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Are there really three Queenslands?

by Sean Barry

Are our political parties in the election campaign bringing the community with them to unify Queensland, or do their actions fuel confusion and encourage tribalism between various regions of the state?

Anyone who has ever lived in North Queensland will have heard the view from some that they believe many in government in Brisbane think the state ends at Caboolture. At times, there have even been calls for a separate state for the North. The tyrannies of distance in Australia’s most decentralised state have always provided challenges for governments to evenly and fairly supply services, which has at times earns the ire of residents outside south-east Queensland.

As smaller towns and rural centres in the west struggle with diminishing populations, the same concerns in those regions are also understandably expressed. Parties in this particular campaign have delivered to voters often confusing and inconsistent messages. This has worked against the cohesiveness of campaigns and is likely to fuel further, continued disaffection of voters.

Most parties now seemingly prefer to tailor policies in an increasingly refined way, to smaller and smaller constituencies. From bombarding voters’ letterboxes with material unlikely to read, to targeted online campaigns using Facebook, to annoying robo calls — parties now would seem to view voters as an accumulation of data points to be aggregated and analysed, and then teasing and stretching policies filtered through focus groups, until they are unrecognisable and inadequate.

These approaches bear some similarity to the principles underlying the work of Cambridge Analytica. This is a UK-based firm that claims to have “up to 5,000 data points on over 230 million American voters,” which it uses to create psychological profiles for “micro-targeted” ad campaigns designed to appeal to each person emotionally.’ Some have credited the organisation with boosting the popularity of Donald Trump in the 2016 US election as well as the success of vote in the British Exit (Brexit) campaign.

The risk of these approaches is they increase alienation between voters and the politicians who represent them. There is also a danger of increasing tribalism between regions and communities as local interests routinely enjoy greater importance over those of the entire electorate. Politicians cannot meet every demand of every voter in every seat continuously on all occasions and creating any expectation this is possible damages the role of politicians and those whom they represent.

This risk compounds at each election as accumulated and unmet demands aggravate more voters, who become more disconnected from their politicians.

Take for example the ALP’s stance on the Carmichael coal project. For some time, Queensland’s Labor government has been a fervent supporter of the mine, trumpeting the view that thousands of jobs would result from the project. This is clearly an appeal to voters in the mining belts of central and north Queensland. Conversely, they have now confirmed they will veto any funding from the Commonwealth’s Northern Australia Infrastructure Fund (NAIF) to build a railway line, in an appeal to opponents of the project in south-east Queensland, even though it now appears the mine’s proponents may no longer require public assistance.

The LNP is playing a similar game with its preference recommendations for the election. Choosing to advise voters to provide second preferences to One Nation in fifty seats is an attempt at a regional vote winner but now without ‘blowback’ risks in the south-east. Political leaders have always ‘shape shifted’ for different audiences, but in doing so, increasingly risk a breach of trust with an already unhappy electorate.

The Australian newspaper has been publishing its ‘Ticking off the marginal’ table. We can assume when they say ‘ticking off’ they mean visiting the electorates. The table, published 18 November, identifies where the leaders of the two major parties had campaigned in the preceding weeks. It becomes very clear that to that stage the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Nicholls, had spent the lion share of his time south of Gympie (73 per cent), whereas the Premier, Ms Palaszczuk, had spent over half her campaigning time (53 per cent) north of that city and 42 percent above Gladstone. Labor has risks to its seats in regional cities such as Cairns and Townsville, and even perhaps in Rockhampton. The LNP knows its strength lies in the regions, but as has been widely reported, One Nation will provide some challenges there. There is always the presumption that visiting any seat, particularly a marginal one, somehow translates into votes. Perhaps the more appropriate argument is that a leader may damage a campaign if they do visit a seat, when their opponent chooses to do so. The travel paths taken by the two leaders, whilst understandable, reinforce the view of a state divided.

For its part, One Nation appeals to a protest vote, there can no other conclusion. The ABC’s AM program asked a young Townsville mine worker about why he wished to vote for One Nation, and how they were going to assist him by stabilising the mining industry. He replied that he did not know how they would do so, but that ‘any change would be a good change.’ According to Professor John Wanna, ‘emotive sentiments not unwelcomed occurrences are likely to sustain One Nation’s level of support.’

One Nation supports the Carmichael project (without using public funding) but not the expansion of the Auckland mine on the Darling Downs. As Professor Wanna further argues about One Nation, ‘their problems may be that the fledgling protest party is trying to appeal to two mutually exclusive rural constituents — farmers who want their agricultural land protected from miners, and mining ventures creating regional employment beyond their mining leases.’ Like its two major rivals, it wishes to be all things to all people.

When majors attempt to tailor specialised arguments to smaller constituencies, they fail to project a coherent vision for the Queensland. Arguing an almost meaningless, colourless mantra of ‘JOBS’, for example, is not a vision. Vision is central to successful, contemporary political leadership and crucial to articulate a desirable values-based future that is attainable.

These prescriptions for idealised actions provide a framework for a leader to set realisable goals, and help supporters to conceive a better world.

A poll of voters in Queensland is likely to reveal a community that is unclear about the vision of Queensland from its leaders. This, along with undelivered outcomes to voters will further erode trust in the political process. Until leaders and their parties break the mould of this expanding problem, electoral volatility and support for rising populist parties that offer simple answers to complex problems is likely to continue.



Sean Barry is a PhD candidate in the School of Government and International Relations at Griffith University. Sean has recently submitted his PhD dissertation. In it, he researches the reasons that inspired past Australian governments to propose and implement economic reform. The purpose of the research is to isolate lessons that can be learnt by current or future governments. Sean has also completed an MBA studying international business that has complimented his current academic interests in political economy. Sean also spent two decades as a barrister.

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