Queensland Labor’s lessons for state politics

Why is Labor’s era in Queensland coming to an end? The short answer is that Queensland is a naturally conservative state. I argue that different states may have a natural propensity to support Labor or the Coalition, levels of unionization, manufacturing employment, educational levels and ethnic diversity are significant here. However this does not imply that the natural minority party will never win an election. Queensland is a notable example Labor has dominated state politics for two decades but at the federal level Labor has only twice secured a majority of the two-party vote in this period. The solution to this paradox is that although the median Queensland voter is conservative the anti-Labor parties in Queensland have been too conservative for Queensland voters, they were tainted by One Nation influence and then the fact that the National Party was the dominant conservative force meant that the conservatives as whole were seen as too far to the right. The formation of the Liberal National Party meant that for the first time Queensland voters have the chance to vote for a Liberal Premier and they like the idea just as they like voting for Liberal Prime Ministers. Victoria is the opposite case. It is a natural Labor state, in the late 1940s and early 1950s Victoria was Labor’s strongest state but the Labor split and the consequent shift of the Victorian ALP to the left made labor unelectable rather like the Queensland coalition. Once Labor reformed itself it emerged as the dominant political force. A natural minority party can win such as Queensland Labor since 1989 and the Victorian Liberals recently but it requires a combination of careful positioning on their part (Bailleu’s support for abortion rights, Queensland Labor’s disinterest in abortion reform) and of errors by the natural party of government: Labor’s handling of public transport in Victoria and the Queensland conservatives’ flirtation with the far right. The United States provides many similar examples: Democrats can be elected in naturally Republican states and vice versa but they have to tailor their appeal to the centre. Those who do not may be lucky for a time but eventually are defeated: Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania 2010 being an example.

The implications of this analysis for Queensland Labor are not encouraging. Queensland went from being a natural Labor state before World War II to being a naturally conservative state after the War. The reasons why are complex but I consider some in this paper from long ago which I was never able to get published. Labor will win again in Queensland but like the Victorian Liberals its periods of office will be rare. The recent Labor era in Queensland looks rather like Tasmania’s Liberal era from the early 1980s to the mid 1990s. Now the Tasmanian Liberals look set for a return to state government but it has taken a long time.

New South Wales is interesting here. It has been a traditional Labor state but social changes are undercutting Labor support. However I suspect more significant is that the disastrous last term of the ALP state government may have poisoned the image of the state ALP in the mind of voters, rather like how Queensland mainstream conservatives were damaged by their flirtation with One Nation. It is likely that NSW Labor will take some years to shed this image. The 2016 NSW Coalition campaign is already written.

At the federal level Labor remains the natural party of government.

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