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Imperfect lessons in democracy



It’s been a quiet campaign in my Brisbane electorate of Stafford, writes Sally Baxter. Not a single piece of election mail has crossed my threshold and no hopeful candidate full of promises has knocked upon my door.

I can see why.

Stafford was the little electorate with the big 19.1 per cent message for the LNP in the by-election of July 2014. Perfectly reasonable for all parties to assume feelings haven’t changed much here in the interim and to concentrate their efforts and resources elsewhere.

Consequently I’ve been getting my democracy fix vicariously, following events across the state and waiting patiently to wave the sizzled sausage of democracy at my fellow citizens on Saturday.

It’s a tradition I value highly, as I came late to voting.

Hong Kong, where I grew up, was untroubled by democracy.

I did learn about it, mostly from honorary auntie Leela Tankha, whose kitchen was a magnet for a hungry kid when we visited the outlying island of Cheung Chau on weekends.

Leela was a story-teller but the stories she told were dramas of history – from the Mahatma’s salt marches to Britain’s suffragettes – all relayed as if she had just returned from the scene and I was the first person to hear the news.

She’d stand at the stove and stuff me with puris (my favourites) and other treats while telling me grisly tales of the force-feeding of Mrs Pethwick-Lawrence and Emmeline Pankhurst.

She wasn’t a teacher, she was a sub-editor. And a great cook. Food and well told stories – the pattern was set early.

My first recollection of Australian democracy was the Whitlam Dismissal, news of which did reach us in far-off Hong Kong. And that was the first I’d heard of Whitlam. The only thing I was aware of, out in the colonies, was that a democratically elected government had been dismissed by an unelected imperialist.

I’ve since been assured it was way more complicated than that.

And the first time I heard democracy mentioned in the context of Hong Kong’s future was in the early stages of the negotiations between China and the UK in the 1980s.

I was at a dinner of about a dozen people, all Hong Kong Chinese, when conversation turned to what they hoped, expected and feared for the future.

It was our host who proposed something so startling it took us all aback. Why shouldn’t Hong Kong people decide what happens to Hong Kong?

It’s an idea that’s still catching on.

I moved to the UK in 1987 but didn’t realise I was entitled to vote in that year’s general election.

I cast my first ballot in the next council elections with an air of grave solemnity, the hungry ghosts of the suffragettes crowding into the booth beside me and bringing with them a distinct whiff of curry.

I was late to the party but quickly became fascinated by politics in a parliamentary democracy. I came up hard against it in 1990 when the Conservative MP for Eastbourne Ian Gow was assassinated by the IRA.

I was working on the Eastbourne Herald and had assigned a photographer to some local opening Gow was attending that morning. “He hasn’t turned up,” was closely followed by the news of why.

The subsequent by-election didn’t seem like any contest. “You could stick a blue ribbon on a dog in this town and people would vote for it,” the Herald’s local government reporter said sagely.

He was wrong and a Liberal Democrat, David Bellotti, took the seat comfortably by 4,550 votes. Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe said the IRA would be toasting his success.

My first general election was in 1992 and all signs pointed to a humiliating defeat for the Tories.

“There’s no way they can win,” I confidently told my father the Big Baxter in one of our trans-Atlantic calls. “They stink like rotting carcasses.”

Just before polling day the Herald’s politics reporter returned from his morning rounds in great excitement. He’d seen the results of the Lib Dems’ internal polling and they were showing a clean sweep of the southeast for the minor party.

That lunchtime three of the Herald’s finest – the politics reporter, the local government reporter and the heavily pregnant business reporter (me) – toured the town looking for a bookie who’d take an accumulator bet on just that outcome.

Not one would.

Conservative candidate Nigel Waterson duly won Eastbourne in John Major’s unlikely victory that year.

That’s polling for you.

I first exercised my democratic duty in an Australian election in 2004. I could have, and should have, voted before then while overseas but I never got that particular memo.

In 2007 I jumped aboard the Kevin 07 Express and was deposited with a clutch of how-to-vote leaflets outside a small primary school on the outer edges of one of Brisbane’s leafy northern suburbs.

