The Australian Labor Party’s leader in Queensland, Premier Anna Bligh, is an excellent communicator and a very personable politician. She is the first female State Premier in Australia to win an election. Just over a year ago, Bligh’s leadership during the flooding crisis was exemplary and her personal popularity went sky-high. During this years election campaign she’s been a dynamo once again, working tirelessly against the tide to sell her Party’s message.
Yet if the opinion polls are correct, Labor is about to cop a disastrous hiding at the polls. Why?
I’ve observed Queensland politics from within the State, with growing concern at the prospect of an avalanche win by the Liberal National Party – a party that doesn’t seem to me worthy of government by any standard.
My theory is that while Labor has a better team than the LNP and a better case to sell, it’s picked the wrong election themes. I don’t know why. As party leader Bligh will take the blame – but I suspect she’s had bad advice. Here’s what I’d have said had I been her political adviser. I’d have begun saying it about a year ago; nothing I’ve seen since has led me to change my mind.
Unused Meme 1A
It’s about a year since the leader of the Brisbane City Council, Campbell Newman, resigned that position and was nominated leader of the LNP’s State Parliamentary Party even though he didn’t have a seat in Parliament. Since then, the Queensland LNP has actually had two leaders: Campbell Newman the “leader-in-waiting” who hasn’t been in Parliament – and Jeff Seeney who has served as his deputy and Parliamentary leader.
It’s an unprecedented arrangement. I’ve followed a lot of elections under the Westminster system in many countries. I’ve never heard of this before. I have heard of parties drafting in leaders from outside parliament – but always by first finding that person a seat to win via by-election first. Once in Parliament, ‘star’ politicians may be promoted fast. But what the LNP have done here is unique as far as I can determine. They’ve nominated a leader who has no Parliamentary seat.
When the LNP did that, I thought it likely they’d already lost the next election. How could the electorate take this kind of arrangement as anything more than a joke? I imagined Labor would ridicule it persistently until the penny finally dropped for the electorate: if a political party can’t even find ONE competent leader within its parliamentary ranks, why should anyone imagine it’s ready to govern?
Yet as far as I can tell, Labor hasn’t hammered this point at all.
Labor has been attacking Campbell Newman’s credibility - especially his business dealings and unusual campaign funding arrangements while Brisbane Mayor. That’s fine – but although it seemed to come close, Labor couldn’t land a knock-out punch. Since last weekend when the Crimes and Misconduct Commission announced it wouldn’t investigate Mr Newman further, the LNP has been able to claim it’s been victim of a negative campaign all along.
That’s ironic in the extreme. The LNP’s own campaign has been unremittingly negative, relying mainly on the “It’s Time” factor and a persistently repeated claim that “Labor has Failed!” (without troubling much to explain why).
Unused Meme 1B
A year ago or more it was entirely predictable that the LNP’s campaign would use those negative memes. It had used them before. A political strategist’s job was to work out how to counter them. When Campbell Newman was appointed LNP leader while outside Parliament, ALP strategists were handed a gift-horse. But they didn’t seem to recognize it. Now it’s rather late…
A spin-master’s answer to “It’s time” is surely “No it’s not!”, which could be further finessed to “Not yet anyhow!”
The answer to “Labor Has failed” has two parts. The first is “No it hasn’t” (defend the record). The second is “Even if you don’t like Labor, be even more afraid of our opponents!”. At the last election in 2009, when the same two negative memes were also used, those defenses worked to some extent. They kept Labor in power, albeit with a reduced majority.
Winning this election was always going to be even harder for Labor. The “It’s Time” factor never gets better for a party in government, by definition. Additionally, having lost some seats in 2009, Labor now defends a slimmer majority.
Enter the gift-horse… By the unprecedented measure of nominating an extra-Parliamentary leader, the LNP signalled, in effect, that NONE of its Parliamentary front-bench are really up to the job. What does that say about the Party as a whole? The extreme measure of drafting in Campbell Newman was really another way of saying “we need to put EXCEPTIONAL lipstick on this pig!” From that day on, Labor should have focused on that point relentlessly. Had it done so, I think it might now be in a winnable position once again.
What kind of political party, operating within the Westminster system, is so thin in leadership talent that it needs to draft in an outsider? Only the LNP in the 2012 Queensland election, as far as I’m aware. Labor let it get away with this admission of extreme weakness. That’s bad politics.
Rather than focusing on what will happen if Newman doesn’t win his seat in Ashgrove – a dominant theme of the 2012 election campaign – Labor would have been better off with different spin. Even if Newman gets into Parliament, what kind of government will it be with no other obvious leadership talent? How can a party be a serious contender for government if it’s so reliant on one person? What happens if – God forbid – Mr Newman walks under a bus? Will the LNP draft in ANOTHER new leader from outside? Who might that be? How about a mining magnate such as Clive Palmer? The mind boggles…
Labor has tried to defeat the LNP by claiming (1) Newman is bodgy and (2) he might not win his seat anyway. Let’s call that STRATEGY A.
I think it would have been better with a different focus which I’ll designate as STRATEGY B: (1) The LNP is so bodgy it had to do something utterly unprecedented and pick an outsider as leader and (2) Even if Campbell Newman gets into Parliament, his team is obviously so wafer-thin on talent it’s not ready for government.
STRATEGY A might have worked if Labor had enough evidence of corruption to make a case stick – and if the polls showed Newman losing in Ashgrove. But it clearly never that crucial evidence – and couldn’t count on the polls showing a loss for Newman, despite very spirited campaigning by the sitting Labor MP Kate Jones.
STRATEGY A was a high risk strategy. Additionally, Labor’s mauling of Campbell Newman hasn’t really hurt the LNP as a whole.
STRATEGY B had none of those downsides. It couldn’t be falsified and rested on some fairly unarguable principles. It focused on the exceptional way the LNP sought to resolve it’s own crisis – a crisis of lack-lustre leadership. Labor failed to take advantage of what was clearly a sign of desperation on the part of the LNP.
If the LNP does win this election an extraordinary precedent has been set.
Should parliamentary parties ever get used to nominating leaders from outside their team, where will it end? How long before we have plutocrats parachuted into leadership of political parties without bothering to get elected at all?
Those are questions Labor might have got us all thinking about. They might have planted the seeds of doubt on sufficiently fertile ground to keep the LNP out of power one more time.
Regrettably, they haven’t.