February 13, 2004

Nationals – forward to the past

I asked the question at the end of my last post why the Liberal Party allowed the National Party to contest seats on the Gold Coast when it is not naturally National Party territory. The answer goes to the heart of the coalition problems. The Liberal Party hierarchy was not tough enough in negotiations. It also had factional reasons for not running in Broadwater. And the National Party is overly ambitious.

I wasn’t in the room when the deal was done, but presumably it went along similar lines to our negotiations with the Nationals in 1994 and 1995. They would have first staked a claim to the seats for sentimental reasons – “We held them last”. The correct response to that is “So what. You’re only as good as the last election and you lost them. Let’s do some research to see who would win.”

From the public record Caltabiano appears to have played that card. Then there would have been argument over the research. Research on these matters isn’t accurate without candidates being named, but neither side would have wanted to reveal their potential candidates because the other side would have put pressure on the prospective candidates either not to run, or to switch sides. It happened last time. So the research issue goes nowhere.

Then there would have been the argument that the National Party wouldn’t be able to hold back the local branches and they would endorse candidates anyway. In fact, the threat would be that they would end up endorsing candidates all over the country causing a slew of three-cornered contests. With optional preferential voting, they would have said, that would mean that you would lose all these seats.

This is generally called blackmail, and the way to deal with it is to treat it with contempt or counter-threat. It is a lose/lose proposition, so is one that only an irrational negotiator would seriously advance as more than a gambit. You therefore call their bluff. Mind you, it is exactly the proposition underlying the Nationals “Just Vote 1” strategy which was aimed at bullying people into voting for them rather than independents.

It is the key National Party negotiating tactic in Coalition negotiations. So central is it that when the Liberals tried to change the system back to the more democratic compulsory preferential during the Borbidge government they were opposed by the Nationals, even though the Nationals will tell you that optional preferential is a bad system.

I believe that the National Party would have backed down if the Liberal Party had stood their ground. To make certain of this the Liberals probably needed to threaten to field candidates in the Toowomba North, Lockyer, and all the Townsville and Cairns seats. They could have given up all of these with no damage to their position because they were seats less likely to be won than the Gold Coast ones.

They would have had even less trouble if they had constructed a realistic narrative of what each party should be doing which left them with the Gold Coast (and Sunshine Coast) seats. That narrative should have been that this last election was about each party getting back to its roots and dealing with its specific challenges. For the Nationals this is taking on the Independents and One Nation, and for the Liberals it is winning back the urban heartland. In this division of Labor the Gold Coast falls to the Liberals, as it should.

So, given my division of labour, and given the obvious failure of the Liberal Party in its half, how did the National Party fare? They performed reasonably well. In rural areas their vote was up and they now hold 9 of their 15 seats by margins of more than 60% two-party preferred. Some of the swings in these safe seats were 10% or more, reflecting in part the decline of One Nation. Hinchinbrook is a good example of this.

Independents were contained in the “sugar seats”, although as I have suggested above, by a blackmail strategy. This may have bludgeoned independent voters in the short-term, but it is not a strategy to win their hearts and minds. Certainly where there were viable Independents, such as in Nanango, Nicklin, Gladstone and Gympie, the swing was against them. One of the two surviving One Nation members, Rosa Lee Long was also too much of a challenge, increasing her margin.

In urban areas the results were mixed. Kurwongbah and Kallangur on Brisbane’s north saw reasonable swings to them off a very low base. In Logan and Springwood on Brisbane’s southside they barely received a swing at all. In most of the other urban seats in southern Brisbane they also had only small movements to them, or small movements away. This was similar to the Liberal Party’s experience in Brisbane, but the Libs clearly outperformed them on the Gold Coast.

Now, having laid out most of the groundwork, tomorrow I’ll finish with where the Coalition should go from here. As the challenges at the next election will be very similar to the challenges at the last election this prospective analysis will also really be a retrospective one.

There’s not much point giving advice to Beattie. On his results he doesn’t really seem to need it!

Posted by Graham at February 13, 2004 12:07 AM

You're absolutely right Wombat. Lazy politicians fantasize that they "own" particular constituencies and that outstanding results will be reversed by a statistical turn of the tide. Unfortunately for them, and fortunately for us, hard work and having ideas that people want to support are pre-requisites for getting a vote of any sort.

