Queensland goes to the polls this year. It's a first for the newly merged Liberal National Party and for Labor's Anna Bligh as Premier since succeeding Peter Beattie in 2007 when he retired soon after being re-elected. Labor has been in office almost continuously for 20 years, save the brief interlude of the minority Borbidge Government in 1996-98. It's Kevin Rudd's home state.
Much has been made in some commentaries of Bligh's satisfaction ratings (they are falling) and the LNP's resurgence (it has improved). However, headlines such as "Voters turn against Labor States" ignore the stark reality of the numbers which show Lawrence Springborg's LNP facing an uphill battle to take the Treasury benches.
On new boundaries, the LNP must win 22 seats with a historically high 8.5 per cent uniform swing to govern in its own right after massive Labor wins in 2001, 2004 and 2006. The most comparable occurrence, to win government from Opposition, was Labor's Wayne Goss with a 7.9 per cent swing to win 24 seats in 1989. That was post-Fitzgerald Inquiry, ending 32 years of former National Party Government. At 7.9 per cent, Springborg would fall short.
Three other examples are worth considering. A 10.7 per cent swing in 1974 had the Labor Opposition reduced to a "cricket team" and in 2001 Peter Beattie got 21 extra seats with a 9.4 per cent swing. In both cases it was towards incumbent governments. Rob Borbidge's surprise 7.2 per cent "protest vote" swing in 1995 gained only eight seats but set the scene for the Mundingburra by-election and Goss's demise.
Not only is winning 22 seats historically difficult, recent polls show the LNP tracking between 43 per cent and 49 per cent of the two-party vote. A clear improvement on previous elections, but still less than a 4 per cent swing. It would reap 10 or 11 seats at best. This is in the context of dissatisfaction with Labor on health, infrastructure and looming budget deficits.
Uncertain times suit incumbent governments, demonstrated by recent Newspoll swings to state incumbents in Queensland, Victoria and South Australia. This and expectations Rudd will play a role using his political capital and taxpayer's money - to bailout a flagging Queensland Labor Government - makes the LNP's job harder still.
The LNP is more unified, tracking better in the polls and keeping the political spotlight on Labor's failings. It is a much improved Opposition and is in the political contest, albeit off an appallingly low base. But 49 per cent of the vote falls well short of what is needed.
Keeping last year's focus on Labor was the right strategy and it shows in the early polls. But the easy yards have been taken. Relying on dissatisfaction with Labor alone would be a gamble. Even on water, the luck fell with Labor. It rained. The huge gap won't be closed on issues of questionable political impact. For example, taking Ross Fitzgerald's suggestion in this newspaper to oppose water fluoridation would have the LNP side with the minority. It risks the support of many city-based former Liberals and undecided voters who support fluoridation.
The LNP must win almost all the Gold Coast seats and seven or more in the greater Brisbane region to contend. If it doesn't, the alternative seats elsewhere require unrealistically high swings to make up the shortfall. Regional seats such as Cairns might be achievable at 8 per cent, but Indooroopilly, Aspley and Broadwater are seats to watch to see if the LNP is getting anywhere near the traction required in Brisbane and the Gold Coast, where most seats are.
Aspley, for example, is a microcosm of the statewide transport infrastructure shortfalls and increased traffic and population pressures. It has been taken for granted. I had counted another seat, Springwood, as one to watch until the LNP’s candidate, a local councillor, withdrew on late notice for "job security" reasons.
Even seats such as Indooroopilly, in Brisbane's inner-west, are no certainty for the LNP. The defection of the sitting Labor member has given the Greens their first Queensland seat. The LNP's articulate and energetic up-and-comer, Scott Emerson, faces a changed and less certain contest. Despite posturing over Labor's environment record the Greens are likely to enter into a preference deal with Labor, making the necessary 2.7 per cent swing more challenging.
Bligh won't be worried about commentary suggesting she is in trouble. Politicians crave the underdog status, especially when they are well in front. What will be exercising her mind is when to call the election.
Bligh could wait until after a difficult budget and set the LNP the challenge of offering a better alternative, although it is widely speculated she will break her promise to go full term and head to the polls in February or March. This would suggest life is unlikely to get much better this year, and she'll be taking a gamble on whether the LNP is ready six months after it merged. She might be wondering if their small-target strategy is a ruse or an excuse.
There is increased dissatisfaction with the Queensland Labor Government, and the LNP has proved a better Opposition. Credibility as an alternative government is a bigger ask again, but even then Bligh sits comfortably with a historically high 22-seat buffer. The LNP has the uphill challenge.