‘Queensland first’: Palaszczuk closes the borders and amps up election rhetoric | Australia news
Annastacia Palaszczuk stands outside in the Queensland sunshine to deliver the state’s daily coronavirus update. When the news bulletins cut to the Queensland premier, they leave scenes of dreary Melbourne streets and shuttered shopfronts.
The optics have been matched by an increase in pro-Queensland rhetoric in the build-up to a state election on 31 October.
“We are concerned about what is happening in the southern states,” Palaszczuk said on Wednesday, announcing Queensland would again effectively close its borders.
“And today is the day that we say we are putting Queenslanders first.”
Guardian Essential polling of Queensland voters shows approval of the government’s response peaked at the height of the so-called “border wars” in May; as Palaszczuk steadfastly resisted calls to remove the Coolangatta-Tweed barricades.
On 18 May, Palaszczuk suggested – to broad criticism – that the border might remain closed until September.
On 20 May, 74% of Queensland voters said they approved of the state’s response. Of those, 33% said it had been “very good”, and 42% said it was “quite good”.
In the most recent poll, from 22 July, voters gave the state a 67% approval for its handling of the pandemic.
Pollster Peter Lewis, the executive director of Essential, says: “the lockdown and the sense of holding the line against other states is working really well politically”.
“If they can hold the line that’s the only job [the government] has at the moment.
“The other thing counting in their favour is the sense that if it hadn’t broken out in Victoria there would be a focus of what the economic recovery would be like … at the moment the election will be about Labor saying, if things look like they’re working, you don’t change jockeys.
“The compelling story for an incumbent is ‘what we’re doing is working, it’s not time to change, don’t risk it’.”
Parochial politics to the fore
Last month, Labor posted a tweet claiming Queensland would be “FLOODED with Victorians” under the Liberal National party. That post – which was promptly deleted – along with other comments show how parochial the government’s messaging has become.
The state treasurer, Cameron Dick, has evoked John Howard, the conservative former prime minister, on border protection.
“Let me say something about border closures in terms and words that even members of the Liberal National party will understand. Queenslanders will choose who comes to Queensland and the circumstances in which they come,” Dick said in May.
On Wednesday, in announcing new effective border closures, Palaszczuk’s isolationist “Queensland first” rhetoric was amped up again.
Chris Salisbury, a political historian and researcher from the University of Queensland, says he anticipates some of the subsequent media headlines – “Fortress Queensland and Fortress Maroon” – will begin to appear in Labor’s messaging.
“Parochial politics is not atypical. Even in other parts of Australia that aren’t NSW or Victoria there’s an element of parochialism about politics, particularly around election time.
“It’s always the case here in Queensland, but that’s going to be dialled up.”
Salisbury says the election will regardless be “very close”. Polling shows that while the government’s outbreak response has been well supported, the LNP still holds a marginal lead in two-party-preferred terms.
But the longer the coronavirus outbreak dominates political discussion, the more any campaign would turn in favour the incumbent, Salisbury says.
“I hate adopting the attitude that we’re in thrall to presidential-style politics … but it’s what these kind of conditions lend themselves to. People look at the performance of the leader … that’s going to play out in her and the Labor party’s favour at election time.
“Covid is the only show in town. It’s been plain that the government’s management of it has been playing fairly well in their favour – even, surprisingly, when we get a little outbreak. The politics of that soon became apparent when the opposition changed tack and called on tighter restrictions.”
In the days before Palaszczuk announced the state would close the borders to residents of NSW and the Australian Capital Territory, Labor posted a campaign clip online highlighting calls by the Liberal National opposition to open the borders.
Despite holding a notional lead, the LNP backroom recently led a failed attempt to remove the opposition leader, Deb Frecklington, apparently driven by polling that showed she had failed to cut through against Palaszczuk.
LNP sources say concern is mounting the LNP might now struggle to gain any further traction before the election.
On Wednesday, Frecklington released a statement backing the latest border closure.
“The LNP has always said the border controls are not set and forget,” she said.
“As the situation in other states changes, so should our response in Queensland. The LNP supports stronger action on borders because we can’t risk a second wave.”
A highway to victory
“The only way to win an election in Queensland,” a former Labor state MP and campaign veteran says, “is via the dead centre of the Bruce Highway”.
Queensland is the only Australian state where the majority of residents live outside the capital. The east coast main route from Brisbane to Cairns skirts regional centres, cities and large towns – in most cases dividing the coastal population centre from the hinterland industries of cattle, cane and coal.
“Every town or region on the way up has its own thing. In some cases keeping one place happy means pissing off people somewhere else,” the former MP says.
“So that’s what I mean by ‘stick to the Bruce’. [During the campaign] the aim is not to get pulled too far off the middle of that road.”
Many of the town centres on the Queensland coast are working-class Labor heartland. Mackay and Rockhampton have been Labor seats for most of the past 100 years – though both had been considered vulnerable amid backlash against Labor in relation to tree clearing laws, farming regulations to protect the Great Barrier Reef, and a shift towards the Liberal National party in coalmining country.
The pandemic would certainly “take the sting out of some of the places where Labor might expect an unfriendly welcome”, the former MP says.
“You can’t and won’t win everywhere. But [the coronavirus response] is a talking point that means you can keep on topic and not have to constantly correct for something you said last night in the last town.”
“A campaign where we don’t have to talk too much about Adani or coalmines is a positive.”
Analysts also believe the nature of the pandemic might also stunt the influence of minor parties, whose support in regional Queensland is stronger than anywhere else in Australia. Minor party leaders Clive Palmer and Pauline Hanson both backed separate high court challenges to the border closure.
“It’s aways a coin toss how much of an impact One Nation and Palmer for that matter are going to have,” Salisbury says.
“These conditions may just favour the majors. Even the loudest minor party voices might struggle to get a lot of air time.”