Queensland “soft” voters are deeply disillusioned with both the Palaszczuk government and the Nicholls opposition, with many predicting a hung parliament from the November 25 state election, according to focus group research.
These voters are dismayed by the quality of Queensland’s political leadership, and struggling to find reasons to vote for the Labor government or the Liberal National Party alternative. Their votes are drifting somewhat toward minor parties and independents. If there’s a hung parliament, the majors will have themselves to blame.
Soft voters’ feelings about the controversial proposed Adani Carmichael coal mine – a high-profile issue in the campaign’s early stages – are complicated, with many believing the mine will be economically beneficial, but doubts about a publicly funded loan for its railway, and deep cynicism about Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk’s backflip on the issue.
Federally, many of these voters see Malcolm Turnbull’s ability to turn a “yes” result on same-sex marriage – if that’s the outcome of the postal ballot – into legislation quickly as a decisive test of the prime minister’s leadership.
The groups, two in each of Brisbane and Townsville, were conducted on Tuesday and Wednesday last week. The participants hadn’t yet decided how they would vote. Ages ranged from 18 to 75, with a mix of gender and socioeconomic backgrounds. Landscape Research conducted the research for the University of Canberra’s Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis.
Brisbane participants were predominantly drawn from the Queensland marginal electorates of Ferny Grove (ALP 0.82%) and Everton (LNP 1.77%), in the marginal federal LNP electorate of Dickson. Townsville participants were predominantly drawn from the marginal electorates of Mundingburra (ALP 2.76%) and Townsville (ALP 5.69%) in the marginal federal Labor electorate of Herbert.
The participants’ criticism of the big parties and their interest in small players reflect trends shown in recent quantitative polling.
“Major parties concentrate too much on negatives and not new policies,” complained a retired Brisbane retail worker; a Townsville worker said: “everyone’s going to independents. They’re sick of lies.”
“No matter what happens here, the independents will have a louder voice,” said a Townsville police officer.
Despite their criticisms of the major parties and the state’s leadership, these voters are more optimistic than pessimistic about Queensland’s future, seeing at least small signs of economic improvement, more jobs, and hospitals and schools being built. “The economy is starting to turn around, we’ve been through the worst of things,” said one.
The main issues of concern shared by soft voters in both places are the cost of living, including power prices, roads and traffic congestion, and crime. In Townsville water security is a particular priority.
On Adani, there are some worries about possible environmental implications, including for the Great Barrier Reef. But many are attracted to the potential economic benefits – wealth and direct and indirect jobs.
Nevertheless, these voters hesitate about funds from the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (NAIF) helping an overseas company make a profit, when the money could be used for other things, such as Townsville’s water.
People were scathing about Palaszczuk’s about-turn, in announcing a re-elected Labor government would veto NAIF funding for the mine’s railway. They see her pandering to “greenies” at the expense of hard-working Queenslanders. Some regard the fallout as “disastrous” for her, who’s also criticised for calling the election immediately after she denied she’d do so.
“She’s a straight bare-faced liar,” was the acerbic assessment of one Townsville participant.
For many, Palaszczuk hasn’t done enough to get their vote again; some pointed to her rocky start in the campaign, and concerns lingered about union influence on Labor.
But despite her perceived drawbacks, many of these soft voters are still leaning toward voting Labor. Their reasons include that Palaszczuk is better than the alternative; they like their local MP; and they want this time to have majority government and believe the ALP has a better chance than the LNP of achieving that. “Better the devil you know,” a Brisbane female executive assistant felt.
For some, Tim Nicholls embodies the ghost of Campbell Newman, the former premier dispatched in the massive swing of 2015. Nicholls and his team carry the baggage of the past. “I don’t trust the LNP because those people are still there,” one participant said.
But others favour the LNP on economic grounds; they “potentially manage the economy better,” in the view of a Townsville small-business-owner.
