By Malcolm Cole
Director - SAS Media and Communications
The recent battle for control of Brisbane's largest local government was billed by media and political analysts as a cliff hanger – one that would "go right down to the wire". In the end, Lord Mayor Graham Quirk was re-elected comfortably, with an increased majority for his Liberal National Council. The final result could have been significantly different, however, without Quirk's calming influence and his exhortation to his troops to "hold your nerve" throughout the tumultuous final days of the campaign.
The size of the Brisbane City Council – both its geography and its budget – makes it a political prize, and the only council anywhere in Australia whose elections are formally contested by the major parties. Quirk has been at the helm for five years, after taking over the Lord Mayoralty when Campbell Newman left for State Politics in 2011.
Labor sought to capitalise on the LNP's total of 12 years in charge by declaring its candidate, Rod Harding, would bring "New Energy" to the city's administration. The LNP campaign, under the sub-banner of "Team Quirk", sought to capitalise on strong positive sentiment towards the city's direction and governance with a call to voters to "Keep Brisbane on the Right Track".
Throughout a 12-month campaign, Labor focused on what it claimed were public concerns around traffic congestion and "bad development". In the final weeks of the formal campaign, this latter issue culminated in a series of local rallies and protests by well coordinated anti-development lobby groups. It also resulted in Quirk being referred to the Crime and Corruption Commission by the Labor State Government over an alleged preferential deal for an LNP donor. (This claim was completely dismissed by the CCC in the days before the election, an event which marked the beginning of the end of Labor's campaign.) These issues, combined with the inevitable baggage of long-term incumbency, created a media environment in which Quirk and his team were largely on the back foot, and Labor's candidate was allowed to go largely unchallenged on a range of election commitments that were lacking both detail and funding.
Ultimately, however, the LNP team was able to use this lack of detail and its unfunded commitments to turn the media tide, and finish the campaign with a sense of momentum that helped it defy the predictions of a cliffhanger result. The primary focus of this campaign was Labor's promise to return light rail to the streets of Brisbane. Armed with a report by a respected national traffic consulting firm, Quirk warned of the need for CBD street closures, widespread demolition of character housing, and increases in waiting times at red lights of up to 1000 per cent at some intersections. As the issue gained traction, Quirk was able to reverse the media spotlight and put Harding under pressure for the first time in the campaign. The Courier Mail later observed, in its pre-election editorial, "Mr Harding has at times been found wanting when pressed on the detail of some of his bigger ticket policies such as the proposed light rail system".
This counter-attack was just showing signs of gaining traction in the media when – on the Monday before polling day – the LNP was forced to disendorse a candidate in relation to a nude photo scandal. Five days out from polling day, this scandal should have been enough to sink a boat in already troubled waters. However, Quirk calmly grasped the opportunity to position himself as a strong leader, in command during difficult times. He was aided by the timing of the CCC's clearance, which allowed him to claim some moral high ground against what he called "Labor muck raking". The net impact was that the damage to the LNP vote was short-lived. As voters turned their minds to the approaching election day, Quirk stuck religiously to his message about keeping Brisbane on the right track, while simultaneously warning of the risk of change and giving Labor an occasional boot for what he called its dirty, personal campaign.
As the results unfolded on election night, it was clear that voters had accepted the underlying premise of Quirk's campaign theme, that the city was on the right track and that he and his team were the people to keep it there. It was the message he had quietly, methodically presented to voters throughout the most challenging parts of the campaign, and the one that resonated most strongly where it counted – at the ballot box.
The Quirk campaign could easily have been derailed by the developer donation controversy, or the candidate photo scandal. It could even have been blown off course through the temptation to respond to Labor's heavy focus on traffic congestion. Claiming victory on election night, Quirk hailed the successful strategy of "holding your nerve". While the media cycles of an election campaign will no doubt bring challenges – and sometimes great challenges – for all players, the best response is always to remain focussed on your own strengths and your key messages to voters. If you're talking about your opponent's issues, you can win the battle while losing the war. The path to the best possible outcome is – in the words of the re-elected Quirk – to hold your nerve.