In the mid 2000s, during political blogging’s brief golden age in Australia, one recurrent trait of a muddled media commentariat was the sloppy habit of equating correlation with causation in reporting political polls. ‘X happened this week, therefore party Y or leader Z gained/lost A approval points.’ Aside from the elementary methodological error highlighted in this style of reasoning, an unspoken premise of such claims was that the concerns of the media and political class were reflected in the electorate. Citizens, then, became just a mirror for whatever dominated the ‘national conversation’, no matter how fleeting or trivial, and for that matter, no matter how important. There’s a certain flattening out of events and a certain evacuation of their meaning in the relentless coverage of stuff happening. Similarly, many of the myths, truisms or ‘rules’ of politics are inferences from unique events. These are attempts to posit a law based on a very small number of instances, Hence the view, belief or claim that ‘voters are inclined to give first term governments a fair go at their first encounter with the ballot box’.
It is clear that this assumption was at work in the coverage of the most recent Queensland election. Early on Saturday night 31 January a row of largely middle-aged and completely white men in grey suits on Sky News, before a vote had been counted, made ‘predictions’ about the outcome. They came to an intriguing level of consensus. It didn’t matter whether it was Graham Richardson, David Speers or Craig Emerson – the LNP was going to win about 50 seats, Labor about 35, and Campbell Newman would probably be defeated. I can’t say whether or not any mea culpas were chanted later in the evening as I promptly switched channels to the Antony Green show on the ABC. As we found out pretty quickly, it looked very probable indeed that Labor would either win the unwinnable election or fall just short but nevertheless be in a position to form government, and that Premier Newman would indeed be on the wrong end of the Strong Choice made by the good burghers of Ashgrove.
Margo Kingston, John Quiggin and I had been saying on Twitter and elsewhere, as early as the Australia Day holiday, that it was quite possible that Labor would win. Yet most accounts of the actual result were prefaced by a statement that ‘almost no one had seen the result coming’. This seemingly unforeseeable seismic event then sent shockwaves across the nation, precipitating a farcical leadership coup and counter coup in the Northern Territory Country Liberal Party, and quickening the pace of Tony Abbott’s implosion as federal Liberal leader.
#libspill became the sole focus of political eyes, and conveniently, the unexpected was rewritten as just more stuff that had happened, passed over quickly as a minor footnote in the bigger story of right wing meltdown in the nation’s capital.
Queenslanders, of course, continued to observe the bizarre spectacle of the Liberal National Party in deep denial. First, the diminished party room, at the apparent instigation of the last Country Party machine in town aka the LNP party organisation recycled two failed leaders – Lawrence ‘The Borg’ Springborg and John-Paul Langbroek. This was made apparently for the purpose of negotiating for government with two Katter Party MPs who despised the rest of the party’s senior members despite there being no arithmetical path to an LNP majority. Confused mutterings in the Courier Mail suggested that the faction of denial had prevailed against the reality based community at the LNP’s three hour meeting, that those who had wanted to accept the result of a democratic election had been outvoted.
In the following days, it’s become almost impossible to avoid the droning voice of ‘The Borg’ explaining that somehow he should be commissioned as ‘caretaker’ premier. He proposed to continue to administer if not govern the state until some hypothetical by-election prompted by the ineligibility of a PUP candidate to stand for the seat of Ferny Grove, won by Labor’s Mark Furner. Conveniently, because any sitting of the Legislative Assembly would have an ALP majority, with the support of Nicklin independent Peter Wellington, Parliament would not meet. Captivated by the spectacle, the ABC’s state bulletin featured live interviews with both Springborg and the state’s last National Party Premier, Rob Borbidge. The balance police must have been off duty. It took a few days for the media to notice that there were people who actually knew about things like constitutional law and political conventions, and that one of those people, University of Queensland Law Professor Graeme Orr, was describing the LNP’s bizarre machinations as an attempted ‘constitutional coup’.
For this unlikely sequence of events, it’s possible to look up the political playbook and find an explanation to hand – ‘the LNP is trying to create an aura of illegitimacy around an incoming Labor minority government’. Maybe so, but that might be to ascribe too much political rationality to Lawrence and his crew. It’s also plausible to suggest that they’re enacting what they had warned against – the ‘chaos and uncertainty’ or a ‘hung parliament’ and that they, just like Sky News, had no ability to foresee an eventuality which would see them out of office. It’s always possible to explain political events at multiple levels and to mix the ‘tactical’ with the contingent. By this time, Campbell Newman himself provided a convenient scapegoat for all the LNP’s woes, dumped on by his ‘loyal’ deputy Jeff Seeney just before the LNP ramped up its ‘stay in government’ noise machine. After a few plaintive statements by the Premier that he would be there to save the day were a natural disaster to strike, and despite the fact that he has been conspicuous by his absence from actual floods occurring in the north of the state, Newman was reduced to cancelling and rescheduling LNP meetings by Twitter, presumably sent from his perch high up in the Executive Building on George Street.
