For a country that seems to have elections going on nearly all of the time, 2009 is shaping up as a lean year for the polls. Unless Kevin Rudd suddenly decides to invoke Section 57 of the constitution and call a double dissolution ahead of the federal parliament’s 2010 expiry date, the only election due this year will be the contest for Queensland.

The latest Queenslanders could expect to be asked to go to the polls was September, but, as one of the few states that does not have fixed parliamentary terms defined in their constitutions, premier Anna Bligh has always had the option to go early. After chiding her Liberal National Party (LNP) opponent Lawrence Springborg for calling on Ms Bligh to go to the polls sooner than later, the Labor premier has indeed called for what might well be thought of as an early election. Queenslanders will go to the polls on 21 March.

Queensland is a very large and diverse place, and has a reputation for providing more than its share of oddities.

This election has been no exception, with the early stages of the campaign being marked by former LNP candidates declaring that they will run as independents, a threat by former AFL footballer Warwick Capper to contest a lower house seat (thankfully not acted upon) and yet another appearance by former One Nation leader, Pauline Hanson.

All of this is adding colour and movement to a contest that, if these sideshows are disregarded, is in fact a very important election. Queensland is at the epicentre of Australia’s economic debate about the implications of the global financial crisis. Over the last twenty years it has been an economic powerhouse thanks to growth in its services sector (and especially tourism) and its mining industry. Yet these are the very two sectors that stand to suffer the most with the onset of the international recession.

Service economies are always highly susceptible to declining demand, and there is a real prospect that unemployment in Queensland will become a major economic problem as tourism and other service industries contract. The state’s mining industry, meanwhile, nervously awaits the fate of China’s economy. A decline in Chinese demand for Australian minerals coupled with the collapse in Japanese demand will hit Queensland’s economy very hard indeed.
Anna Bligh knows all this, and this is one of the reasons why she has opted to go to the polls now while the full effect of the international recession has yet to impact upon the Queensland economy. Bligh is also hoping to capitalise on any lingering tensions within the newly formed LNP – the product of a merger between the Liberal and National parties.

The LNP is led by Lawrence Springborg, whose own electoral record so far has been three losses from three contests. This might suggest that the LNP are starting from a position of disadvantage, although it should be remembered that Australian political history is full of leaders whose election successes were often preceded by election defeats.

Queensland voters will obviously be casting their opinion on matters that are essentially local, and it must be remembered that Australian electors always make a distinction between state and federal issues when they vote. There won’t be too much for Mr Rudd or Mr Turnbull to take from this contest, although Turnbull would dearly love to have some sort of success in Queensland to give a boost to his flagging federal leadership. The Queensland contest is more interesting when considered against the backdrop of how, over the last decade, Labor has dominated state and territory politics in Australia.

The era of Labor dominance appears to be on the wane, commencing with Labor’s narrow defeat in Western Australia late last year. Like Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia and, of course, Victoria have long-standing Labor governments.
Of these, only South Australia’s Mike Rann fronted the voters at the last election as party leader. All the others, including Anna Bligh, have become premier at the behest of their parties following the retirement of their predecessors.

Queensland Labor looks, on paper, to be in a strong position. The LNP would need to win a two-party swing of more than 8 percent to win the 22 seats it would need to be able to form a majority government. There have been some independents elected to the Queensland parliament in recent elections, and analysts point out that Ms Bligh would probably lose government on a swing of 7.6 percent. Either way, there is a big task ahead of the LNP – a party whose future is by no means certain.

For all this, Ms Bligh has much to be concerned about. The Queensland Labor government has struggled to maintain services, and concerns abound about the direction of the state’s economy. She also blazes the trail for women leaders of state (as distinct from territory) parties who have yet to win an election. And there are the lingering concerns within the Labor party about going to the polls early. There is a fascinating contest brewing up north, the outcome of which will be watched very carefully by Mike Rann, Nathan Reece and John Brumby who all face the polls in 2010.

Dr Economou is a senior lecturer in Politics at Monash University