Atkins: Forget Super Tuesday, Queensland’s March Madness will be the vote worth watching

They might have Super Tuesday in the United States of America but we’ve got our own March Madness in Queensland when it comes to voting. Dennis Atkins looks at the big day at the polls.

Mar 11, 2024, updated Mar 11, 2024
A record number of Australians have registered to vote in the referendum for an Aboriginal Voice to Parliament . (Image:AEC)

A record number of Australians have registered to vote in the referendum for an Aboriginal Voice to Parliament . (Image:AEC)

This coming Saturday there will be two by-elections for state Parliamentary seats – Inala in the south west of greater Brisbane and Ipswich West on the other side of the city of Ipswich – and elections for mayors and councillors in 77 local government areas.

Most attention will be on the Brisbane City Council – it’s the biggest local authority in Australia with an annual budget of about $3 billion – where Labor’s position as the second largest party in the authority could be under threat from the Greens Party.

The two state by-elections are taking place in very safe Labor seats – Inala (formerly held by recently retired Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk) has a 28 percent margin while Ipswich West is half that on 14 percent.

Such contests shouldn’t trouble the equilibrium of state politics too much – in normal circumstances, there would be a modest swing against the government and the caravan would move on. We are living in much more interesting times. The Labor Government led by Steven Miles is of the same stripe that’s held power in Queensland for all but five years since late 1989 – that’s 30 our of 35.

To be at the wilting end of such a stretch in power prompts the perennial “It’s Time” factor that catches up with governments in all democracies. On top of this, Miles only came to the top job in the middle of December last year and just a month after his 40th birthday.

He replaced the chronically unpopular Palaszczuk who governed during her latter years like someone with the reverse Midas touch. Palaszczuk was synonymous with failures in the health system, clown car missteps on accountability and transparency and, topping the list, a youth crime problem that seemed to be without solution or remedy.

There was next to no doubt Palaszczuk was steering the government she led to a crushing defeat this coming October when the state elections are due. This was in the swirl of reasons Palaszczuk decided to leave office and the modest but significant bump in polls towards the government justified the move.

Mostly, Miles has done what the best he could be expected to do. He’s differentiated himself from his predecessor and demonstrated a willingness to take on difficult problems.

This has been effective up to a point and that point could be the one that tips things over the coming weekend.
Youth crime is a serious problem everywhere and ex-urban areas like the back streets of Ipswich West can feel the sharp pain of assaults and burglaries as much as, if not more than, streets with Teslas and Lamborghinis parked in driveways.

The killing of Vyleen White in early February at a shopping centre in Redbank Plains has focussed attention on the issue. Five youths have been arrested and one charged with the murder of Vyleen – the others face charges related to theft and associated offences.

None of this was good for Miles or the government and the fact the accused was on bail at the time of the alleged offence makes things worse.

By-elections are amplifiers of sentiment. Many voters see them as an opportunity to voice a grievance, send a message and say something they might not express at a more consequential moment such as a general election.

Australian electoral history is loaded with instances where incumbent governments suffer an out sized swing – well in excess of the average between-elections votes of 3 to 5 percent or so – which is later corrected at the next general election.

There have also been instances when by-elections see the incumbent party lose often with an exaggerated swing. These contests include Labor losing the Tasmanian seat of Bass in 1975 with a eye-popping 14.2 percent swing and the equally startling 16.1 percent whiplash-backlash in Canberra in 1995.

The first foreshadowed the landslide loss of the Whitlam Government later that year while John Howard’s 1996 wipeout of Paul Keating’s administration had its genesis in that Canberra vote.

Trying to calculate or even guess what’s going to happen this coming Saturday in those districts west of Brisbane is a fool’s errand.

Polling for a single electorate is seldom reliable and a slice of time at a by-election doesn’t make it any easier. No polling prior to the recent Dunkley by-election in Melbourne’s south east was close to the outcome of an anti-Labor swing of just over 3.5 percent. The tracking polls conducted by both Labor and Liberal were remarkably alike – giving Labor a vote of 50.5 percent – but both were about 2 points off the actual result.

It would be a shock to the system if Labor lost Ipswich West but it shouldn’t be completely ruled out because of the swirling cocktail of circumstances. Inala should be in no trouble as far as the winning party is concerned but again don’t be surprised by a high swing away from Labor.

The state government has been cunningly rational by timing the by-elections to coincide with local government contests.
It makes complete logical sense but has the advantage of denying the LNP access to a large source of branch members from Brisbane suburbs to staff the booths.

The LNP doesn’t have a natural big presence on the ground in Ipswich West but rank and file members will have more pressing work to do protecting Lord Mayor Adrian Schrinner’s council majority.

The impact of how-to-vote cards is wildly overstated but a physical presence on the ground does matter. The sense of the swing against Labor in both Ipswich West and Inala will probably be between 6 and 10 percent with the former seat possibly surprising on the up side.

The LNP’s David Crisafulli will claim a great victory and boast that if the swing was replicated across the state the Miles Government would be out of office and he’d be making plans to go to Government House to be sworn in.

Now, Crisafulli might win the election – no matter how you pull it apart, it’s going to a hand-to-hand combat affair which will go down to the wire. However, these two by-elections will not tell us the full story of the October election.

That contest is seven and a half months away, there’s going to be a big spending budget and the LNP leader is in a very different fight than the one he imagined.

He might be practiced at glib one liners but he’s not had his feet put to the fire of a full-on election campaign.
This coming weekend will tell us something but there’s no way it will tell us everything.

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