The fact that seats with a nominal margin of between 7.8 per cent and 16.8 per cent are still in doubt, illustrate the extent of the electoral drubbing Labor received at last weekend’s Queensland election. Until the polls shut, it seemed unimaginable that seats long held by the Labor stable – in the case of Mackay since 1915 could be in doubt. Long-time Premier Forgan Smith would be turning in his grave at the thought that his seat, won during the World War One and held by him from 1915 to 1942 could ever be in doubt. It has had four members in the past 90 years…all Labor.
While the seats of Bulimba – which incidentally makes up part of Rudd’s federal seat of Griffith, and Mackay are likely to be retained by the depleted and dejected ALP, Maryborough – a classic swinging voter seat is less certain. According to Antony Green, if postal votes follow a similar pattern to 2009, Chris Foley, the independent who won the seat in 2003, may be in jeopardy. Maryborough is one of those seats that provide a window into the history of Queensland’s often strange, unpredictable and at times bizarre electoral history.
Between 1971 and1977 Maryborough was held by the Liberal Party who were then part of the National-Liberal Coalition led by Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Gilbert Alison was the Liberal member. But in the election of 1977, with the ALP slowly clawing its way back from the cricket team alienation of 1974, it was won by the Labor Party. Labor held on for two terms until, in 1983, with the Coalition imploding, it was regained by Gilbert Alison; this time though for the Nationals. Alison was one of those former Liberal Coalition members who decided to chance his luck with Joh’s Nationals. Perhaps he should have re-thought his strategy.
Don Lane and Brian Austin were another couple of former Liberals however their defection to the Nationals was after the votes had been cast. Their reward was two seats at the Ministerial table. Gilbert too got his chance to shine, appointed Minister for Main Roads and Racing in the short-lived, three-month premiership of Russell Cooper. When the brave experiment of Nationals governing on their own ended in acrimony, brought undone by hubris and the Fitzgerald Inquiry, and the Goss government was elected in December 1989, Maryborough voters again threw their support behind it.
For ten years it seemed like all was well, until Pauline Hanson’s One Nation wooed them away and Maryborough became one of the 11 seats that brought Queensland back into the national spotlight, with their candidate and former Maryborough local government representative John Kingston winning the seat. Kingston parted ways with the One Nation party less than 12 months later, but subsequently regained the seat in 2001 on the back of National Party preferences, just beating the ALP. When he resigned in 2003 because of ill health, another independent Chris Foley won the seat, again thanks to National Party preferences. Shortly we’ll know if Maryborough voters have decided to try their luck and swing again, this time with the LNP Coalition.
History can teach us many lessons. The Queensland parliament is no stranger to large majorities. In a winner-take all system, with no moderating Upper House, Queensland governments have frequently been given carte blanche by voters to affect change. Labor was voted out in 1957, largely due to ideological differences, religion and belligerence. The National-Liberal Coalition ruled unfettered for decades, to only be replaced when scandal and cronyism could no longer be tolerated, even by an electorate with a tolerance for such things. Throughout Labor annihilations, Liberal decimations and National implosions, the voters of Maryborough have provided a barometer for electorate sentiment.
Seismic shifts are not new to Queensland but this one is bigger than ever before. Can Labor recover? The task ahead is immense: it will take years, perhaps decades. How the party attracts ambitious talent to its ranks, with little prospect of being returned to government is a huge challenge. For the sake of good governance however it somehow has to begin the climb out of the abyss.
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