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Beware of kicking the underdog - it just might come back to bite you

Decision 2020

Labor has started so strong it has made the Liberal National Party the underdog. As Sean Parnell writes, that could come back to bite them.

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For the first time, everyone knew this election campaign was coming, and the October 31 date was set. There was no jockeying for position, no trying to capitalise on timing: this was an election both sides knew was happening in advance. And they had time to prepare.

So when Labor leader Annastacia Palaszczuk last week declared she expected the campaign to be “tough, personal and nasty” it was obvious Labor had already prepared its defence. That came in the form of several TV ads and online memes warning that Liberal National Party leader Deb Frecklington had secret plans to cut public services and frontline jobs. Labor’s warning of a return to the Campbell Newman era of austerity was a significant angle in an avalanche of pro-Palaszczuk, Queensland-centric, “Stick with the Strength” style marketing. The incumbents dominated the first week of the campaign, defending themselves against an almost invisible political attack.

While the LNP had its own, more restrained marketing, Frecklington was effectively drowned out. She has been on the back foot for every day of the campaign, every misstep – and there have been a few – amplified by Labor’s attack team, led publicly by Treasurer Cameron Dick. Surprisingly, the key campaign question is no longer whether the LNP risks a COVID-19 outbreak, with Frecklington now seemingly backing the border policy but still calling on Labor to show more compassion to those affected (an interesting nuance in the debate). Even Prime Minister Scott Morrison has softened his stance on the border, as the focus shifts to the economy.

Palaszczuk is keen to say that Queensland has been, and should remain, united behind her leadership on COVID-19. Labor has printed shirts saying as much. She has also warned of chaos if she does not secure a majority government. One would think there is a fine line between expecting loyalty after a difficult year and asking for it in future. Maybe strong leaders don’t ask.

Central to Labor’s pitch for re-election is that fact it has kept Queensland safe from COVID-19 and is well-placed to lead it out of recession. But it is worth remembering that the government has also centralised control, imposed more restrictions, limited transparency, and had police and the army on the streets to enforce new rules. Public and business activities have been disrupted, either by COVID-19 or the government response to COVID-19, and families separated. There have been victims, in a broad sense, and there is frustration over what has happened and whatever might happen in the future.

Palaszczuk might be strong, as the T-shirts say, but there will be voters who are nervous about that. The Premier rarely expresses hesitation, or reticence, about having to wield such power, and exercise such extraordinary control. She digs in, insisting the results speak for themselves, and a Labor government will make it all better again. Palaszczuk can come across as defiant, and unapologetic, which is fine if people want her to take up the fight – and, for most of the year, they have – but can also be isolating if people don’t share the same confidence.

A good leader takes people with them, and checks to see if they still have confidence in the direction, not just expect everyone to follow. The subtle shifts in Labor strategy haven’t been articulated as a response to any particular public concern, more a deliberate and expected turn. Don’t get me wrong, strength is great, and necessary in government, but humility and grace are undervalued personality traits. What Queenslanders want from their premier at the moment comes down to individual preferences, and even then it could change by the day. Palaszczuk might need to be adaptable.

If this is to be a campaign on economic management it is worth noting that the state has seen better days but neither this Labor government nor the former LNP government was responsible for them. The Newman government record speaks for itself: a one-term experiment unlikely to be repeated. For Labor, the recession has come at a perfect time, silencing criticism of its debt-heavy budgets. Indeed, Dick can promise $4 billion for election promises and portray that as the responsible approach compared to as-yet-unspecified funding commitments from the LNP. Yet his is still a debt that future governments, and generations, will need to pay off (one might ask whether the cuts he warns of might simply be delayed).

Dick’s LNP counterpart, would-be treasurer Tim Mander, has tried to take the attack to Labor without much luck (neither has a budget to work with, and voters should still expect the unexpected next term). For Mander, as with Frecklington, any misstep has been amplified. It may not be that they have a secret plan as an under-developed one. If the LNP even has answers to these questions, it is seemingly caught in some terrified stutter in response, and that hardly instils confidence. So much for conservatives being perceived as the better economic managers.

But, again, if there is incompetence on one side there is a touch of arrogance on the other, and that might unsettle some voters. Soon after becoming Treasurer, Dick vowed to fight off any NSW attempt to steal the headquarters of Virgin Australia. “New South Wales might want to bring a pea-shooter to the fight, we will bring a bazooka and we’re not afraid to use it.” Now, okay, there is that famous quote about not bringing a knife to a gunfight, but there is also that old David and Goliath story. Strength isn’t everything in a fight – in fact, it can get you in more trouble, and turn the crowd against you.

That’s why the tone of this campaign – an almost incalculable but so obvious factor – may be crucial in determining the victor. As the incumbent, Labor does not want to use its dominant position, all that airtime and attention, to appear aggressive, controlling, and defensive to the point of being offensive. It doesn’t want swinging voters to flinch, to second guess their judgement calls, and vote in someone just to balance out the Labor excesses. That would give Palaszczuk a much-feared minority government – or cost her power altogether. It’s probably unlikely, but not impossible. Stranger things have happened this year.

Maybe this is all just a matter of timing. After all, campaigns are scripted well in advance. Perhaps the LNP will go more negative, perhaps Labor will be humbled, maybe everyone in party HQ thinks voters have already settled on a favourite.

This election is different in that many voters will make a decision before polling day, locking it in with pre-polls or postal votes. So maybe most Queenslanders have already made up their mind, and the campaign matters little to them. Maybe the parties think they know that, with all their grassroots feedback and internal polling, and reflecting a pre-determined outcome.

But if Labor – or the LNP, for that matter – have somehow misjudged the mood, and are now pushing all the wrong buttons, then voters will go off. The year 2020 is like that.

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