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Why Beattie is helping Hanson

By Graham Young - posted Wednesday, 31 January 2001


At the start of the Queensland election campaign, ALP Premier Peter Beattie pulled a stunt for the cameras by donning scuba gear and climbing into a shark tank. The sharks left him alone. On the basis of his decision last week not to allocate preferences and to urge voters to "Just Vote 1", perhaps it was a professional courtesy.

Why? Because, while Beattie says he opposes One Nation on essentially moral grounds, this decision will actually help them to win seats. In the last election it would have seen One Nation take another 4 seats – Callide, Burnett, Gympie and Crow’s Nest. (For an explanation as to how this works, click here).

It is impossible to know what seats could be affected this time. Differences of 1% or less can be crucial at various stages of the counting. One Nation and fellow travellers are also less likely to score as high a vote this election. The fact that One Nation disintegrated during the last term of Parliament and is essentially starting from scratch again also complicates scenarios. It is contesting all of the seats held by the City Country Alliance, the splinter party formed by six of its erstwhile MPs, and one seat held by one of the ex-One Nation MPs who became an independent. How many of the CCA voters will stay loyal to Hanson, how many to their local member, and how many will have tired of the ride and returned to a mainstream party?

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All that can realistically be said is that there are seven seats: Cunningham, Burdekin, Callide, Lockyer, Gympie, Tablelands and Nanango, where One Nation, CCA and Independent chances are substantially enhanced by this decision. However, five of them are also clashes between the CCA and One Nation, meaning that exhaustion of preferential votes could also be a factor, and two of them – Callide and Gympie – are seats not currently held by One Nation, CCA or Independents.

However, when Beattie made this decision, nominations were yet to close, and the effect could have been greater. This is because One Nation is not contesting Burnett and Darling Downs, where this policy would have been greatly to its advantage. So there were a potential nine additional seats for One Nation.

At the last State Election Beattie effectively pitched for a major party deal to stitch up One Nation. Essentially he said to the National and Liberal Parties "I’ll give my preferences to you against One Nation, and you should do the same to me". Both of them ignored this pitch. Of the 11 seats won by One Nation, eight of them would have been won by the ALP if not for National Party preferences, while the National Party won four seats from One Nation on ALP preferences. It was a sucker strategy for Beattie, although one he had to adopt at the time.

So this election Beattie is wiser, and he has some political capital to spend. He knows that he has established his credentials as being anti-One Nation, and he knows that most voters do not understand the intricacies of the preferential system. He can therefore safely change this policy and return the favour to the National Party.

But there is more to this policy change than merely squaring off. One Nation is to the Coalition what the DLP was to Labor in the `50s and `60s. While they are winning seats it is difficult for the Coalition to form government. It is actually in the interests of Beattie and his voters for there to be a large contingent of One Nation and fellow travellers in the Parliament. That way, he can have much less than 50% of the seats in Parliament, but still be the only one capable of forming government.

Public opinion polls suggest that Beattie is a mile in front. But these are state-wide polls. Reports of internal ALP research suggest that the election is much more evenly balanced than that. You can construct scenarios where ALP losses include Cairns, Mulgrave, Mundingburra, Mansfield, Barron River, Currumbin and Springwood to the Coalition, but where the coalition in turn loses four seats to One Nation or Independents. Beattie slips to maybe 38, the Nationals come in at 21, Liberals at 14 and ONP/Independents at 16. No-one would be able to form a Coalition with One Nation. With 38 seats, Beattie still has a bigger bloc than the Coalition at 35, and is still best able to form government. But if the Coalition doesn’t lose seats to One Nation, then they potentially end up with a larger bloc, and Beattie is in strife. The preference decision is an insurance policy for Beattie.

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Of course, this is an extreme scenario, and depends on One Nation maintaining its vote at the level of last election. There has also been a redistribution since the last election which amongst other things takes at least two seats from Labor (see David Fraser’s analysis). The chances of this are low, although they are growing by the day. In part this is a result of Beattie’s decision. This election he has performed the function that Liberal Party president Bob Carroll did at the last election. By making One Nation preferences an issue he has breathed life into the Hanson campaign.

He has also severely damaged the standing of National Party leader Rob Borbidge. Borbidge publicly stated that his party would not be preferencing One Nation. That was always going to be hard to enforce as large numbers of the National Party feel very close to One Nation. It became virtually impossible after Beattie made his decision. The National Party publicly humiliated their leader in the middle of an election campaign, rolled him on this issue, and will now direct preferences to One Nation in 17 seats, in the process raising Hanson’s standing. That evening on the news Hanson was pictured touch-typing into her computer and telling the country that she was once again in control of the major parties’ agendas – just the news her potential supporters wanted to hear.

The National Party has played an incredibly inept hand in this round. Not only is it seen to have had three years to get its preference strategy right, and to have failed to the extent that its leader and its membership couldn’t agree in the middle of an election campaign. (So much for its campaign slogan – "A Fresh Start for Queensland"). But the Coalition has a vested interest in disarming One Nation. While One Nation has members in Parliament the chances of a Coalition government are close to nil.

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About the Author

Graham Young is chief editor and the publisher of On Line Opinion. He is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress, an Australian think tank based in Brisbane, and the publisher of On Line Opinion.

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