Has anyone seen Pauline? 10 things we learned from the Queensland election campaign

Ben Smee and Graham Readfearn
·10-min read
<span>Photograph: Darren England, Dan Peled/AAP</span>
Photograph: Darren England, Dan Peled/AAP

Queenslanders go to the polls on Saturday for an unusual and unpredictable election influenced by a global pandemic and a growing divide between regional and city voters.

The popular Labor premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, is campaigning for a third term. The Liberal National party is led by Deb Frecklington, meaning it is the first time an Australian state or federal election has featured two female leaders of the major parties.

At the outset, much of the commentary was about how the coronavirus pandemic would upend the campaign. That question remains largely unanswered as the parties, analysts and the media come to grips with a deeply complex electorate.

Labor holds a two-seat majority and the LNP needs to gain nine additional MPs to form government in its own right. Both campaigns say they are likely to lose seats to each another in different parts of the state.

Related: Queensland election: party insiders say minority government is increasingly likely

Throw into the mix the likely influence of minor parties – and a couple of prominent disinformation campaigns – and Queenslanders head into Saturday’s election with little concrete information to suggest who might form the next government. Asked who would win one senior Labor MP said: “Fucked if I know.”

Here is what we do know at the end of the campaign.

1. Minority government looks increasingly likely

The path to a majority for both major parties has narrowed. The opposition would need to pick up seats in Townsville, central Queensland, Brisbane’s city fringe and inner suburbs – and at the same time not lose in a dozen places where local candidates are vulnerable. It’s the political equivalent of shooting the moon.

Labor has accepted it will lose seats in different parts of the state. But it also has the most likely path to a majority by picking up LNP held seats, particularly on the fringe of the Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast.

Glenn Kefford, a political scientist at the University of Queensland, says there will be a “patchwork feel” to the result. “The path to majority government for either of the major parties looks narrow and any path you potentially draw up, you can point to a number of reasons as to why they can’t get there.”

2. The pandemic has played a surprisingly low-key role

Six weeks ago, before the campaign began, Chris Salisbury, a political historian and commentator at the University of Queensland, told Guardian Australia the pandemic was “pretty much the only conversation”.

Salisbury says he’s been surprised at the direction of Labor’s campaign since. Palaszczuk pivoted from daily press briefings in Brisbane about the coronavirus management – which focused political debate around an issue that played in her favour – and instead adopted a well-trod strategy of touring marginal seats making announcements and pushing election messaging.

“I went into the campaign thinking Labor, due to its management of the pandemic, was very much in the driver’s seat. We’ve seen these conditions favour incumbents elsewhere and it’s not like a lot has changed.

“It’s been a bit uninspiring overall – in many ways a very traditional or habitual campaign. That does tend to show the soft spot that Labor is still very aware of. It has a bit of an underbelly out in the regions that could end up costing it.

“In a situation where we all knew Palaszczuk was very popular … the polls at the very start of the campaign showed the LNP in front. The fear response kicked in, and the need make the premier visible out in the regions was very important.”

Related: Queensland election's 'parallel with Warringah': why independent Claire Richardson could topple LNP incumbent

3. Both sides have leant heavily on their leader

What has played out as expected is the presidential nature of the contest: Labor, in particular, seeking to frame its campaign around the popular premier. At the same time, frustrations built within the LNP at the lack of cut-through its campaign was having. Palaszczuk largely set the agenda.

Salisbury said the LNP’s announcement of a youth curfew in Cairns and Townsville – a plan formulated at public forums and broadly criticised by experts and human rights advocates – shifted the dynamic of the contest.

“[Frecklington] suddenly was in the contest, throwing out ideas, good bad or indifferent. It seemed Labor reacted and turned a little bit more negative in their messaging as a result.”

4. The border issue has not defined the campaign

The management of the state’s borders – particularly as the Victorian coronavirus outbreak begins to subside – remains a talking point, if not a great point of difference between Labor and the LNP.

Polls have consistently shown support for Palaszczuk and Labor’s management of the pandemic, including the border closure. And while the LNP has said it would continue to follow health advice if it wins the election, focus has now turned to when the state borders might be opened.

The topic dominated discussion at a debate on Wednesday, and an announcement on the next steps is expected on Friday.

5. One Nation has ceded ground to other minor parties

Has anyone seen Pauline?

The One Nation leader, Pauline Hanson, has been conspicuous in her absence from the Queensland campaign trail amid polls – and reports from within the major campaigns – that suggest the party’s vote has dropped significantly.

One Nation holds one seat – Mirani in central Queensland – but it shaped the 2017 contest via preferences. The LNP primary vote was extremely low in some places where One Nation ran second to Labor.

But while Hanson has not been a factor, there is a strong chance Queensland’s large crossbench will increase in size. The Katter’s Australia party, which holds three seats, is confident of holding those and potentially gaining another.

In Brisbane, the Greens expect to hold Maiwar and win South Brisbane from the former deputy premier and treasurer Jackie Trad. They are also a chance in at least two other electorates.