Posted by: Graham Young at February 16, 2004 01:57 PM

What this disorganisation has allowed to happen is that ALP has been able to put down some solid roots on the Gold Coast especially and the Sunshine Coast. The fact that none of the "flukes" of 2001 were reversed and in some cases margins increased or maintained bodes ill for the Coalition.

Some, if not all of these seats may in time be won back by Coalition parties but the ALP looks to be there to stay as major forces in these areas. If these current ALP incumbents are reasonably competent they will take considerable work and/or a change in political climate to unseat.

For their own sakes at least, the Coalition parties should have now realised that their days of complacent dominance of these areas are over; the 2001 results were not flukes and that these areas will be extremely competitive for the forseeable future.

Posted by: commonwombat at February 16, 2004 11:54 AM

I did deliberately leave Albert out as a Gold Coast seat because it isn't one in my view of the world. More than half its votes were cast in the Beenleigh, Eagleby and Mt Warren Park areas. I know as a result of an amalgamation of Albert Shire and the Gold Coast you might call it a Gold Coast seat, but I've yet to find anyone who sets out in their car from Brisbane on the Gold Coast motorway and who says as they cross the Albert River, "Thank God, we're at the Gold Coast now."

I think the statistics speak for themselves. The National Party vote on the Coast, whatever special circumstances you plead, was more down than up. Of the Labor seats divided between the Coalition partners there, the Liberals got the worse end of the bargain. Burleigh and Broadwater were the most prospective. There was no hope of winning Currumbin at the time when the deal was done, and everyone expected Lex Bell to win as well.

If I had my way you wouldn't be cutting deals on these issues anyway - you'd run three-cornered contests and see who had the most support. My point there is that the National Party deliberately retained the undemocratic optional preferential system precisely because it gives them an advantage in negotiations.

We continue to have the odd situation in Queensland where both conservative parties win roughly the same percentage of the vote, but one of them is rewarded with three times the number of seats. If you don't want three-cornered contests and you want a coalition deal which is durable, then you need to share power equally.

You're obviously a Gold Coast Nat, so it is bad luck for you if you miss out on having a local National Party representative to vote for, but that is no worse than what happens to Liberals who live in rural areas.

Your post also doesn't canvass the issue of what might have happened on the Coast if the Liberal Party had been able to run their own campaign rather than being tied down with National Party baggage. I think daylight saving might have tipped a few more votes the Liberals way.

Posted by: Graham Young at February 13, 2004 02:03 PM

Your assessment of the National Party's relationship with the Gold Coast is not only unfair but utterly inaccurate.

Yes, the Liberals did score an impressive swing against the ALP in Mudgeeraba. Quinn's positive result however in Robina would be expected from any Parliamentary Leader whilst in Gaven the swing was under 2%.

You have, I hope not deliberately, left out Albert where the ALP enjoyed a swing of 3.5% against the Liberal candidate. This was a seat in which the National Party vacated the field to the Liberal Party.

Yes, there were small swings to the ALP in Broadwater and Burleigh. PK Croft in Broadwater is, I would argue, the most difficult ALP candidate to go up against on the Coast. She relates extremely well to conservative voters. In Burleigh the Labor vote was always depressed by the presence of Judy Gamin as the National Party Member for the seat. She was a good and very popular local Member who made big inroads into the ALP vote over many years. As soon as she was out of the picture the ALP vote was always going to increase.

The small swings in these two seats to ALP in no way reflect some form of widespread discontent with the National Party. The Liberal Party was simply fortunate to be allocated Currumbin and Surfers Paradise, two seats that were going to go to the Coalition whether the candidates were Liberals or Nationals.

These attempts by the media and some Liberals to spin this absolute furphy concerning the electability of the National Party on the Gold Coast simply do not on the facts stack up. Generally speaking they did no better or no worse than the Liberals.

Any hairy chested attempt by the Liberals to intimidate the National Party out of the Gold Coast will not work and only serves to assist the ALP. I for one hope that sense will prevail: rather than obsessing about the Gold Coast the Liberals need to address the appalling collapse of the Coalition vote in Brisbane. On the Gold Coast as in the Sunshine Coast there is a need for sensible compromise between the two parties.

If commentators are going to get worked up over Burleigh and Broadwater then lets be consistent and also deal with the Liberals in Albert and beyond.


Posted by: Isabella at February 13, 2004 12:23 PM
Graham Young
John Black
Mark Bahnisch
Michael Lee