Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Quarks of Ashgrove

This morning’s ReachTEL poll results in Ashgrove could mean many things in terms of the Queensland election, or it could mean nothing. There are two things guaranteed though: it’s incredible PR for ReachTEL, and we can't afford to think of Ashgrove as a single seat. A large chunk of the Queensland election is tied into that one small seat in Brisbane's inner-city.
Where just two months ago, there was almost no way that the ALP could find a victory in Queensland, even with a compass, a map and a team of Sherpas. What’s happened to move what was a slow motion LNP victory to a morning of momentum stories for the ALP’s Kate Jones in Ashgrove? Is the shift specific to Ashgrove, or is there a state-wide lean back towards the left? Does the result in this morning’s Ashgrove poll have the power to influence voters in other seats?
Almost a year ago, when Brisbane Lord Mayor Campbell “CanDo” Newman resigned as Mayor to run for the ALP-held seat of Ashgrove, it looked a safe enough strategy. In fairness, back then, Ozzie Ostrich would have stood a fair chance of beating the incumbent, Kate Jones. The strategy was that Mr Newman would be the Leader of the LNP in Queensland, from outside the parliament, until election day, when they would win Ashgrove. The LNP would win the state, and voila: the former Lord Mayor would be the new Premier of Queensland.
Since then, and particularly since Christmas, the landscape has changed.
The extra media attention on Campbell Newman has had more downside than advantage for the LNP in Ashgrove. As former Lord Mayor, he didn’t need to work for name recognition, yet he doesn’t have the advantage of being the incumbent, and media scrutiny has been largely negative. 
Culturally, Ashgrove is an inner Brisbane city seat, and it’s somewhat at odds with the conservative policies of the LNP. Campbell Newman has been very visibly courting the votes of the Christian right, particularly the AFA [ read Madonna King’s story here ] and the ACL. Clearly that’s part of an agenda that has a larger catchment that Ashgrove. In fact, there’s been chatter this week around just how much power the LNP’s “Christian Soldiers” are wielding. The Queensland LNP President, and force behind the Newman campaign, is Bruce McIver, known for his one-track conservative Christian views. He opposes civil unions, gay equality, stem cell research, carbon tax, “socialism”, ethics classes in schools and multiculturalism. This conservative swag of beliefs may play well with traditional LNP voters, but in inner city Brisbane, in a seat held for over 20 years by the ALP, it may be pushing some voters further to the left.
The two big media problems for Newman in the last fortnight are his family finances and civil partnerships. Media has successfully kept a spotlight on the Newman family’s financial dealings, particularly when it involves his time as Lord Mayor, and his in-laws, the Mansours. There are so many suggestions of improper – or even just slightly dodgy – dealings, that Newman can’t outrun them. This week, he’s refused to answer any more questions on the subject, and shut down a media conference when media wouldn’t follow his rules. It begs the question: what’s he hiding? No, really: what’s he hiding? It’s entirely the wrong response. Even if he’s hiding nothing, and just wants media to focus on his policy agenda, refusing to play their games is not the way to win friends during an election campaign. Of course, the coverage has been increasingly suspicious.
Campbell’s comments on Civil Partnerships have been about as consistent as the LNP’s leadership over the past decade. We know that privately, he supports civil unions, but since aligning with the Australian Christian Lobby, and we assume, under the direction of Bruce McIver, Newman has publicly committed to unravelling the civil unions legislation, and potentially dissolving civil unions already entered into. As with the questions about his finances, Newman is becoming frustrated with the media’s attention to the issue, and on his reluctance to provide an answer that is unambiguous. Knowing the conflict between his own views, and those of his political masters casts doubt on what actions he will take, if he ultimately becomes Premier.
And then there are the polls themselves. Today’s Ashgrove ReachTEL poll, and the one before it, have shown the LNP losing ground in Ashgrove. Suddenly it’s not just an Ashgrove issue. If Newman fails to win Ashgrove, he cannot be Premier. The rest of the state now starts looking around at the bank of LNP talent, seeking out an alternate leader to take on the Premiership. Springborg, Flegg, Seeney, Langbroek…this is a new frontier in Australian politics. If the voters support the LNP with the expectation of a Newman-led government, and get an LNP government headed by someone else, someone they may have already rejected in previous elections - have they been betrayed? Crucially, is the fear of that scenario – let’s call it Plan B – enough to swing voters away from the LNP?
Plan C  is likely to make voters even more cautious. If Newman fails to win Ashgrove but the LNP wins Queensland, would the LNP ask a newly elected party member to stand aside immediately, forcing a by-election in which Newman would run? Insiders say yes, and have suggested candidates from Mount Coot-tha (Saxon Rice), Greenslopes (Ian Kaye), Stafford (Chris Davis), Everton (Tim Mander), Ferny Grove (Dale Shuttleworth) and Brisbane Central (Robert Cavallucci) would be first in line. Now, instead of one seat – Ashgrove – being in play, voters in six other seats have reason for concern.
Would the LNP risk the voter backlash caused by having to turn up at the polling booth for the third time in just a couple of months? (Don’t forget, there’s a local government election in April, too.) What if Newman didn’t win that one either…what if…what if…what if…
Bruce McIver’s low-risk strategy of parachuting a sure-thing leader is looking riskier by the minute. Ironically, each sniff of risk increases the risk, like quarks, whose behaviour appears stable when they are being observed, but who, in reality, are impossible to pin down. 

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