Noosa independent Sandy Bolton is favoured to win her seat. She could be joined by another moderate independent, Claire Richardson, who is in a close contest with ultraconservative LNP MP Mark Robinson in Oodgeroo.

6. Huge numbers have voted early

There’s a customary phrase that voters “go to the polls” on election day. But for a record number of Queenslanders, that’s not the case in this election.

By Thursday morning, 973,901 of Queensland’s 3.3 million electors had already filled in their ballot at one of about 200 early voting centres that opened on 19 October. Some 740,000 of those votes were made in the first week.

Related: Clive Palmer’s ‘death tax’ scare campaign isn’t new. But it’s still outrageous | Graeme Orr

Electoral Commission Queensland also sent out a record 905,772 postal votes, with 316,868 returned by Thursday. The commission takes the postal votes out of the envelope and puts them in a ballot box, to then be counted with all the other ballots once the polls close at 6pm on Saturday.

The high number of postal votes – which can be counted until 10 November – and the high number of candidates (597 compared with 453 if the 2017 election) could mean results are delayed in tight races as preferences are worked through.

In the 2017 state election, it took almost two weeks for the electoral commission to fully declare the election.

7. Disinformation has been rife

Labor has grown increasingly concerned about the advertising of Clive Palmer, who is spending large amounts – including sending text messages to voters – pushing unsubstantiated claims the party could introduce a death tax.

The anti-abortion group Cherish Life is running a third-party campaign about the state’s termination-of-pregnancy laws which experts say is disinformation and “blatant lies”.

Claims by the Queensland Resources Council about the number of jobs supported by mining have also been criticised as “bogus” by economists. The council’s advertising campaign, which includes a push for voters to put the Greens last, led to several large mining and energy companies suspending their membership.

8. Campbell Newman is still with us

What were the things the two major parties really wanted voters to remember about their opponents?

Labor chose to remind the public that LNP leader Deb Frecklington was an assistant minister in Campbell Newman’s government – an administration that cut 14,000 jobs from the public service.

Newman led the LNP to a landslide victory in 2012, reducing Labor to just seven seats. But by the 2015 election, the LNP’s huge majority was gone, with Palaszczuk forming a minority government. Newman lost his Brisbane seat of Ashgrove.

The LNP chose a more contemporary hate figure in sitting Labor MP Jackie Trad, who is in danger of losing her South Brisbane seat to the Greens. When Frecklington’s campaign wasn’t trying to link Labor to Trad, it was trying to link Labor to the state’s comparatively high unemployment figures.

9. Outlook for the environment remains shaky at best

On the big ticket items of climate change and Queensland’s rising greenhouse gas emissions, voters heard little. The Palaszczuk government got its announcement of $500m for publicly-owned renewables out weeks before the campaign started.

At stake is the government’s existing 2030 target to cut emissions from 2005 levels by 30% and a promise to reach net zero emissions by 2050. The LNP would scrap both.

Related: Queensland election: seats to watch as parties play a game of electoral chess

The LNP made its idea for a New Bradfield scheme and an estimated $15bn price tag a bold centrepiece. A nation-building scheme to irrigate Queensland’s west has been a perennial election promise since the idea was first flagged in 1938.

On paper, the LNP would divert water from three rivers to what would be the state’s biggest dam, irrigating an area the size of Tasmania. Hydropower plants would be built and a Tasmania-sized area would be irrigated.

Spruiked continuously by Frecklington, the LNP said it would spend $20m on a CSIRO-led study into the scheme that would take more than a decade to build.

Royalties from the massive and as-yet-untapped Galilee coal basin, from coalmines that are not yet approved or built, would pay for the scheme.

The Queensland Conservation Council said it would be a “nightmare for the environment” that would swallow habitat for threatened species, alter the unique ecology of ephemeral rivers and wetlands and require large-scale clearing of vegetation.

The Palaszczuk government has already appointed Prof Ross Garnaut to lead an expert group to assess the feasibility of Bradfield-style irrigation schemes in the state’s west.

Environment groups also expressed concerns about the fate of the state’s new laws to improve water quality on the Great Barrier Reef, fearing an LNP government would weaken the laws.

10. No one can be confident of the result

Even seasoned political campaigners in Queensland are very uncertain about this election.

Because of the nature of the electorate, polls are considered an unreliable indicator of the result, though they can indicate where momentum lies in the campaign. According to the most recent Newspoll, Labor is marginally in front statewide. It began the campaign marginally behind.

Salisbury said that if either party had a disappointing night on Saturday, it would face pressure to redefine itself.

In Labor’s case, that would be to find a new way to manage the climate and energy debate that divides city and regional voters. For the LNP, which has lost 10 of the past 11 state polls, another loss – and particularly a failure to re-establish a foothold in Brisbane – could trigger debate about demerging the Liberal and National parties.

“If [the LNP] lose this, there’s a good chance there will be a push to split,” Salisbury said. “That hasn’t been talked about as much this time, but it’s the case more so now than ever before.”