Accidents do happen, if you let them

If Annastacia Palaszczuk becomes premier of Queensland, it will be a colossal accident, but one engineered by the ALP and facilitated by the LNP.

It’s also a result the federal Liberals ought to study closely.

Many Queenslanders woke up today wondering what they had done.

They wanted to scare the government, not sack it, and hadn’t imagined the arc of their kick being around 12% two-party preferred against the government.

The ALP took a low target strategy, allowing the government with its “Strong Choices” grand plan to be the issue.

There is no doubt that it was a protest vote.

The fingerprint of a protest vote is that the smallest swings occur in the most marginal seats because voters in marginal seats know they can change the government, and are more careful.

Voters had plenty to protest about, and most of it came down to the personalities of Premier Newman, his deputy Jeff Seeney.

Ever since Newman announced the retrenchment of 14,000 public servants after promising the public service had nothing to fear from him his vote went into decline.

It was a solution out of the blue to a problem that voters weren’t even sure existed, and it was delivered callously.

Yet the government achieved results.

After three years it had tamed the growth of the debt monster unleashed by Labor, which saw Queensland with per capita debt almost twice that of any other state.

Bikie related drug crime was squashed and crime statistics improved dramatically.

Hospital queues were slashed and patients given a guarantee of treatment within time either in a public hospital, or paid by the state in a private one.

A $300M school maintenance backlog was cleared and exam results started to improve. Public housing waiting lists were cut by a third. Trains ran on time, and more frequently and construction of a congestion-busting cross-river public transport tunnel has begun.

Business was delighted with the government’s proactive stance and the pipeline of new projects is impressive.

But good policy is not necessarily good politics.

From the beginning the government had a communications problem, which emanated from its chaotic internal management processes.

Instead of having a strong central management team which controlled the agenda, and the message, ensuring that battles were fought on only one front at a time, the ground prepared in advance, and volleys coordinated; assaults were chaotic with the government seemingly in a war against all most of the time.

One of these wars was even with the state’s judiciary.

This pattern was repeated during the election campaign.

The government campaigned under the theme, “Strong Team, Strong Plan, Stronger Queensland” – an assertion which was never demonstrated to be true.

There was no compare and contrast with Labor’s poor record.

There was also no attempt to rebut Labor’s campaign, as often as not based around untruths – such as the claim that Newman had cut frontline services. In fact spending on health, education and police had increased over the period.

The Vote 1 campaign was a mistake – they needed non-Greens minor party support to counter the Labor/Greens alliance. Worse, in the last week Jeff Seeney alienated minor party voters by telling them their vote was wasted.

The centre piece of the campaign was a privatisation designed to raise $38 B, but instead of using all of the proceeds to reduce debt, $8 B was allocated to spending in electorates.

Electors interpreted this as a bribe, confirmed when Newman threatened that if they didn’t vote for his candidates their electorate wouldn’t get its share of the booty.

His last week campaign performance was bad-tempered and he failed to take steps to inoculate against the protest vote by demonstrating how close his party was to  losing (although everyone knew he would lose his own seat).

The result is not ideal for Labor either. As a result of their small target strategy they have no concrete plan for the future, and can’t just steal Newman’s because asset sales are off the table.

Their plan to pay down debt out of income from government owned corporations is not tenable, predicated on money that has already been committed. So the future under Labor for Queensland appears to be slow growth, high unemployment, and higher taxes.

The buzz is going to go out of the place.

For the federal Liberal party this is ominous with some of the same themes repeated.

The PM is unpopular, bordering on despised, and there seems to be a cultural inability to understand retail politics and a belief that good policy is enough.

Then there is the management mayhem, solutions in search of a problem, broken promises and the unpopular leader acting like a lightning rod for discontent, together with an unscrupulous opposition allowed to reinvent reality on the run.

In the end Labor just fell over the line. Voters didn’t think Newman could lose and they were uninterested in the few critiques of Labor that were offered.

They do understand that Abbott could lose, so eventually will ask more questions of Bill Shorten than Annastacia Palaszczuk.

But with the examples of Victoria, and now Queensland, one way of barnacle scraping that the federal party may consider is to keel haul the captain.

These are testing times for all in ‘Team Australia’, including, but not limited to, Captain Tony.

This article was first published by the Australian Financial Review.

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