Twenty years ago this month John Howard was in a fight for his political life. The year began with Peter Beattie’s Labor Government in Queensland wiping out the Coalition Opposition, prompting the infamous “mean and tricky” memo laying bare the then-prime minister’s shortcomings and dire electoral problems.
After losing the previously safe Brisbane western suburbs seat of Ryan in a byelection, Howard threw everything at one mission: survival.
Another byelection for the Melbourne metro seat of Aston appeared in June – with the vote on July 14 – and a loss would have offered Labor’s Kim Beazley a rail’s run to victory later that year.
There was an anti-government swing but it was within the range of normal byelection outcomes and the Liberals held.
Howard appeared that weekend on the first episode of a new ABC political talk show, Insiders.
He gave Barrie Cassidy one of his career defining quotes: “I believe that the Government is well and truly back in the game. If there were an unstoppable momentum for Labor to win the federal election, they’d have rolled us over in Aston.”
By the time Howard went to an election that year, a week after the Melbourne Cup, the Liberals were not just back in the game but took the wafer thin 1998 win to a majority of eight seats on a two-point-preferred vote swing.
The Liberals picked up seven seats while Labor could only claim one electorate.
Longman loves to swing, and it’s crucial to the next election
As Laura Tingle noted last weekend, there is a rhyme between the political situation in 2001 and now, although to this columnist’s eye there are also splashes of 2004.
A key to those two elections was, and in the coming poll will be, Queensland.
One seat standing out across the last quarter century of national politics is the major swing electorate of Longman.
This ex-urban, semi-rural district north-east of Brisbane stretches from the hinterland around the alternative village of Woodford, through the struggling town centres of Caboolture and Burpengary before reaching the usually conservative, older settlement of Bribie Island.
With the rarest of exceptions, Longman loves to swing. It was at the top of the swing hit parade in the Howard landslide of 1996 (plus 8.1 percent), the GST near-death 1998 poll (minus 9 percent), the 2007 Rudd-slide (plus 10.3 percent) and the Turnbull “Mr Harbourside Mansion” backlash (minus 7.7 percent).
Longman is going to be a crucial seat at the election, due by late May next year, but almost certain to be held later this year. In Queensland it will be the pivotal seat.
The stakes couldn’t be higher
Anthony Albanese and Labor need to win Longman if they are going to have a chance of taking government. For Scott Morrison and the Coalition the stakes couldn’t be higher. If they lose Longman they will probably be bringing in the shredders and calling the moving vans.
Longman has a touchy economic nerve. Voters there hated the GST in 1998 and they revolted against Howard’s workplace insecurity embedded in Work Choices.
Cost of living pressures, stagnant wages and a “top end of town” view of Malcolm Tunrbull fed the anti-LNP swings at the 2016 general election and the 2018 byelection.
Broader cultural and national security issues are also in the Longman mix (the One Nation surge of 1998 found plenty of adherents in this area and gave Pauline Hanson’s party her state parliamentary leader in those hay days).
Biloela family, jobs, vaccine rollout are key issues
While the Biloela family might have sympathy and more in the classic small-l Liberal cosmopolitan seats and beyond (you know Middle Australia is turning when the WA conservative Labor Premier Mark McGowan raises his voice), there is probably little goodwill among the tradies along the Bruce Highway to Caboolture or among older Queenslanders on Bribie Island.
This is why the Morrison government is trying to walk both sides of the street with mixed success. In Longman they have probably come out ahead.
On vaccines there is most likely some hesitant concern. According to people from both major parties, the mood seems to be settling at the moment with a general worry about the speed of the rollout and the overall competence of how it’s being handled.
The rider is people will be happier if things turn around. Public opinion during this pandemic remains dynamic and sensitive to the news (and virus) cycle. If a sufficient number of people are vaccinated by the time of an election, the people of Longman will be guided by gratitude for being “kept safe”.
This is what happened in the state election last October when the people of Bribie Island rallied to Annastacia Palaszczuk’s cause and moved the local seat from the LNP to Labor.
Finally, the jobs result no doubt reflects the buoyancy of the local economy. Tradies in their twin cabs are happy they’ve kept their jobs, glad about stimulus on home building and renovation, loved getting $10,000 from their superannuation to buy a Harley and will hand over their receipts for the instant asset write off from the new work trucks they’ve driven off the lots.
These moving parts point to Longman staying in Morrison’s column which is one reason he’s said to be not too troubled by the daily noise of national politics.
One factor that could help Labor in Longman – and Queensland generally – is the Palaszczuk effect. The Labor Premier retains the towerting popularity behind her 2020 election win and could use it to boost the stocks of federal candidates.
Palaszczuk is still smarting from the way Morrison treated her through last year and resents his intrusion into the state campaign – which saw him stumping with LNP leader Deb Frecklington for a full week.
Federal Labor campaign strategists are working hard to get her to commit to extensive activity in key electorates. There’s little doubt she would have more success than Morrison did last October.