Queensland Labor says that the Woodridge and Bundamba by-elections are a test which it might fail, putting stable government in the balance. This is good spin.
If it wins with a substantial majority, as it should, then it is a vindication of its style of government. But if, for some reason, it does poorly, well, these were always going to be tough elections, so while not enhanced, legitimacy is maintained. The spin also helps to increase its vote. In the Looking Glass world of modern politics, if the punters think you are going to canter in, they are more likely to vote for your opponent, even if they want you to win. That is those who bother to vote. By-elections are notorious for low voter turn-out. If you are the favourite, then these no shows are more likely to be your voters. Expectations therefore have to be managed down.
If that is all that was going on in these two by-elections, there would be no point in booting up the computer to write about them. It isn’t. Many of the elements that made the last Queensland State Election a debacle for the Coalition, and a springboard for One Nation, are present again.
Labor can only credibly run this spin because the seats look closer on paper than they really are. They argue that Bundamba would be lost with a swing of only 6.5%. This is true, but only if One Nation or its successor were to run second, and receive Liberal Party preferences, as it did in the last election. Should the Liberal Party run second, then the swing required is more in the region of 16.3%. Under either scenario, the election could not be considered close.
One Nation is not expected to do well in these by-elections, because it won’t be running. Despite winning 11 state seats and one Senate seat in Queensland, as well as an Upper House Seat in New South Wales, its organization has factionalized to such an extent that all of its Queensland State MPs have deserted. Most now sit in the City Country Alliance, an organization so new that it has not even been registered, and therefore won’t be able to officially run candidates in this election either. But unlike One Nation the Alliance will be running de facto candidates.
If the remnants of Hansonism in Queensland are to survive, they need a creditable result in these two by-elections. Their choice for Bundamba is likely to be Heather Hill, the woman who was elected to the Senate, only to lose the seat on a technicality. Hill is an Ipswich local, high profile and presentable.
Added to this both Bundamba and Woodridge have the socio-demographics to be vulnerable to large One Nation/Alliance votes. They are predominantly Anglo-Celtic and full of the working poor. Bundamba voters have already once elected a One Nation member – Pauline Hanson, in the Federal Seat of Oxley. Protest parties also tend to do best in areas where the incumbent has a large majority.
The real interest in these seats is not whether Labor can win, but how large the Alliance vote is, and whether the Liberal Party can beat it decisively into third place. With expectations of the Alliance low, most of the real pressure is on the Liberal Party, in particular State Parliamentary Leader David Watson.
Signs from the Liberal camp do not bode well for them.
On Wednesday 6th January 2000 Mike Kaiser, ALP State Director, claimed that the Liberal Party was going to do a deal on preferences with the Alliance. To any longtime observer of Queensland Politics this looked like a typical silly season gambit - put up a high ball, and see what happens. Tactically it allowed Kaiser to paint the Liberals as gormless, an ongoing Labor theme since 1989. It also added colour to his claim that Labor could be in electoral trouble. The correct Liberal response would have been to smother the ball, deny the claim, and accuse Kaiser of trying to talk Labor’s chances down.
Instead, Party President Con Galtos called a press conference saying that the Liberal Party would not give preferences to racist parties. As the City Country Alliance had said they weren’t racist he would leave his options open. Yet the Alliance is just a rebranded One Nation absent Pauline Hanson. Alliance President Heather Hill says that it had to be formed to replace One Nation, because of One Nation’s "perceived" racism, suggesting that the reality had not changed in the new party.
The next day’s Courier Mail developed the issues with a variety of ethnic groups warning the Liberal Party. Three Liberals were quoted – Galtos, Watson and frontbencher, factional leader, and Watson’s chief rival, Santo Santoro. That Santoro, an architect of the 1998 One Nation preference decision, saw fit to take part in the debate suggests that internal Liberal politics may also be playing its part.