Still, Premier Newman, who rather neatly has no seat in Parliament after making history as a leader of a major political party without a seat in Parliament, still has his uses, precisely as scapegoat. That’s not to say that his combative personality and his thin skin did not play a role in the unprecedented turn of the electoral pendulum in Queensland. I’ve made that point myself, and so did Erik Gardiner, a student of the man, in these pages recently. Nevertheless, had the LNP chosen a more orthodox route to power in 2012, and I’m one who couldn’t understand why they believed that John-Paul Langbroek would lead them to defeat against an unpopular fifth term government, and thus had to install Newman as leader, odds are that the ALP would still have been defeated very badly indeed. Anna Bligh might have magnified the scale of that defeat by her relentless insistence that Newman and his family were allegedly entangled in the mire of dodgy deals and donations, and indeed her inability to prove her allegations was a turning point that prefigured the near wipeout of her party. However, the combination of the accumulation of years of scandals and grievances and the breach of faith with voters on privatisation would still have been more than enough to send Labor packing.
There’s a similar wood for the trees thing going on with #libspill, and it was both timely and necessary for Jason Wilson to remind us all that Tony Abbott is defined by his opposition to any real action on climate change, and that the actual structural collapse of his Prime Ministership is explicable by reality biting, symbolically in the form of Barack Obama’s post-China deal speech at The University of Queensland during last year’s G20 meeting. Wilson is also astute in pointing the direction where we should be looking for structural explanations of #qldvotes – that it’s the culmination of a longstanding public distaste for both privatisation and lies (the two seemingly inevitably intertwined) and that it’s a rejection of austerity commensurate with what we’re seeing in Europe. Another claim that is sometimes made, on the Left this time, is that neo-liberalism does not exist, and that there is nothing akin to austerity economics in Australia. Perhaps those who hold to this view might wish to come and live in Queensland, where probably much more significant than Campbell Newman’s quirks of personality was the mass sackings of public servants that wracked an economy already shaky from the Global Financial Crisis and the 2011 Queensland floods. Perhaps a state where the State so blatantly withdraws from any attempt to support its citizens through adversity, and one where the rhetoric of the small state is embraced so heartily as in the Peter Costello Audit Commission report, demonstrates that although austerity has been blocked in the Senate federally to large degree (which is not to minimise the real consequences of the Abbott regime for many), it’s been well and truly at work in Queensland as basis for policy and not just talk.
Soon to be incoming Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk’s party is no Syriza or Podemos, though Syriza’s actual programme, as opposed to the projections of some of its Antipodean sympathisers, is not much more radical than left social democracy. Something interesting has happened to Labor in Queensland, though. Reduced to a tiny caucus, power shifted from the Parliamentary Labor Party to unions and activist movements, and the ALP leadership capitalised on this electorally through embracing community campaigning. That’s something I’ve examined in more detail at The New Social Democrat, and it’s important because – though we are hardly seeing either a mass movement or a Left utopia – we have seen a reorientation of power in Queensland back to the people. Whether that will endure is another question, but it’s not dissimilar to the questions faced by any movement that comes to office or seeks parliamentary power; witness again Syriza and Podemos.
Finally, we need to return, via another excellent piece by Wilson, to the reaction of Lawrence Springborg and his party and the journalist class to defeat, because this is also part of a wider phenomenon. Just as Wilson argues that the LNP refused to accept that ‘the public wants an economy that is fair, and for the government to preserve the public things they have repeatedly said they want retained’, so too have we continued to see a remarkable outpouring of apocalyptic discourse in the national media about the alleged link between Tony Abbott’s road to nowhere and the supposed ungovernability of the people. The Australian‘s dead tree edition last weekend featured an eight page #blamethevoters special, with Paul Kelly making the novel suggestion that the embattled Prime Minister could turn his fortunes around by attacking Labor governments in Victoria, South Australia and Queensland for doing things voters want. The commentariat don’t appear to notice that ‘volatility’, if that means a propensity to reject right wing reaction wrongly dubbed ‘reform’ and lies, is not apparently operating in South Australia, where the ALP, in government since 2004, has enjoyed two remarkable by-election swings in its favour. Wilson wrote this before the astonishing power grab by ‘The Borg’, an event stunning in its audacity, but within a climate where a Murdoch columnist can call for fascism and a suspension of elections with few batting an eyelid. All this, and more, ought to command our attention much more urgently than the personality quirks of leaders and the zombie analysis that passes for political commentary in this country.