Given their negativity toward the major parties, some soft voters are looking seriously at minor party and independent alternatives. In Townsville, One Nation and Katter’s Australian Party (KAP) are appealing. One Nation and KAP have done a preference deal.
In Brisbane, some older voters are also considering One Nation; some younger Brisbane voters are looking at the Greens.
Senator Pauline Hanson, who was overseas when the election was called, had started to hit the Queensland election trail when the focus groups were meeting.
A Brisbane retired public servant was “leaning towards One Nation for a change. I’m sick of the childlike behaviour of the major parties.”
For a Townsville electrician, it’s about sending “a message to the major parties that we’re not happy with them. I’m leaning towards KAP for a change. They’ll be a strong voting block with One Nation.”
The soft voters differ dramatically about One Nation and Hanson. “I appreciate that she doesn’t think she’s King Shit,” said a Townsville property developer, “she seems more humble”. But a Townsville stay-at-home mum believed “someone like that would just set us back decades,” just when “as a society we’re just getting to the point where we’re being more inclusive”.
“I would be quite positive if Katter had the balance of power, but I’d be absolutely devastated if One Nation had the balance of power,” said a Townsville participant.
While many are predicting a hung parliament/minority government, people see pros and cons in that sort of outcome. The downside would be instability and chaos; “It sounds like a continuation of the political shit storm,” said a young Townsville occupational therapist.
On the other hand, having crossbenchers holding the untrustworthy majors to account is a positive. “It might make the major parties wake up a bit to what the realities are,” a retired Brisbane small-business-owner said.
For some, a hung parliament puts too much power in the hands of a few, elected by a minority of voters. The government can be held to ransom by the whims of an unrepresentative “looney” minority. “It takes the power off your vote again because you voted for someone and they could go and form a coalition with someone that you very strongly disagree with,” said a personal trainer from Brisbane.
At this stage of the campaign, younger undecided voters in particular admitted they were still disengaged and lacked enough information to make informed choices.
Mostly, these soft voters don’t see significant implications flowing federally from the Queensland result. But they do caution the LNP that the federal Liberals’ performance won’t help them; they also think the federal Liberals fortunes couldn’t be worsened by whatever happens here.
“I wouldn’t let Malcolm Turnbull anywhere near the place,” said a retired Brisbane solicitor; a Townsville participant described the federal government as “a lame duck”. Some believe the rise of independents in Queensland is a wake-up call for the federal Coalition.
Unprompted, these voters cite as top-of-mind federal issues dual citizenship -–which they see as politics at its worst, “farcical”, “ridiculous” – Manus Island, and same-sex marriage.
On the Manus crisis they are polarised (“we should be ashamed”; “they’re illegal immigrants”), at a loss to suggest a solution, and unsure what the federal government is or should be doing.
Despite the Manus crisis, which was escalating as the groups met, some Dickson voters remain enthusiastic about their local member, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton (“I think he’s great”; “he’s doing an excellent job”).
But his popularity among some is being tested by their dislike of the Turnbull.
A retired printer said it was a question of who one was voting for. “If I’m looking at my federal electorate, I’m looking at Dutton, who just happens to be a Liberal guy, but I really don’t like the leader of the party and if there’s a choice to vote another way I’ll be voting against Liberal because of him, Turnbull, and not liking the consequences of dumping Dutton.”
On same-sex marriage, these voters are critical of the cost of the postal ballot (one chose not to vote in protest). But if a “yes” win is announced on Wednesday, they want Turnbull to deliver a parliamentary result – otherwise it will confirm their view that he is weak and beholden to the conservative part of his party.
As a Brisbane female small-business-owner bluntly put it: “This is the litmus test. I feel like this is going to be: how much do you actually listen to us? And if you don’t listen to us, you can go get stuffed.”
These groups will meet again in the last week of the campaign, when we will bring you their views. Meanwhile, watch for The Conversation’s FactChecks on the Queensland election.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra