Covid and the Queensland Election – qualitative research

Annastacia Palaszczuk’s tough border policies are winning support from up to three quarters of Queenslanders but that might not be enough in itself to clinch the October 31 election with the economy and climate change rated more than twice as important as vote changers.

This is one of the findings in our latest qualitative research on this year’s Queensland election which you can download from here.

A poll of online virtual focus groups by the Australian Institute for Progress shows voters are expecting the COVID-19 crisis to produce lasting change to Queenslander’s lives, including an exodus to the surburbs and regions with the working from home trend continuing, an increase in online shopping and an embrace of telehealth.

In anticipation of COVID-19 playing a potentially decisive part in the Queensland state election, we polled an online virtual focus group of 251 voters, balanced for voting intention, on their attitudes to it.

Their responses were surprisingly upbeat, with a sense that it could actually be the pause that refreshes.

When prompted, three-quarters of our respondents (including 55 per cent of LNP voters) rated COVID-19 as electorally important. However, unprompted, only 18 per cent mentioned COVID as the most important issue, with the economy (38 per cent) and climate change (38 per cent) more than twice as likely to be mentioned.

It is an issue where the premier has an edge over the opposition; 65 per cent agree with Premier Palasczuk’s border closure, well ahead of the 51 per cent approving of opposition leader Frecklington’s position which was a flip-flop.

While respondents supported Palaszczuk’s border ban many also had improvements. The “border bubble” idea was supported on the basis that you can’t divide communities, but a number wanted to know why it couldn’t extend furtqher south, deeper into NSW, or why it couldn’t be porous to a much wider range of locations, so long as they weren’t hotspots.

When it comes to wider COVID policy, there is more of a divergence between the public and the state government. We asked respondents to describe the government’s policy, and then to describe their ideal policy. The difference in emphasis was enlightening.

Their analysis of the government’s policy was that it had borders as first priority and people as second. Respondents would reverse the order.

They accept the government is properly following medical advice, nevertheless they have their own tweaks.

They put more emphasis on people who are vulnerable isolating themselves, and people who have infections quarantining themselves. They also emphasise distancing, testing and masks.

There’s a saying that you should “never let a good crisis go to waste”. Our respondents see plenty of opportunities in the COVID crisis. The left push climate change agendas. This is part of the move away from materialism, as well as a perceived need to boost the economy through capital expenditure.

Protectionists – more the Nationalist minor party voters than anyone else – put the emphasis on localising production and bringing industries home. Surprisingly there was an awareness of the way in which universities have become beholden to overseas students and a belief this needs to change as well.

The right and the left also seemed to agree that we should look at our immigration levels and reduce them for varied reasons including protecting the environment moderating house prices and decreasing congestion.

From the regions there was also a call for a greater emphasis on water conservation projects, like dams.

Only slightly more than a third (36 per cent) think things will return to normal while 39 per cent think change is irreversible. 24 per cent are unsure. But there is more agreement than you might think.

“Normal” is a dynamic concept for many respondents, and doesn’t mean things will be exactly the same, just that they expect COVID restrictions to end. For them innovation and change have always been part of normal.

They foresee a continuation of trends such as working from home, internet shopping, less use of public transport, holidaying domestically rather than internationally, washing hands more frequently and telehealth.

They predict there will be an exodus to the suburbs and the regions, and hope that this pause in the spinning of the world will make us more introspective and less materialistic.

Some respondents defined a return to normal as the complete absence of COVID, putting a lot of faith in an effective vaccine. Others had no faith in a vaccine and believed we will need to live with COVID.

On balance, irrespective of whether they thought things would return to normal, however defined, most respondents were optimistic seeing a “same but different” future.

These attitudes open-up some interesting possibilities for the next election. Generally voters are corralled more on the negatives of the other side’s policies rather than the positives of your own. Promises are discounted, threats magnified.

But having passed through the eye of the storm, voters seem uniquely awake to possibilities. The winner of this election might well be the one with the best post-COVID recovery plan.