One win doesn’t turn the Sunshine Coast into Labor heartland: Ahern

Former premier, National Party leader and Sunshine Coast resident Mike Ahern offers some context for Labor’s election win.

Nov 17, 2020, updated Nov 17, 2020

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk held a Cabinet meeting on the Sunshine Coast on Monday, taking the opportunity to revel in Labor’s election victory.

Labor won the seat of Caloundra, after the retirement of long-time Liberal National Party member Mark McArdle, and also, for the first time, Nicklin, defeating a first-term LNP member in the process.

Palaszczuk told journalists the story in Nicklin was how it was no longer conservative heartland, albeit somehow overlooking the fact it had been held by a Labor-leaning independent for almost two decades.

“The once-great National Party I think is in great danger by being consumed by the Liberals,” Palaszczuk said, predicting the LNP would split.

But Ahern, who held the seat of Landsborough before it was abolished to become part of Caloundra, offered one reason for the swing to Labor: COVID-19.

“I think there’s no point in going in and crucifying people about what happened,” Ahern said.

“COVID-19 came, it was a pandemic, everyone was scared.”

Ahern, who was premier between 1987 and 1989, said the election was not so much a contest of ideas or attitudes as it was a referendum on the pandemic.

“For people in our age group – which is a lot of people up here, on the Coast – it was just too easy to say the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t,” the 78-year-old said.

Older voters have also been credited with Pumicestone swinging back to Labor, after it campaigned on the risk of the LNP prematurely opening the Queensland border.

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While the Sunshine Coast has seen some population and demographic change, particularly with new housing estates near Caloundra, Ahern suggested McArdle was so well-regarded he could have retained the seat had he run again.

“But it wouldn’t surprise me if it came back (to the LNP) next time either,” Ahern said.

With any LNP election loss, there are questions over the decision to merge the Nationals and Liberals and whether their traditional constituencies might be better served by having two parties again. Palaszczuk, the Labor leader, declared the LNP would split before the next election in 2024.

Ahern said the Coalition model was still difficult and in his time involved three-cornered contests. He not only had to defeat a Labor candidate but a Liberal candidate as well – sometimes requiring Ahern to do all he could to split their vote in order to win.

“I had to keep the Labor vote up here so we used to, sort of, deliberately keep the Labor vote up to keep our nose in front of the Liberal,” Ahern said.

As health minister, Ahern dealt with the threat of HIV and AIDS, however under Nationals strongman Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen and a conservative cabinet opted for more of a bipartisan approach.

“People were frightened of it and because we handled it in a non-party political way – we didn’t do what Donald Trump has done and try to run 100 miles an hour away from it – it was all right, we got through it,” Ahern said.

Ahern was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2007 and in 2010 was a recipient of the Queensland Greats Awards.

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