Its location wasn’t helped by its omission from the list of polling stations in the local paper. It was a quiet day, with electors flooding through the gates at the uninspiring rate of one or two an hour.

My blue-shirted rival was a skinny old guy named Lance who enjoyed an intense interest in political systems of the world.

On hearing that I had grown up in Hong Kong, he revealed that he had once spent 10 months there in the 1980s.

He outlined the makeup of the Executive and Legislative Councils, both official and unofficial members, at a level of detail with which most long-term Hong Kong residents (myself very much included) would struggle.

Turning his attention to the UK Parliament, Lance described his visit to the House of Commons in the early 1990s. He listed the names of all the MPs he had heard speak and then the names of all of those he had missed.

When he mentioned Winston Churchill’s grandson I attempted a diversion by conjuring visions of Churchill’s granddaughter, frolicking naked at Glastonbury, but Lance was treading a firm path and would have none of it.

I made my escape at around 4pm, tiptoeing past Lance who by now was snoring gently in his chair, blue leaflets clutched to his skinny chest.

And now it’s almost time to exercise my rare and privileged right to vote once more. As for picking a winner, you’ll note my record is undistinguished.

Polling data (which got really troubling today) never looked that flash in Ashgrove during this short, sharp shock of a campaign. Logic always suggested the return of the LNP with a reduced majority and without Campbell Newman at the helm.

Which is why this voter, at least, has never stopped wondering about that apparently non-existent Plan B. At no point in this campaign has it been an irrelevant question and yet it’s hardly been asked, let alone answered.

Don’t believe me? In the words of the Premier, go ahead and Google it.

Until today, there have been a few news items on the subject but hardly as many as you’d expect for such a big and important question for Queensland, and even fewer providing any insight into who the LNP would choose.

When it has been addressed, as in this article in The Australian, the choice seems to fall between Treasurer Tim Nicholls (a pre-merger Liberal) and Health Minister Lawrence Springborg (former Nationals leader and one of the architects of the Liberal National Party).

Now I’m not privy to the inner workings of the LNP but I well remember the former Coalition losing the 2006 election almost as soon as it was called.

Why? Because they couldn’t answer a simple, and reasonable, question from a journalist: Who would be Premier – Nationals Springborg (and Leader of the Coalition) or Liberal Bruce Flegg – in the event the Libs took a majority of seats in the Parliament.

The loss of an election which should have been in the bag prompted the merger in 2008 which gave birth to today’s Liberal National Party but it took the extraordinary step of bringing in outsider Campbell Newman to prise victory from the grasp of a tired ALP in 2012.

What worked in 2012 from the outset has looked shaky in 2015, with polls consistently showing Newman behind in his seat of Ashgrove while pointing to an LNP victory across the state.

Questions about what would happen if that polling was replicated on Saturday have been consistently answered with the frankly unbelievable claim that there is no Plan B and a loss in Ashgrove will condemn Queensland to an ALP government.

In some ways, therefore, it’s 2006 all over again – who will lead Queensland, a former Liberal or a former National?

The failure to address this rather pertinent question may have something to do with the latest swing in support towards the ALP.

The prospect that perhaps there really is no Plan B could, it seems, deliver the impossible. Perhaps the question of who would lead the LNP after Newman should have been addressed earlier.

Queenslanders, no doubt, have been chewing it over for weeks before having to turn up for a sausage and a vote on Saturday. In the end, it’s they who will answer the question, and it’s surely a tricky one.

Good luck, Queensland. See you on the other side.

Further reading:

Queensland Election 2006 – Research brief prepared for the Australian Parliamentary Library by Scott Bennett and Stephen Barber

New political force for Queensland – Marissa Calligeros, Brisbane Times 28 July, 2008

Queensland election 2012: a likely win for Newman and the LNP – Clive Bean, The Conversation 25 January, 2012

Once I was a Girl Reporter, now I’m an interested observer covering the past, present and future of journalism and anything else that takes my fancy. Read more Baxter here. 



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  1. edward eastwood

    Great post Sally, and yes, who will lead the Coalition if Newman is toppled? It’s going to be a nail-biter on Saturday night. I’d love to be a fly on the wall in the back rooms of the federal LNP party room.

