The Queensland Parliament rises tonight for what may be the final time before a state election. Both the Labor Government and the Liberal National Opposition are finalising their campaign preparations, with a series of Labor billboards going up around the state this week, and the LNP sharpening their attack on the Government around the sensitive issue of electricity pricing.
Labor has also used the week to complete some of its flagship Parliamentary business, such as the passage of new Industrial Manslaughter laws. This has allowed the Government to focus on its preferred subject matter of jobs and worker safety, so the stage is certainly set for an election when the Premier chooses to call it.
There have been three significant changes to the electoral environment since Annastacia Palaszczuk was swept into office in January 2015. The first is that size of the Parliament will increase from 89 seats to 93, meaning that either side must secure 47 seats in order to form government, compared with 45 previously.
The Labor Party currently holds 42 seats, and the Premier has emphatically ruled out governing with support from One Nation after the election, meaning Labor must hold all its existing seats and claw five more across to its column on election night. The LNP currently sits on 41 seats, and while Opposition Leader Tim Nicholls has ruled out a formal coalition with One Nation, he has intimated he would be prepared to rely on their support in the Parliament to form government. Mathematically, then, the challenge is more difficult for the ALP which must secure a clear majority in order to form government.
The second major reform has been the reintroduction of compulsory preferential voting, which means voters for minor parties are obliged to pass their preferences to another candidate in the event their primary choice is knocked out in the early rounds of vote counting. One Nation Leader Pauline Hanson has today said her party will preference against sitting MPs across the state, rather than directing preferences to one side or another. Traditionally, One Nation voters have not strongly followed the how-to-vote card anyway, so while this will have some impact on individual seats the overall impact of this move will be minimal.
One Nation's impact will likely be felt if it manages to outpoll the LNP in traditional conservative seats, and is able to get members elected to Parliament on LNP preferences. Similarly, if One Nation is in a two-party race with the LNP it may receive the required support from ALP voters who don't follow the card, and have members elected to the Parliament that way.
In any event, the key number is likely to be 47 seats for the Labor Party. Anything short of this number will most likely result in a Nicholls-led LNP Government – assuming the Premier sticks to her disavowal of forming government with One Nation's support.
The next question relates to the timing. We are very much in the window for an election, and without doubt the Premier will issue the writs as soon as Labor's pollsters tell her she is sitting on or above that magic number of 47. Until she receives that news, the Premier has until March 15 next year to call the election, and until May 7 to hold it.
Queensland's shift to fixed-four-year terms of Parliament after the coming election is the third and final significant change to the electoral environment, and a complicating factor regarding the timing of polling day. The transition arrangements to fixed terms provide that, if an election is held any time in 2017, the fixed date for the next election will be in October 2020. Should the next election occur in early 2018, however, the following poll would be held in October 2021. So there is an in-built incentive in delaying the poll should the Government believe it is poised to win (and, of course, the natural incentive to delay if they feel they are headed for defeat).
A relatively new factor that will also be influencing thinking around timing is the potential for restrictions on domestic electricity use over summer. The Government this week floated the possibility of financial incentives to convince consumers to restrict power usage on peak days. This would most likely affect air-conditioners on the hottest days of summer. While the Opposition leapt on the potential impact this load balancing would have on consumers, the alternative is to risk the power network falling over under severe strain.
Neither is a palatable option for a Government facing re-election in a campaign where power pricing and policy are likely to be major issues. This could be enough to tempt the hard heads in the Labor Party to dash to the polls in late November or early December – before the worst of summer heat hits the state. Whichever way the Premier decides to go, it's going to be a long, hot summer in Queensland.