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In Queensland, the more things change, the more they just might stay the same

Politics

Australia’s next national election is probably 12 months away and many eyes will be on Queensland. Will the state matter, or will it be a lot of sound and fury, signifying not that much. Dennis Atkins gets out his telescope.

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Scott Morrison is unique as a prime minister but it’s for a reason he doesn’t talk about and doesn’t like being recalled.

He’s Australia’s only full-time, professional, political functionary to make it to the top of the power tree in Australia.

Morrison has had a few jobs before entering Parliament, starting with the property council as a policy adviser and finishing with Tourism Australia where he was controversially dumped by former Liberal Minister Fran Bailey.

In between, he spent four years as state director of the New South Wales Liberal Party division, running federal and state campaigns in 2001 and 2003.

While plenty of other senior ministers have held party positions, Morrison is the only one to make it all the way to the top of the greasy pole. This makes his world view a bit different and explains a lot about how he plots and plans his policy and political moves.

It also gives greater weight to what he has to say about the political circumstances of his government – as long as you can separate the spin from the reality.
One thing Morrison said earlier this year sounded like spin at the time but now looks like an unvarnished truth.

Morrison told his MPs during a joint coalition parties meeting the path to victory at the next election was going to be narrow – and by definition, more difficult than the assembled politicians believed.

“We’ve been on narrow paths before, colleagues, and we’ve walked them together,” he told the weekly meeting of Liberals and Nationals in March. “Sometimes the path is wide and the walking is gentle, but the path is now narrow so we must watch out for each other and we must support each other.”

This warning of a narrow path to victory at the election after the 2019 win – the one Morrison described as a “miracle” – was made in the Liberal Party’s own review of the last poll.

This assessment concluded the “path to victory in each election will remain worryingly narrow” unless the party rebuilt support in Melbourne and other areas.

The narrowing of the path to another win has been amplified since Morrison made his observation – and there’s nowhere the search for a foothold will be more vital for the prime minister and the coalition than in Queensland.

While all states are important in federal elections – especially when the government is defending a majority that cannot be any smaller at just one nominal seat right now.

However, as always, Queensland is going to be special. It features a perfect storm of possible negatives which can upset the foothold Morrison and his government have in this state.

Just consider these factors: one MP, Andrew Laming, is retiring in less than happy circumstances after pushing the behavioural envelope too far, once too often; and, two Nationals with more entrenched margins, Ken O’Dowd and George Christiansen, are departing on their own terms.

Meanwhile, climate change is a much trickier issue for the government than it was in 2019 and the wear and tear suffered by an eight year old government, especially in the metropolitan south east, could extract a cost.

The LNP will also not have the power of the Hanson and Palmer disruptions and distractions which helped so much in 2019. A polarised electorate has driven Hanson to the margins and Palmer’s buffoonery no longer has an upside.

This does not mean Labor can start counting its Queensland chickens because few, perhaps none, will come home to roost. Those regional seats some Labor operatives are eyeing – Dawson, vacated by Christiansen, and O’Dowd’s patch in Flynn – could prove to be a bridge too far.

Labor is likely to get good swings in these seats but big buffers entrenched in 2019 – 14 percent for Dawson and almost nine for Flynn – should keep both in the too hard column.

The same is probably going to be true for Herbert (8 percent) and Leichhardt (4 percent) – in the first Phillip Thompson will likely be protected by the military vote at least and, further north, Warren Entsch has proven to be the unshiftable Liberal in a marginal regional seat.

Morrison can count his luck – and Labor’s poor campaigning in 2019 – in regional Queensland to keep on the pathway in those seats, won on the back of supposedly protecting jobs and values in the resource industry.

This time will not be so easy because Morrison has had to make a crab-walk shift on climate and energy but he is managing to keep all of his policy and spin juggling balls aloft long enough to convince enough people his “Australia First” approach will work.

At some point this house of cards will come tumbling down but that is unlikely to happen before the next election. Of course, Morrison will be helped by his “bankable” credits on handling the pandemic and the economy in these uncertain times.

The reality of just what Morrison did and whether he deserves credit is another story, but the perception remains he has earned a reward from the public.

Absent this meta-story of handling the pandemic, Morrison would be struggling. This is despite the fact Labor should be rated a good chance in several seats in and around the Queensland capital such as Brisbane itself, Ryan in the western suburbs, Petrie on the Redcliffe Peninsula and Longman to the city’s north. Maybe Dickson could be in play in another universe but you can never count Peter Dutton out.

The fundamentals are there for swings in all these seats but unless there is more of a big change in voter sentiment, Queensland will be interesting as always but, as we saw in 2019, nothing might actually change.

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