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Four years until the next exam, but expect plenty of tests along the way

Decision 2020

With more time to govern, Labor can plan ahead. All sides should expect a mid-term test, writes Sean Parnell.

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As the first beneficiary of Queensland’s new fixed four-year terms, Labor has an opportunity to break away from the three-year model where, politically speaking, the first and last years have tended to focus on elections.

With a longer runway, the Palaszczuk Government could look to implement some major reforms and have more time to argue the case before voters go back to the polls. That is unlikely to happen with the upcoming budget but it is not out of the question, particularly when Commonwealth funding agreements are likely to be reined in before 2024. It is also worth noting that the now-departed Jackie Trad played a pivotal role in the social reforms of previous terms, but economic reforms have generally not progressed past paper-shuffling.

The Liberal National Party will now go through a period of review and recriminations, but already Deb Frecklington has had a change-of-heart and will not seek to stay on as leader. The next few weeks promise to be tumultuous for the now-smaller opposition team. But the trouble won’t be gone before Christmas.

Annastacia Palaszczuk’s decision to bring forward the euthanasia debate to February is likely to split the LNP, which has a strong Christian base. The ongoing pandemic will keep the spotlight on Palaszczuk – particularly if Queensland helps deliver a COVID-19 vaccine, or she opens the borders without drama – and the LNP relegated to the political equivalent of a commotion backstage. The Opposition still needs to build credibility to be effective.

The Newman government might be almost forgotten by 2024. But if you forget that term, as some like to do, the conservatives have not been in power since 1998. Even government failures and Labor dramas this term will come with the realisation that also happened last term, and voters still don’t think the LNP is good enough to be in power.

LNP donors might question what they have spent their money on, whereas the unions, with their “Put The LNP Last” campaign, might be looking for a reward. Either way, the government has set in train electoral reforms that will impose donation caps, and an increase in public funding for candidates, from 2022. That will limit the ability of non-government parties to mitigate the damage from government-run marketing.

Despite Clive Palmer’s spurious “death tax” claims, there is unlikely to be any appetite for “truth in political advertising” laws as the next campaign will be won or lost on social media.

Across the board, 2022 looks to be the first opportunity for the parties – not just Labor and the LNP, but also the Greens and Katter’s Australian Party – to show their true colours.

In Brisbane, Queen’s Wharf casino is due to open in 2022, when work will also start on the controversial Brisbane Waterfront development. Depending on the state of the city economic cycle, Labor will either be celebrating or facing protests from the resurgent Greens angry about sustainability, corporate influence and the like.

Southeast Queensland may still make a bid for the Olympics, and Cross River Rail will be in the final stages. The promise of new infrastructure is good for greater Brisbane but controversial in the regions, where KAP may look to capitalise. The LNP, if it remains a merged party of Nationals and Liberals, would need to position itself carefully.

The major parties face challenges on the flanks and in how they cover the city-region divide, most notably any shift from coal to renewables. And the Queensland leaders won’t be able to quarantine political viewpoints to Queensland, with the hyper-partisan debate online seeming to cross jurisdictions with ease.

If the federal election is held in 2022, that will test the political mood towards Canberra, and also blur the message from the Queensland parties. It will demonstrate where the allegiances lie, where the flashpoints are, and who has the government resources after the election to help their state candidates campaign.

Palaszczuk will need to manage four years carefully. She has more backbenchers than many counted on, and that raises the prospect that some will grow restless over time. A frustrated electorate and economic turmoil could give rise to a “ginger group” or some factional power plays. As Premier, she will need to keep MPs engaged, and keep looking for renewal, otherwise, as Labor leader, she could face a challenge herself by term’s end. Every anniversary, every milestone, for Palaszczuk comes with a degree of risk.

This will be the most difficult term for a government in modern history and also a testing time for political parties generally. But it will be worse for some sections of the community, as economic shifts, demographic changes, and job losses start to reshape the state. That makes for a chaotic time, where anything can, and will, happen.

Where else but Queensland.

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