Labor will be left with nothing but crumbs
In his six types of ill-fated armies, the brilliant Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu identified one called “crumbling”.
“If the higher officers are angry and insubordinate, engaging the enemy themselves out of unrestrained anger while the general does not yet know their capabilities, it is termed crumbling,” Sun Tzu wrote more than two millennia ago.
While the Bligh Government’s first - and last - full term does not fit this description perfectly, there is something in a correlation of the two.
This crumbling administration - beset by ill-conceived wars in health, public administration, water, infrastructure and economic management - took Labor to Premier Anna Bligh’s Australia Day-eve announcement of today’s election.
This was one of a series of ultimately losing gambles Bligh took since that day.
By this week her opponent - Campbell Newman, the man she detests - had trumped her at every turn. Newman defied her demand that he stumble and go off the grid during a drawn-out campaign. He stared down the most negative political assault seen in modern times.
In his chosen electorate, he withstood a cunning and, at times nasty, local campaign based around the butter-wouldn’t-melt Ashgrove heroine Kate Jones.
Today he will lay down the ultimate trump card. The LNP, at only the second state outing for the merged Liberal and Nationals parties, will pull off one of the most comprehensive electoral victories in Australian history, reducing Labor to somewhere between a netball team of seven and a 15-member rugby side.
That rugby analogy works only if everything - and then some - goes right for Labor today. It won’t.
Election campaigns never run completely smoothly for either the winning or losing side. At some point something will go right for even the most hopeless of combatants.
Bligh and her campaign team, led by state secretary Anthony Chisholm, took an early high-risk decision.
Labor knew when Bligh lowered the flag for this contest they were in for a flogging. Unlike 1974 - the last time Queensland Labor was reduced to pulp - modern political parties are seldom surprised or caught off guard.
Polling, informed by months of work with groups of uncommitted voters and a survey track of a revolving set of marginal seats taken six at a time out of a basket of 24 or so, makes sure the campaign generals know what is coming and where it’s coming from and why. If they’re lucky they get a hint of how to head it off or at least slow it.
Chisholm knew he had to counter the LNP’s one big strategic risk - running Newman in Ashgrove from outside the Parliament. The only option was to tear Newman down; to sow seeds of doubt in enough voting minds in the leafy and hilly streets in Brisbane’s inner-north west.
This was the dodgy-deals card which was parlayed into Campbell’s Web. A complex series of business entities linked to the family of Newman’s wife Lisa and occasionally intersecting with decisions taken by the Brisbane City Council which the LNP leader led for seven years, provided the raw material.
Dee Madigan, the self-styled ad chick from Sydney who handled the party’s creative work, asked Bligh’s chief of staff Nicole Scurrah to set down a simple explanation of these businesses and deals.
Scurrah gave Madigan a single piece of paper with names and lines linking them. Madigan immediately saw an ad and Campbell’s Web was born.
It worked a treat, backed by independent newspaper reporting on other deals associated with people who had donated to Newman’s lord mayoral campaign fund, with one set of transactions hitting gold for Labor in the electorate.
Philip Usher made seven separate donations to the fund totalling more than $70,000 just before his plans for a residential development in Woolloongabba got a tick from the Brisbane council.
While the Crime and Misconduct Commission has effectively cleared Newman of any wrongdoing, it is still investigating Usher.
But by the time Labor was getting traction on all this, two events derailed the whole thing. First, Bligh stood up in Caboolture and said she had no “material” to back the claims made against Newman. This was the “I got nothing” moment and sent the parties’ lines in their polling analysis bonkers.
It was all going the wrong way for Bligh and the just-on-time right way for Newman.
Two days later, the CMC offered the coup de grace, giving Newman an effective clearance and leaving Bligh high and dry.
In the days leading up to this, there was a willing discussion in Labor’s campaign ranks with Sydney consultant Bruce Hawker arguing for the ALP to wage an under-the-radar legal battle with the CMC to stop a decision on Newman being made until after today.
Others, including Chisholm, reasoned this could backfire on Labor if the party was seen to be pressuring the CMC to keep any investigation alive. This remains one of the big what-if questions from the campaign.
Also, the timing of the CMC’s announcement - late on a Friday - left Labor tactically stranded. They couldn’t turn around their advertising buy for the weekend which meant the heavy negative spots on Newman kept running and the positive Bligh-to-camera burst didn’t get up until the last three broadcast days of the last week.
When the ad ban came in at the end of Wednesday, Labor was left without what little paid media support they had and the small drag they had on the swing evaporated.
Down the road at the LNP campaign headquarters things started looking up straight after Bligh dropped her “I’ve got nothing” gaffe. Before this there was some real pressure on Newman and his handlers.
Newman had been resisting internal urging to tackle the pecuniary interest issues for months, despite Labor having started their campaign against him seven months before the election.
Now the party - with the steely James McGrath in the campaign director’s chair - and its leader had hit prime time, the stakes were so much greater, particularly because the target audience for Labor’s campaign was the voters of Ashgrove.
After some intense internal discussion, Newman was convinced to announce on the second last Sunday that he and his wife would divest or blind trust their interests and, for good measure, declare he wasn’t a crook.
There was another, until now, undisclosed tell-tale sign that the Labor campaign was biting.
In the week before Newman made his bold announcement, the LNP team cut a high-risk ad. It was Lisa Newman, to camera, declaring her husband was a good man and saying these attacks were not just wrong but deeply hurtful to her family.
It never saw the light of day but the fact it was made shows just how much pressure the Newman campaign in Ashgrove was under.
If it was established in the minds of voters that Newman might not win the seat, the legs were kicked out from under his asymmetrical assault on the leadership of the state. The leadership would have been in danger of becoming a pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey game.
Courier-Mail/Galaxy polling and the private work undertaken by the LNP and Labor 2 1/2 weeks ago all said it was either desperately close or Newman was behind.
By Tuesday and Wednesday this week the situation had been rescued. Our Galaxy poll had Newman winning on primaries with 52 per cent of the vote while Labor and the LNP - who both tracked a smaller sample on Tuesday night - had his primary support at 48 and 49 per cent. Everyone had him winning.
Labor’s strategic failure was to put all its eggs in the Whack Newman basket, although many argue they had no alternative.
“We couldn’t talk about the past because people thought we were just crap and we couldn’t talk about the future because they didn’t believe a word we said,” says one campaign insider, neatly summing up the biggest reason for today’s bloodbath.
Queenslanders do not throw out incumbent governments often. This will be just the fourth time this has happened since August 1957.
Labor will have to pick up the few pieces left and try to regroup. In 1957 they had John Duggan as a leader worthy of the task, as it was in 1974 with Tom Burns. Both took 15 years to get the Labor vote back into any competitive shape.
It’s going to be a long, cold winter for Labor and there are no Duggans or Burns’ in sight.
* Dennis Atkins is The Courier-Mail‘s national affairs editor.
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