  2. Michael Taylor

    Great post, Sally.

    I agree too with Edward about Saturday night. I’m also thinking how uncomfortable it might be for Abbott at the Press Club should there be a big swing towards Labor. He best wear a suit of armour.

  3. Amanda V

    According to a constitutional lawyer writing for the Brisbane Times today the Qld constitution allows the leader to stay on indefinitely even if he doesn’t win his seat. So you may have an answer to why Newman hasn’t been bothered to explain.

  4. Matters Not

    A very interesting post. Congratulations Sally.

    As for:

    going to be a nail-biter on Saturday night

    Depends on the meaning you give to nail-biter. While I have no doubt that the LNP will lose a swag of seats, I don’t believe they will lose government. An ALP gain of 37 seats is simply a ‘bridge too far’.

    (I hope I’m wrong by the way.)

    For the ALP to ‘win’, the LNP must ‘lose’. Let’s face it, Annastacia Palaszczuk and charisma are as far apart as Newman and ethics. She is not going to win. Newman must lose. And he will but not by enough. But I think he will lose his own seat.

    While I will be working to the last minute to promote an ALP victory, while having given my first preference vote to the Greens, I ‘know’ an ALP victory is simply not a possibility.

    For me the ‘nail-biter will be how many seats the ALP will gain. Just sayin ..

  5. John Armour

    He best wear a suit of armour.

    I wouldn’t lend him my kangaroo fur jockstrap Michael.

  6. O'Bleak

    Is it possible that Plan B exists but it stinks so much they dare not expose it. For instance, Newman loses Ashgrove but the LNP wins, a prearranged sacrificial lamb in another safe seat offers to stand aside so the great man can stay on and give us the strong ( corrupt) leadership we deserve. I would put nothing past these grubs and would not be the least surprised if this is exactly what occurs if the LNP get the numbers. Our only hope of correcting Qld’s plight is to vote ALP. If they fail to deliver then we go back to the other mob. Who cares if they swap government at every cycle if in the end they realise exactly who it is they work for. This might induce them to remember the voters once the achieve office. One can only hope.

  7. John Armour

    I think the only person who hasn’t heard of Plan B (inside the LNP) is Campbell Newman.

    A party insider told me a couple of months ago they’d virtually written Newman off and that Tim Nicholls would be the leader after the next election, which hadn’t been called at that time. Springborg and Seeney weren’t in the picture.

    I think the electorate has pretty much worked that out too.

    Newman’s “l’etat c’est moi” state of denial will just add to our collective enjoyment on Saturday night when he departs Ashgrove with his arse in a sling.

    I enjoyed your article Sally and I hope you get the chance to continue making contributions.

  8. John Kelly

    On Saturday, January 31st the voters of Queensland voted to return the LNP government but with a reduced majority. However, the premier Campbell Newman lost his seat of Ashgrove, as did most of his front bench. The swing was 9% in favour of the ALP who fell short of an overall majority by just five seats, although swings in individual seats ranged from 5-14%.
    The prime minister Tony Abbott dismissed the swing saying the election was fought on state issues but said the people of New Norfolk had sent a strong message to the Labor party who should now pass the remaining budget initiatives in the senate.
    In his concession speech, Campbell Newman said that he had heard the message sent by the voters of Queensland. He said he would appoint a caretaker premier until such time as a seat became available for him to return to parliament. Meanwhile he would continue to lead the government from his existing office. He said he had not yet decided which MP would be told to resign or what she would be offered.

  9. Matthew

    Plan B can be anarcho-syndicalism. Get on it.

  10. John Kelly

    @John Armour, a kangaroo fur jock strap??? Have you any idea what sort of mental image that projects?

  11. diannaart

    Thanks Sally – clearly talent was handed down to you from your Grandmother – a wonderful read.

    I hope for a mighty swing to Labor, I dream of a Labor victory. I must say I don’t really care who leads the LNP – so long as it is not Newman and that he does lose his seat – shades of Bennelong.

  12. totaram

    Completely off-topic Sally, was Leela Tankha the mother of two boys, the elder one named named Brij?
    Just checking and/or connecting the dots.

  13. Sally Baxter

    Hi Totaram yes indeed!

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