new entrant, Katter’s Australian Party, won two seats with 11.5% of the vote.  The full results can be viewed here.

Three factors contributed to Queensland Labor’s historic losses.  Firstly, they had governed uninterrupted for the last twelve years and there was a general mood for change.  Although Anna Bligh’s leadership during the Brisbane floods was highly praised,  Labor lost political capital through problems with Queensland Health’s payroll system and the sale of state assets. Queensland also suffered economic setbacks as a result of natural disasters in 2011 and the global financial crisis. Against this backdrop, the LNP managed to convince many voters that only they could ‘get Queensland back on track‘.

Secondly, the federal Labor party did not help their Queensland colleagues by conducting a leadership contest during the opening week of the state election campaign, when Queenslanders were exposed to open warfare amongst the ALP’s most prominent figures in Canberra.  Current Prime Minister Gillard defeated a challenge by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd convincingly, but it was the worst possible moment to re-open the wounds inflicted by Rudd’s ousting less than two years ago.  As a native Queenslander, Rudd has strong support within the state.

Thirdly, during the campaign itself, a highly personalised negative attack on the LNP’s leader, Campbell Newman, backfired.  Labor accused Mr Newman of corrupt connections with property developers during his tenure as Brisbane Mayor, but failed to land a killer blow.  They retreated from the allegations in the final week of the campaign, allowing Newman to claim that the allegations were unsubstantiated and should never have been made.  Although there was no time during the campaign when Labor looked like winning, their two party preferred support hovered around 40% until the final week when it plummeted.

Compulsory voting can also contribute to big swings in divisive elections.   Australia is one of only two democracies in the world where citizens are legally required to vote.  Those who are completely disengaged from politics would stay away from the polls in most countries, and are more likely than partisan voters to be swayed by media coverage in the final days of the election campaign.  This certainly worked in the LNP’s favour in Queensland 2012.

Although Labor’s electoral losses on 24th March were unprecedented, it is worth noting that the final results were distorted by a highly majoritarian electoral system.  The LNP won a super-majority with less than half the vote.  A pure proportional representation system would have given Labor 23 seats instead of the 7 currently awarded.     Therefore, the Labor ‘wipe-out’ is less absolute than it initially seems.  The defeated Premier, Anna Bligh, resigned yesterday, clearing the way for rebuilding efforts.

It will be interesting to see how the LNP wields their super-majority in the Queensland Parliament. They have much to live up to, having promised to cut the unemployment rate to 4%, reduce the cost of living and regain Queensland’s AAA credit rating.   During the campaign, they showed little appreciation of the economic headwinds affecting the Australian economy, including the fallout from the eurozone crisis and the high value of the Australian dollar.  They may yet regret setting such specific economic targets at a time when the global economic climate is so uncertain.  There is never a dull moment in Queensland politics, and the coming years will be no exception.

Follow Alison Smith on twitter @AliFionaSmith.