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12 January 2015
by Graham Young

Can the LNP overcome the Newman factor?

On March 24, 2012 Campbell Newman and the LNP swept into power in Queensland with 63.1% of the two-party preferred vote.

Labor retained only 7 seats in the 89 seat parliament, a loss of 44, and pundits predicted a long generation of conservative governments.

So how is it that the latest Newspoll has the parties on 50% each of the vote and a notional loss as they need around 52% of the vote to win enough seats to govern?

63% is a statistical outlier. Most state and federal elections are won by less than 55%. For example Malcolm Fraser's record 1975 landslide was 55.7%

There was always going to be a reversion to the mean, and, on the balance of probabilities, something like a 9-11% swing against the government.

Which leaves Newman and his government responsible for say 4% of the swing against.

Newman is one problem. He's a short aggressive man with the reputation of being often charming, frequently distant, and a bit of a martinet. He is a left-brained, former army engineer and former Lord Mayor of Brisbane who has left an unprecedented civic legacy of congestion-busting transport tunnels and significant debt.

Branded in the City Council as CanDo Campbell he acts first, and consults second and has a pugnacious, often unpredictable style. His entrance to state politics was unconventional. He became opposition leader while not even elected to parliament and contested Ashgrove, a relatively safe ALP electorate.

Voters only ever really warmed to Newman during the election campaign. Since then his personality has increasingly grated.

Then there is the perception of dishonesty, which cannot be discounted as a motivator of electors. Labor lost so heavily in 2012 election loss because it misled voters twice.

In the 2009 election Bligh promised no privatisations, then almost immediately sold off 5 government corporations after the election to raise $15b contrary to an election promise.

That crippled Labor's vote for the rest of that term.

But then, halfway through the 2012 campaign government and opposition were level pegging as a result of Labor's "Campbell's Web" negative campaign accusing Newman of corruption and cronyism. The campaign collapsed when the CMC found he had no case to answer and Bligh told journalists she had no evidence.

Voters weren't going to be taken for fools twice and the rout resulted.

Now Newman finds himself in similar strife.
After the election he established a Commission of Audit. It found the state budget was in financial trouble with the highest per capita debt in the country, a ballooning and inefficient public service, and borrowings going to service running costs.
He immediately announced austerity measures, including the sacking of 14,000 public servants.

None of this was mentioned in the election campaign and voters interpreted it as a "broken promise" or "lie".

The government's communication strategy has also been poor. There appears to be little central coordination, and no one has a clear idea of who the core constituency is, while the central control structure is weak and inconsistent.

The government implements solutions to problems that the public didn't know existed, a case in point being the tough bikie legislation (although this has since become fairly popular).

They have also picked non-strategic fights with groups in society, such as judges and the Bar Council. This has made the strategic fights, like those with doctors in public hospitals, harder.

Critics accuse them of going back to the Joh days, which is code for corrupt, authoritarian government, when in fact there is no whiff of corruption around this government at all.

Indeed, one of the fights they have picked is with major donor Clive Palmer, a leviathan from the Joh days, who they have accused of behaving corruptly.

Despite its poor polling the Newman government has actually been quite effective. It is pro-development, and there is a substantial pipeline of projects in prospect which should take up slack from the decline of the mining boom.

Government expenditure has been controlled.

There are significant decreases in crime.

Not only have hospital waiting lists been shortened, or even abolished, but the government is guaranteeing treatment within time.

School results appear to be improving and the department gradually reformed.

Trains run more frequently and punctually, and a new cross-river tunnel will significantly increase bus and rail capacity and reduce congestion.

Public housing lists have been cut. Government departments are to be housed in a massive new CBD building and the William Street area redeveloped as a tourism and casino precinct.

Privatisation (technically a lease) of government assets will also allow the government to invest $8b in infrastructure.

Newman will be hoping voters will weigh his performance up against their personal unease with him and decide that they would rather have a "strong" performer and a "strong" Queensland than a government they like.

He may also have an ally in the Labor opposition which has yet to release any significant policies, is recycling a number of former members as candidates, and doesn't appear to have done the hard work to make it ready for government.

If electors won't buy "strong" they might decide they want to vote Labor, but in 2018, when they're more ready to be the government.