By Denis Bright
Even Nostradamus himself might be hesitant about predicting the final outcomes of the Queensland state election on 31 October 2020. Opinion polls to date have been of scant assistance. This article can only promote discussion about some of the new variables in this year’s contest. These are strange times with lots of added social and financial tensions during the COVID-19 era.
The last Queensland Newspoll administered by YouGov was conducted between 23-29 July 2020 from a sample of one thousand voters. That seems like generations ago.
Despite Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk’s high personal ratings in that polling (64 per cent and +5 per cent since the previous poll, a close result can still be expected. The Palaszczuk Government has the slenderest of majorities. It was a minority government between 2015-17.
Conservative media networks will of course strive to take advantage of any future major opinion poll showing any substantial swing to the LNP, even if the state-wide results are quite meaningless. Queensland’s decentralized regional character and the sheer vastness of urban sprawl on the outskirts of cities across South East Queensland will always raise the margin of error in even the best opinion polls.
Key marginal seat polling will always need to be used to accompany the generalized state-wide voting projections. Even in some electorates like Ipswich West, Mirani (Mackay District), Keppel (Capricorn Coast) and Hervey Bay, there is great internal diversity in social demography.
Opinion polling was once used to call early opportunistic elections. This opportunism is now controlled by a fixed election date every four years unless there are extraordinary circumstances requiring the governor to intervene in setting an unexpected election date.
Premier Campbell Newman took Queenslanders to an early poll on 31 January 2015. This folly for the LNP brought on a 14 per cent swing to Labor after preferences and a 10.81 per cent on primary votes.
The Electoral Commission Queensland (ECQ) has a decisive role to play to maintain the momentum of post-Fitzgerald election reforms under the new four-year parliamentary term arrangements and greater contemporary demands for election accountability.
Legitimate calls by the ECQ will have a decisive influence on this year’s election processes and even final outcomes in marginal seats. Political parties of all persuasions will also be proactive about reacting to any perceived loopholes.
Queensland’s ECQ and the Crime and Corruption Commission (CCC) need to be highly proactive in testing these loopholes. Any laxity in their vigilance can bring a regression to the Joh era.
ECQ’s Responsibilities During COVID-19 Times
The ECQ is of course an independent body which can makes its own calls on issues such as the protocols for postal vote applications, pre-polling procedures and that final election day anti-climax in this COVID-19 era.
The comments from political analyst Anthony Green on the Brisbane City Council (BCC) elections on 28 March 2020 are of great significance. I have not seen any comprehensive reports on the electoral practices in the 72 other local authorities in Queensland. Time does not allow me the luxury of making independent investigations from the ECQ data available on local government elections which is quite abundant.
“When the Notice of Election for Queensland’s local government elections was published on 22 February, no one imagined that by election day the state would be under lockdown and voting and counting would be restricted by social distancing rules.
During March the Electoral Commission reacted to the emerging health emergency by encouraging voters to make use of postal and pre-poll voting. It also broadened access to telephone voting, an option previously only available for blind and low vision voters. The new public health rules prevented the Electoral Commission from visiting retirement homes and hospitals, and also prevented the use of Electoral Visitor voting.
The effect of Coronavirus on turnout was less dramatic then the impact it had on how people voted. In the Brisbane City Council Lord Mayoral election, turnout fell from 84% in 2016 to 79.9%, a drop of only 4.1%. That is a remarkable turnout given the health concerns.
But using Brisbane ward election results, on the day voting fell from 66.0% in 2016 to only 26.5% in 2020. Pre-poll voting rose from 13.2% to 28.7%, postal voting from 12.2% to 23.9%, end telephone voting recorded 8,428 votes (1.4%) compared to only 151 votes in 2016.
Absent voting also leapt from 7.4% in 2016 to 18.3% in 2020. This figure hides some of the increase in pre-poll votes. In 2016 pre-poll votes recorded outside of a voter’s home ward were recorded as pre-poll votes. In 2020 outside of ward pre-polls were counted as absent votes.”
The ECQ is not a law into itself. The Guardian (17 May 2018) covered the forced resignation of a previous electoral commissioner that year. I am using block quotes from published sources and do not seek to make defamatory imputations in promoting public discussion on some very vital issues.
“Queensland’s former electoral commissioner was drunk and using drugs at work, bullied staff and was caught in a sexual act with a temporary employee, an investigation has found.
Walter van der Merwe, 56, resigned from his senior public service role in February after being suspended over seven allegations levelled against him.
The attorney general, Yvette D’Ath, on Thursday confirmed in state parliament that a number of those accusations were substantiated by the Crime and Corruption Commission.
They include Van der Merwe being caught in a sexual act with a staff member, being intoxicated at work, failing to show up to work without a reasonable excuse and directing senior officials not to discipline staff he was friends with.”
ABC News (18 April 2018) covered the involvement of the CCC in criminal charges relating to the previous ECQ Commissioner:
“Queensland’s former electoral commissioner is expected to front court after being charged with dangerous drug possession.
