All Australian states like to think of themselves as unique, but Queensland may stand out the most in this regard. Derided as “the deep north” – a play on the United States’ deep south – the state often finds itself out of step with the rest of the country. With a climate that never requires more than a T-shirt, and a general suspicion of anyone who may need more than a T-shirt, Queensland manages to be both geographically beautiful and culturally peculiar. Yet the state is often the kingmaker in Australian politics, giving it a disproportionate sway over the country’s affairs.
This has frequently been to the detriment of the Labor Party. While the party can easily command most seats in Australia’s two big metropolises, Melbourne and Sydney, this has often not been enough to make up for its lack of seats in Queensland. In the recent Australian election, Labor continued its poor performance in the state, winning only five of the state’s 30 seats in the House of Representatives, down from six at the previous election. Labor’s election victory instead relied on the Liberal Party being almost completely expelled from the country’s major urban centers.
This could be easily dismissed as Queensland being a “conservative” state, where a social democratic party like Labor cannot gain traction. Yet this would overlook the critical – and astonishing – fact that the Labor Party has governed Queensland itself for 28 of the last 33 years. Queenslanders are more than comfortable voting for the Labor Party in state elections, yet are reluctant to do so at the federal level. Clearly something more complex is occurring.
Unlike Australia’s close political cousin in Canada, which has distinct party systems within each of its provinces, aside from a few little quirks, overall Australian state politics mostly aligns with federal politics. Queensland, however, has traditionally been the exception to this. Being Australia’s most decentralized state, it was the only state where the National Party was the dominant partner in the coalition with the Liberal Party, with the party occasionally able to form majority governments on its own. Prior to Labor’s extraordinary recent success, Queensland was considered a National Party fiefdom, with the party governing continuously from 1957 to 1989.
Yet in a panicked response to Labor’s strength in the 1990s and early-2000s the Queensland National Party gave up this power. In 2008 it fully merged itself with the Liberal Party to form the Liberal National Party (LNP). This was an extraordinary occurrence of the weaker party effectively taking over the stronger one. Administratively, the LNP is a division of the federal Liberal Party, the same as the Victorian or New South Wales Liberal parties, but it only holds affiliate status in the federal National Party. In the federal parliament LNP MPs can choose whether to sit with the Liberals or the Nationals.
The response to this merger at the state level has been unenthusiastic, with the party winning only a single term in Queensland since its formation. Yet at the federal level the new party has been incredibly successful, winning over two-thirds of Queensland’s 30 federal seats in all of the five elections it has contested. This is the conundrum of Queensland: Why does the Queensland public vote so differently at state and federal elections?
One possible explanation is due to the division of powers between the federal and state governments. With state governments being responsible for vital service delivery like health, education, and public works, the Labor Party becomes a more attractive proposition at the state level due to generally having a greater commitment to these areas. In Queensland, which has a larger percentage of its population outside major urban centers, service delivery becomes even more important.
Despite the Liberal Party and National Party operating in a permanent coalition, they are two distinct parties with different interests and ideas. For example, the National Party tends to favor far greater government intervention in markets that affect their agricultural base. This can often create tension with the Liberals who have enthusiastically pursued wholesale economic deregulation in recent decades.
As a socially conservative and economically protectionist party, the Nationals offered Queensland a distinctive political vehicle that its public believed serviced both its interests and political disposition. The creation of the Liberal National Party robbed the state of this. The best way Queenslanders have found to respond is by voting differently at state and federal level to try to find the outcomes they desire in the aggregate of policies created across both levels of government.
One of the key conclusions to be drawn from Australia’s recent federal election is that Australians do not want a binary political system. Observing the United States, they sense the danger to social stability that comes from only having two viable political parties and seek to use their voting power to create a system where multiple parties and movements have greater traction in the system.
Queensland’s contribution to this was to confound expectations of the state by electing three Greens MPs — making Australia’s most conservative state now the center of gravity for the country’s most progressive party. Yet given how crucial both agriculture and nature-focused tourism are to the state, environmental concerns should be considered a vital regional interests. Rather than being strange, Queensland might instead just be cunning.