Palaszczuk rewarded for Covid effort at Queensland election

By Dr Chris Salisbury
School of Political Science and International Studies, University of Queensland

Labor’s comfortable win in the 31 October Queensland election might be seen as a product of ‘status quo politics’ in a time of crisis.

Certainly, this result continues the recent trend of election outcomes favouring incumbent (Labor or Labour) governments in the Northern Territory, the Australian Capital Territory and New Zealand. But this would be too simplistic a reading of the largest electoral event in Australia since the onset this year of the coronavirus pandemic.

As witnessed in the United States’ presidential election, incumbency on its own won’t guarantee success – administrations and leaders seen to perform well in managing the impact and spread of Covid-19 have received favourable verdicts from ‘grateful’ voters.

The pandemic election

Heading towards the election, however, nothing was taken for granted. The two-term Labor government enjoyed only a two-seat majority, with a handful of members sitting on worryingly slim margins. Three of the government’s front bench members were retiring, levelling the field in electorates like the ultra-marginal Mundingburra. After both major parties were troubled by earlier scandals, stumbles and internal disputes, polls at different times showed little gap between them.

With pandemic conditions forcing changes to the conduct of the election – greater provision than ever before was made for pre-poll and postal voting, for instance – an air of uncertainty around voters’ reactions lent weight to expectations of a close, possibly inconclusive, result.

Despite a record number of parties and candidates contesting this election, a ‘hardening’ of voter support for the major parties was anticipated. With ‘crisis’ conditions affecting constituents for most of the year, it was thought many would look to the government or its direct opponent to steer the state through uncharted waters.

A gloved hand holds a test tube reading 'Covid-19 test
Government responses to Covid-19 have shaped many elections in 2020. Pic: Fernando Zhiminaicela/Pixabay

Ultimately, this expectation was born out in the wash-up, with the primary vote for minor parties and independents dropping from roughly 31%  in 2017 to under 25% in 2020. Notably, both major parties’ primary vote increased – Labor’s by 4.1% and the LNP’s by 2.2%. Put plainly, the electorate was less inclined in these conditions to flirt with a ‘protest’ vote for anti-establishment parties. Additionally, a record surge in early voting indicated many Queenslanders were committed to their choice well ahead of election day.

It appears voters’ concerns over the dangers of the coronavirus – and support for the government’s response to those risks, including ‘hard’ border closures – trumped worries about the associated economic downturn. Consistent government messaging about health and wellbeing underpinning an economic recovery apparently resonated with many in the electorate, despite repeated attempts by some business figures and federal Coalition MPs to criticise the government’s precautionary measures.

Support for the health response seemingly wasn’t confined to any particular region or necessarily among any particular demographic – although some have suggested these measures were particularly favoured by older voters, including in traditionally conservative-voting territory.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk’s presidential-style campaigning and personal popularity vis-à-vis opposition leader Deb Frecklington were a boon for Labor, who crafted a ‘winning’ narrative around the premier “keeping Queenslanders safe” even prior to the campaign commencing.  It’s perhaps no coincidence that Palaszczuk now enjoys the largest post-election margin of all the state’s 93 seats.

Notable outcomes

Besides Labor securing a third term with an increased majority (now holding 52 seats after a 1.9% two-party-preferred swing), there were other attention-grabbing developments at this election. Chief among these was the poor showing of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation (PHON). While the Queensland-based party retained its single seat in the state’s north, its primary vote nearly halved from the 2017 election – dropping from 13.7 to 7.1% – despite running candidates in 90 seats, many more than previously.

Pauline Hanson appears with a stern expression
Minor parties such as Pauline Hanson's One Nation had a poor showing. Pic: Wiki Commons

For reasons still not entirely clear, Hanson was practically invisible throughout the campaign, leaving numerous novice PHON candidates to fend for themselves. Regardless, it appears Hanson’s earlier negative public announcements about the government’s Covid-19 response struck a sour note with most Queensland voters.

In a similar vein, Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party (UAP) performed dismally, despite another big advertising spend during the election campaign (though not nearly rivalling Palmer’s outlay at the 2019 federal election). Palmer’s persistent claims across numerous platforms of Labor ‘death tax’ plans were roundly refuted by ALP figures and observers alike, diminishing their effect.

Ultimately, Palmer’s party attracted only 0.6% of the primary vote, substantially less even than the Legalise Cannabis party’s 0.9%, despite it standing less than half as many candidates as UAP. As ABC elections analyst Antony Green commented, “Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party had the worst vote return for dollars spent in Australian electoral history”.

The Greens at this election managed what all other parties failed to do, in winning a seat from the Labor government. The party’s victory in the ‘prize’ electorate of South Brisbane, unseating former deputy premier, Jackie Trad, in the process, was widely anticipated but still sent something of a warning shot across Labor’s bow. While the Greens’ statewide primary vote actually declined, in line with most other minor parties at this election, the party consolidated its support in inner Brisbane seats, lending optimism to its supporters for future gains in the capital.

Greens campaign poster on the street in Queensland
The Greens have emerged from this election optimistic. Pic: Wiki Commons

Historical results

In the first state election contested by two women leaders, Palaszczuk is the first woman in Australia to win three general elections. Her party won two Sunshine Coast seats (Caloundra and Nicklin) it had never previously won, in something of an echo of Peter Beattie’s landslide 2001 win.

This victory confirms Palaszczuk as an undeniably successful political leader, no longer the so-called ‘accidental premier’, all the more impressive in this year’s testing conditions. Palaszczuk enters a new term against a new opposition leader – David Crisafulli assuming the LNP leadership from Deb Frecklington after the election – a term during which she will surpass Wayne Goss and Peter Beattie as longest-serving ALP premier since the post-war Labor split.

Right now, Palaszczuk enjoys the stature in her party room of a three-time victor heading into the state’s first four-year term – a position of authority for which, significantly, she can claim a large slice of credit.

Banner image: Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk appears at Queensland's Government House in Brisbane for the swearing in of her ministry in November 2020. Source: Facebook

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