Australia is subject to an odd dichotomy. On the one hand, it continues to weather the global economic downturn with relative comfort. Yet notwithstanding this, its politics are going through the sort of turmoil more usually associated with ailing nations bordering the Mediterranean. In Canberra, Prime Minister Julia Gillard is clinging tenuously to power, having seen off a challenge for the Labor Party leadership from her predecessor, Kevin Rudd. Around the states, it is also all turbulence, with four states in four years having voted out Labor governments. The most ruthless of these dismissals occurred last weekend when Anna Bligh's administration in Queensland was swept from power.
This was not so much a defeat as a near annihilation. Labor, which had 51 seats in the 89-seat parliament, fell to a predicted seven. Just 27 per cent of voters gave it their first vote under a proportional system that accentuated the extent of Labor's demise. The result, following a similar trouncing of Labor in New South Wales last year, means Australia's four most powerful states, accounting for 87 per cent of the population, are now under conservative rule.
On this side of the Tasman, that degree of upheaval seems almost unfathomable given the benign economic situation. However, Anna Bligh's defeat reinforces the importance of a number of political truisms whatever circumstances pertain. Perhaps the most crucial was her negative campaigning, not least in descending to a personality attack in an attempt to destroy the Liberal National Party leader, Campbell Newman. Queenslanders, unsurprisingly, took a dim view of this, especially when Anna Bligh conceded she could not prove irregular dealings by Mr Newman's family business.
Trust was also a focal point of the election. Anna Bligh sprang asset sales of key infrastructure on Queenslanders after becoming the first female state premier to win an election. They were unimpressed both by the stealth and the policy. Past New South Wales, South Australian and Tasmanian premiers have been defeated on a similar agenda or have backed away from it.
But if Anna Bligh was largely the architect of her own demise, there were factors beyond her control. One was the problem that afflicts all long-serving administrations. Labor had been in power in the state for 14 years continuously, and popular sentiment favoured a change. The other was the status that Mr Rudd enjoys as a Queenslander. The discontent that people felt about Julia Gillard's coup always bubbled just below the surface, fuelling the general discontent.
Historically, state elections in Australia have been about state issues, and the outcomes were not linked to federal politics. Indeed, different parties being in charge at state and national level has sometimes been seen as a means of balancing power. This disconnect held true to some extent in Queensland. But it is extremely difficult to divorce Labor's almost unprecedented catastrophe there from Julia Gillard's Government. The near 16 per cent swing in Queensland was the culmination of an anti-Labor sentiment in state elections that bodes ill for her prospects in a federal election in 18 months.
She still has time. But the prevailing national view of her administration is illustrated by polls that show Labor enjoying only 30 to 35 per cent support. Reversing that sentiment will now have to be achieved while dealing with conservative premiers in Australia's biggest states. They can be counted on to take a dim view of planned federal health, education and training reforms, as well as the new mining and carbon taxes. That is the cue for a further 18 months of tumult before the political situation is finally resolved.