Baird’s asset test

Privatising assets didn’t cost Newman his election. Ignoring basic politics did.

While asset sales are not necessarily a vote winner, they’re not necessarily a vote loser.

New South Wales’ Mike Baird can privatise assets, and become premier in his own right.

Of course Labor has jumped on the Queensland election. Their constituency will back them that the win was based on opposition to asset sales, and they might get lucky and panic the Baird government into abandonoing them, making them look weak and divided.

The Queensland swing isn’t as strong as it looks as most if it is attributable to a natural correction after an unnaturally large margin at the last election. The swing back from 63% two-party preferred was always going to be of the order of 10 percentage points.

A similar reversion to the mean is happening in NSW.

We ran an online qualitative exit poll, so we have a very good idea of what drove the vote on the day in Queensland.

Of those who deserted the government this election, 29% nominated asset sales as the most important election issue, 17% Newman and 17% style of government. That was followed by the Environment on 8% and the Economy and Jobs 8%.

So the premier and the government (34% combined) were the top issue, followed by asset sales. Despite the noise, alleged cuts to “frontline services” didn’t rank as an important issue, while the culling of the public service went more to style than substance.

But voters don’t always vote on issues. 33% of swingers said they were voting strategically, sending the government a message, 21% voted against Newman and 13% against the style of government, and only 13% against asset sales.

This makes strategic and style issues the pre-eminent ones.

It’s a reasonable bet that if the LNP had not had Newman as leader they could have won the election despite privatisations. Baird is not Newman.

Going into the election Newman’s strongest suit was the economy, and this should have been the centrepiece of his re-election pitch. Instead privatisation and the assertion that he had a “strong team, strong plan” which would yield a “stronger Queensland” became the centrepiece.

Instead of campaigning against his opponents he tried to bribe his way back into the office with 20% of the privatisation proceeds.

The whole campaign became an $8bn extension of Christmas morning, paid for with the privatisation debit card and leaving voters mistrustful of the distant uncle showering them with gifts.

Particularly as his own electorate got a disproportionate share of the goodies, and he threatened that if they didn’t vote for him he would become Bad Santa and take the presents away.

Newman didn’t make out a case for the sales. There were no graphs showing the massive escalation of debt under Labor combined with a litany of Labor failings.

The LNP also alienated non-Greens minor party voters costing them seats.

These voters don’t like Labor, but they are mistrustful of asset sales. They don’t like debt, live life close to the financial edge, and are worried about jobs, education and health.

They’re risk averse: a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Which means while they will be sceptical of asset sales, if they think it is necessary to make life more secure, caused by Labor’s mismanagement, they will take it out on Labor, not the privatiser.

They also need to see how privatised assets will make their lives better, and that does not mean building a sports stadium in the nearest town.

Again, our polling showed that the strongest arguments against Labor in Queensland were that it didn’t deserve to be re-elected yet, and that it needed at least one more term in opposition.

The ground needed to be prepared for this as almost no one thought that such a big swing could happen.

Again, this should not be a problem for the NSW government. They can point to Queensland. Or the latest Newspoll which has the Coalition on 43% and the Labor/Greens de facto alliance on 44%.

New South Wales could be closer than most think.

But it has to be a mantra, repeated until voters accept it could be true.

Newman’s failure in Queensland wasn’t to do with asset sales at all. The LNP broke the basic rule of almost all election campaigns. Voters don’t vote for, they vote against. You have to frame your opponent as a risk, or you will most probably fail.

The NSW Libs are thankfully stuck with asset sales – they will drive economic growth – and can’t do anything about that, but they have plenty of time to adjust their game plan to make sure that they are re-elected and the sales happen.