News National Why the Newman defeat may signal PM is next
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Why the Newman defeat may signal PM is next

Campbell Newman and Annastacia Palaszczuk
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Charles the 1st supposedly wore an extra shirt at his beheading so watchers wouldn’t think him shivering with fear. After the LNP’s beheading in yesterday’s Queensland’s election Tony Abbott will be rugging up in his blue woollies too. The tocsin has sounded, north of the border, and the kingslayers are on the move.

When Abbott mounts the National Press Club podium on Monday he’ll be bargaining for his own political skin as much as his government’s. Speaking to journalists on Sunday morning, however, Abbott conceded that his government would need to learn lessons from the outcome, but he refused to be drawn into speculation that his leadership face immediate danger.

“The lessons are not to give up on reform but to make sure everything you propose is fully explained and well justified,” Mr Abbott said.

“I accept that we have some difficulties, (but) we have listened, we have learnt, we will be a more consultative and collegial government in 2015.”

But it’s not just that his fingerprints are all over the Queensland defeat or that the parallels between him and Newman are unmissable – two barnstorming, conservative politicians with abrasive styles who alienate pundits and punters alike. There’s a deeper problem.

The Queensland result shows politics itself is changing. The day of the ‘conviction’ politician is done.

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Abbott, and Newman too, could be forgiven for feeling cheated. Conviction, after all, is how both reached the heights they did. Both also had the Howard siren-song to lure them on – a conservative reformer able to take the public on the most unpalatable journeys.

But politicians, like generals, usually lose when they re-fight their last war, and so it was with Newman. Given the massive vote of confidence he got just three years ago it is no surprise he tried to crank up the old can-do magic again. His audience, however, had moved on and his constant harping on strength and results simply fuelled their building anger at how roughly he’d ridden them – mass sackings, a draconian, Joh-style law and order regime, and above all a refusal to listen.

All politics, it seems, is now emotional and personal. While the LNP’s economic performance was underwhelming they’d excelled in draining the cesspit at Queensland health and promising infrastructure. None of that seemed to matter against the personal stories – the neighbour’s son who couldn’t get a job, the innocent local caught up in the bikie crackdown.

LNP pollsters knew better than to expect gratitude from a modern electorate. They did, however, think the inertia of their massive margin might save them. It didn’t – there is, apparently, no inertia any more and political capital can vaporise in a flash.

Given politics now mimics the movie business and nobody knows anything it has also become easy to claim anything. The Labor narrative is that public asset leasing plans nailed the LNP coffin shut. This is probably delusional – who really felt troubled over the possible sale of the Port of Gladstone?

It seems, instead, that asset leasing simply got worked into the general narrative of mistrust. Attempts to mitigate blowback by spending on shiny new highways and free drivers licenses just made it worse – why trust a government that sold assets but didn’t repay the supposedly spiralling debt?

Queensland treasurer, Tim Nicholls’, wounded muttering about failure to sell reform highlight Abbott’s problem. He and his government think they were elected on a ‘conviction’ platform of hard-headed but necessary change. But leaving aside the fact that they said little about that at the time and haven’t achieved it anyway the Queensland election shows they’ve misjudged the electorate.

Abbott’s ‘conviction politician’ status only had electoral appeal against the backdrop of the Rudd-Gillard government’s breathtaking incompetence and instability. Interpreting even a thumping victory like his 2013 win as endorsement turns out to be folly. The electorate is, apparently, far too fickle for that. The truism has never been more true – what matters isn’t who you are, but who you aren’t.

Weirdly, the political figure most like Abbott in Queensland now is Annastacia Palaszczuk. She too is an accidental leader, elevated by reaction rather than choice. She’ll probably grow into the role, of course, but it is no unkindness to say she got the job because of her lack of prominence. Against the backdrop of Newman’s perceived arrogance, her genial image as ‘one of us’ made her the perfect politician to reap the backlash.

A brilliant grassroots campaign by Labor, of course, didn’t hurt either.

But if the conviction politician is dead where then does that leave prospects for reform? In a ditch, basically.

Wayne Swan, perhaps inadvertently, belled the cat in his election-night commentary, observing that true reform shouldn’t disadvantage anyone. Yet this seems an impossible condition – surely somebody’s circumstances have to change for reform to mean anything? Volatile modern electorates, however, apparently agree with him. The lesson of the Queensland election is that conviction governments will henceforth be singe-term governments.

Tony Abbott is about to get the once-over.

Dr Peter McAllister is a lecturer in the school of humanities at Griffith University.

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