At the time, Attorney-General Yvette D’Ath did not confirm the nature of the allegations other than stating they were related to “misbehaviour” under the Electoral Act but “do not suggest inappropriate interference in the outcome of elections”.
Today he was issued with a Notice to Appear on one count of possession of steroids after an investigation by the Crime and Corruption Commission (CCC).
Ms D’Ath said the charge is “of a very serious nature and must be dealt with through the court process”.
“In February, I suspended the former Electorate Commissioner due to a number of serious allegations that went to inappropriate conduct in the workplace,” Ms D’Ath said in a statement released today.
“Immediately after the suspension, I referred the allegations to the CCC for investigation.
‘I am aware that the CCC has released a statement today advising of a charge of a former senior state government employee on the charge of possession of a dangerous drug.
“I will await a formal report from the CCC before finalising the investigation into the original allegations received.”
Mr van der Merwe is expected to face the Holland Park Magistrates Court on May 1.
Dermot Tiernan remains the acting electoral commissioner while a recruitment process to permanently fill the position is underway.”
The Mandarin (18 May 2018) noted the outcomes of the hearing at the Holland Park Magistrates Court:
Attorney-General Yvette D’Ath tabled a letter from the corruption watchdog yesterday, summarising its findings in relation to seven serious accusations. The CCC found two of these — claims of travel rorts and rumours about specific cases of nepotism — were baseless.
Allegations that were upheld by the CCC investigation include bullying, skipping work, being drunk on the job, and an incident where the commissioner was found in “a compromising position” of a sexual nature with a temporary staff member.
Van der Merwe allegedly favoured particular employees and “overruled reasonable management decisions of senior managers” to benefit them. Another allegation related to possession of steroids, which were found by CCC investigators inside locked containers in his office. Van de Merwe pled guilty to this in court and accepted a $600 fine, with no conviction recorded.
“It is suspected that Van der Merwe used drugs in the workplace,” according to the CCC’s summary of that allegation.
The corruption watchdog included seven recommendations arising from its investigation in the letter to D’Ath, which can be found published on Queensland’s parliamentary website.
Now Patrick Vidgen PSM as Electoral Commissioner can bring a fresh approach to his heavy responsibilities in maintaining the momentum of integrity relating to elections in the post-Fitzgerald era.
Permit me to introduce a discussion of some important issues affecting this year’s Queensland state election in these COVID-19 times.
The Challenges Posed by Postal Vote Applications Through PVA Centres
The state LNP is clearly aware of new opportunities to influence political outcomes through its emphasis on the harvesting of postal vote applications. The LNP would not be alone in making the most of these opportunities. Postal votes accounted for almost a quarter of all votes in the BCC election on 28 March 2020.
LNP resources have been thrown into expensive mail-outs to encourage postal vote applications as part of a How to Vote Safe Strategy.
Attractive envelopes with blue-green graphics give no hint of party affiliations. Constituents who decide to open the envelopes will find a letter from the local LNP candidate. Some envelopes in swing seats like Maiwar in Brisbane’s Inner West are personally addressed. Bringing this seat back into the LNP fold is surely a prized objective.
What is intriguing about the Vote Safe Strategy is the use of a reply-paid envelopes for the enclosed postal vote applications which are being directed to a PVA centre at PO Box 960, Archerfield 4108 before the applications are sent off in bulk to the ECQ. This is a costly step in a well-resourced statewide campaign from the LNP.
At least Labor is more forthright about its own postal vote requests to constituents. In Ferny Grove electorate for example, sitting member Mark Furner makes no secret about just where the enclosed postal vote applications are going:
From Mark Furner MP in Ferny Grove Electorate
Enclosed with this letter are two postal vote application forms. If you can’t make it to a prepoll booth or vote on election day, simply complete the forms and return it in the reply-paid envelope.
This is returned to Mark Furner’s office without the need for the pretentious use of the PVA Centre.
The LNP’s more assertive style of canvassing for postal vote applications was given a good trial before the BCC council elections on 28 March 2018. I had not noticed this practice mainly because I give very little attention to junk mail.
At the BCC elections, postal vote applications were returned in a reply-paid envelope to a PVA Centre in Spring Hill. This was ambiguously addressed as Brisbane City Council, PVA Centre, Spring Hill as the graphics clearly show.
I forwarded inquiries to the LNP by phone and to the Coorparoo Ward office by email for an explanation of the nature of PVA centres.
The LNP does not need to explain its actions in setting up PVA centres but I encourage interested voters to keep asking questions about the integrity of such entities.
Should I get more than an automated reply from the Coorparoo Ward, I will soon pass on the details to readers in a postscript to this article.
It is conventionally accepted that the use of a PVA address as used at the BCC elections is probably legal but still highly irregular if postal votes now represent almost a quarter of all votes during the COVID-19 era. My two enquiries at the ECQ with follow-up phone calls do suggest that the use of the PVA centres has not been considered as illegal.
