February 07, 2004

Campaign pre-wrap - No clouds on Sunshine Pete's horizon

This article by me was published in yesterday's Australian. It will have to serve as my campaign pre-wrap. It predicts no major change. By "major change" I mean somewhere greater than ten seats net changing hands. On our pendulum that would require a uniform swing of around 2.5%, but swings are never uniform. Seats like Burdekin could change hands while seats like Noosa stay put. We'll both know tomorrow whether I know what I'm talking about.

IN July 1995, after six years in government, Queensland premier Wayne Goss all but lost the state election despite being Australia's most popular politician. Eight months later, as a result of the Mundingburra by-election, he was out of office.

His downfall was the result of a deliberate Opposition strategy. It was based on a public acknowledgement that the conservative parties could not win the election, voters' expectations that Labor would romp in, and a fairly direct call to send Goss a message. Subsequently, Rob Borbidge "accidentally" became premier.

As he faces Queenslanders for the third time tomorrow, Premier Peter Beattie fears he could fall victim to yet another protest vote. He can rest easy, because the circumstances are entirely different.

In 1995, Australia was just emerging from the "recession we had to have". Voters were unhappy with the economy and prepared to kick governments. In 2004, we are still in one of the longest phases of economic expansion. Beattie's only areas of risk are in the regions where turmoil in sugar, dairy and fishing industries, and the drought have unsettled voters.

In 1995, Paul Keating was in the Lodge, having stolen the previous election with his "LAW" tax cuts. Electors were waiting on their front verandas for him "with a baseball bat". They hit Goss first. This year John Howard is Prime Minister. He is blamed for problems in the health system, the No1 issue in this campaign, and in rural areas for the National Competition Policy. Howard is a plus for Beattie.

Then there are the players. Voters are not particularly happy with Beattie. They see "Cheshire Pete" as self-satisfied and smug, manipulative, using smoke and mirrors to cover for the fact that after six years he hasn't done much. They also don't like his team. They don't know enough about Opposition Leader Lawrence Springborg. He is young and has only been in the job 12 months. This equals inexperienced.

In the 1998 and 2001 elections, there was a strong protest vote that spectacularly went to One Nation. This time voters are dismissive of One Nation. Federal Queensland MP Bob Katter is supporting a string of anti-Beattie independents in the "sugar seats", the area most susceptible to a protest vote. Some of them may do well, but most will not win. Because of Beattie's "Just Vote 1" strategy, they will be starved of the preferences they need. The Coalition's task is huge this time. It needs to win 30 seats with a swing of 10 per cent to form government. There are only 15 Coalition members altogether, less than the size of Beattie's cabinet. This is a resource problem. In 1995, although the swing needed to win was in the vicinity of 7.5 per cent, it involved only nine extra seats. The Coalition could concentrate resources on 15 or so target seats. This year, it would need to target about 40.

Campaign teams, discipline and financing are other factors that have changed. The 1995 effort was research and poll-driven by the Liberal Party, not the Nationals. It was centralised and got its key messages out as early and as often as possible. Funds were allocated strategically, with the bulk being held back for the last two weeks of television. This time Coalition candidates are doing their own thing without resources and research. As a result the message is confused, if it is being delivered at all. The TV ads all but stopped last week. It looks to voters as if Beattie is the only one trying to win.

The strategy also depends on your opponent co-operating. If they act arrogant and uncaring, run messages that exude self-satisfaction and predict they will win with an even larger margin than last time, then voters are more inclined to kick them. Goss did all of these things, and Beattie virtually none.

I think the protest phenomenon is also a thing of the past. Electors understand it, partly because Beattie has inoculated them by explaining it. In the process, their cynicism is reinforced. It also depends on a lot of negative advertising. Voters are less susceptible to that now. They're also sceptical about promises.

This is the real problem for the Coalition - there is virtually nothing it could say or do to win a vote. When it offers a solution, voters say: "Right issue, but you're the wrong people to fix it." If they criticise, it is: "Where are your policies?" While they may want to protest, voters don't see the Opposition as an acceptable vehicle. They don't see any big difference between Labor and Liberal. If they have used a protest vote in the past, they have seen no real change for it.

A protest vote campaign is one of the few available to an Opposition when electors are happy with the government. Even if the Queensland Coalition had got its message right, it isn't there for it in 2004. Voters have given up trying to make a difference. Times aren't what they used to be.

Posted by Graham at February 7, 2004 04:45 PM
Comments

I think there are many a voter with a "baseball bat" this time round, just waiting for the federal election. Yes health (medicare, bulk billing) are issues that will get a number of people excited.

But some people seem to have forgotten that about a year ago, a million people marched on the streets against the war. Howard said "trust me" and did the football equivalent of pushing aside the referee and beating-up and sending off an opponent, while castigating everyone who refused to partake of the thuggery, all on the basis of a false accusation.

It was Howard who dismissed the protests by saying that we don't have to vote for him the next time. Some of those protesters may just be taking his advice. And in the meantime, some of those protesters (including former Lib supporters like myself) have changed political colours, and this flows through to State and Local elections.

Posted by: MMH at February 8, 2004 04:05 PM

Graham,

You seem to have earned the right to say "I told you so."
A couple of interesting points from my own musings.

Apart from a couple of areas where other local conditions were at play, Bob Katter's endorsement seems to have been worth no more than about 3 or 4% - this can only be good news for rational politics.

The nationals seem to have re-established their right to represent disaffected rural interests. How this plays out in the Federal sphere is very difficult to work out - if it is merely a return to major parties, Labor may be able to exploit it on things like sugar but if it is a genuine National Party loyalty they may not have so much success.

Personal focus on candidates does have some effect - witness Merri Rose's demise and also the swing against Peter beattie in his own seat (not to mention Dan Van Blarcome crahing and burning and Terry Mendies appaling result in Ashgrove).

Proof that the most succesful National Party long term candidates are really agrarian socialists is shown by Vince Lester being replaced by another socialist (this time from the Labor party) (Sorry, I had to put that one in). Still Michael Kroger still thinks the Libs and the Nationals should merge - this should cuase another interesting bout of disruption.

Posted by: Alex McConnell at February 8, 2004 07:15 AM
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