An unnamed CCC complaint adviser, claimed that the use of the PVA centres does not come within the scope of The Crime and Corruption Act 2001 possibly until a complaint has been filed and processed by the ECQ itself or at the Court of Disputed Returns. I was surprised that officers of the CCC in Fortitude Valley can only release their first name which may or may not be fictitious.
If this practice of allowing PVA centres to operate in the past, has been cleared by the ECQ, surely the transparency of these considerations should be public knowledge. If there is no authorization, there is perhaps a role for the ECQ to investigate this matter.
In the post-Fitzgerald era, expenditures on PVA centres should be declared either in returns from LNP candidates or from the state-offices of the LNP. It would be interesting to find out what declarations of expenditure were made in the BCC elections and any prior elections where these practices were in use.
Other legitimate calls by the ECQ can be expected to have a big indirect impact on election outcomes. The authority for this decision-making is not controversial and within the scope of the Electoral Act 1992 and its amendments. However, there is no doubt that even legitimate calls might affect election outcomes in key marginal seats.
Polling Booth Protocols in a Stressful COVID-19 Era
As early voting centres are scheduled to open on 19 October 2020, they will be operating for eleven days just two weeks prior to polling day, the ECQ must make a call on the administrative arrangements at these booths for the distribution of How to Vote Cards by volunteers from competing political parties. The early voting centres will operate for eleven days as they are also operational on Saturday 24 October. At the BCC elections, the early voting centres attracted 28.7 per cent of all votes.
Hopefully, there will be no need to exchange How to Vote Cards between volunteer party volunteers and constituents. Voters can decide if they need How to Vote Cards from containers of fresh cards under the supervision of helpful ECQ staff members.
The Chief Health Officer in Queensland and the ECQ and their senior staff members can be expected to make the final call on pre-polling and other polling booth protocols to avoid the possibilities of community transfers of COVID-19 at polling stations.
The ECQ has published a complete list of early voting centres in communities large and small. Some city booths have only one or two early voting centres. More remote electorates like Warrego have several centres which are largely neutral venues beyond the influence of local storeowners.
The need for the distribution of How to Vote Cards at these centres by volunteers is highly questionable if the ECQ maintains additional staff members for added security with protocols to report incidents and voting anomalies to local police stations.
It might surely be a waste of campaign energies if volunteers from local political parties were expected to distribute how to vote cards to just a couple of voters every hour over eleven days of at these early voting centres.
Let’s hope that commitment to the post-Fitzgerald reform processes is maintained after 31 October 2020 with more reforms to those blind spots in electoral laws relating to canvassing of postal vote applications, greater scrutiny of campaign expenses and a review of the role for canvassing of votes at early voting centres which now operate between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. on four occasions in some quite remote locations.
Changes in voting practices state-wide can be confusing at a time of concerns about public health and financial stresses on voters which might have scarred perceptions about politics and public issues in a representative democracy. Once errors are made in allowable campaigning and voting practices, the outcomes are difficult to resolve.
Before the full onset of the Great Depression, Queenslanders went to the polls on 11 May 1929. The election ushered in the only conservative government in Queensland between 1915 and 1957 under the Premiership of Arthur Moore, then under the banner of a Country-National Government.
As with the Campbell Newman Government (2012-15), the Moore Government lasted for only one term. It would be an interesting project for a keen student to investigate this single term of government as a case study in disaster management through the application of debt reduction and market ideology in a fragile economy.
The conservative press generally welcomed the election of the Moore Government . Even The Truth (Brisbane Sunday paper) welcomed the arrival of a new Premier from the Dalby based electorate of Aubigny. This paper was indeed popular with Labor voters who liked its populist style of reporting.
The election of Premier Moore raised the hopes of conservatives across Australia.
The Burnie Advocate in far-off Tasmania gave its endorsement of the need for a change of government in Queensland just two days before the state election date (9 May 1929 with text from Trove to offer some historical authenticity):
Tasmanian conservatives did not have to give up the reins of government to Labor until 1934. The LNP presided over the worst years of the Great Depression.
Tasmanians did not seek another change of government until 1982 when Liberal Premier Robin Gray ran a state rights campaign to continue construction of the two Franklin River Dams. The Tasmanian and Queensland governments funded the legal challenge to this decision in the High Court.
As always, the mainstream media would endorse the nostalgia associated with conservative populism.
Interested readers might like to check out my previous AIM Network article on the consequences of the defeat of state Labor government in Queensland for my own family perspective. Such older articles are difficult to retrieve so I am adding the web address from 8 May 2020.
Perhaps only the horrors of an avoidable war with our chief trading partner could be more devastating to the lives of Australians in contemporary times than a return to regressive styles of market ideology at all levels of government.
Meanwhile, in the old traditions of that eulogy to Premier Arthur Moore, I am sure that television eyewitness news networks will have similar scripts ready on the life and times of Premier Deb Frecklington just in case those political shadows from 11 May 1929 are relevant again.
Denis Bright is a member of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA). Denis is committed to citizen’s journalism from a critical structuralist perspective. Comments from insiders with a specialist knowledge of the topics covered are particularly welcome.
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