Focus on asset sales is the key lesson for NSW Labor from the Queensland election

UMR Research's Stephen Mills reflects on the Queensland state election in the Sydney Morning Herald (February 9 2015)

In many elections it is likely that the small armies of strategists, media minders, advance people, advertising agencies, pollsters, data analysts and digital specialists on both sides just cancel each other out.

It is a political version of the mutually assured destruction principle. A party going into an election without this full set of modern political weapons would lose.

Federal issues will be more important too. If he survives, Tony Abbott can hardly stay out of his home state for the next eight weeks, like he did for the Queensland campaign. 

The main parties know in detail the salience of issues, their respective strengths and weaknesses, leader images and the right language to use to get their messages across.

The recent election in Queensland is not one of those cases. There was always going to be a decent swing – part correction and part anger at Campbell Newman's style, job cuts, broken promises and asset sales. But a strong campaign was critical to move Labor from nine seats to close to victory.

The electoral caravan now moves on to NSW, where there are obvious differences. Mike Baird is much more popular than Newman.

But there are also similarities. Unpopular asset sales are on the agenda and Labor has a new leader in Luke Foley, who was barely known but will now have the opportunity to connect with voters.

Federal issues will be more important too. If he survives, Tony Abbott can hardly stay out of his home state for the next eight weeks, like he did for the Queensland campaign. Labor, too, starts with a stronger base of MPs rather than the tiny Queensland caucus.

Current polling suggests there will not be much more than a correction swing in the March 28 election.

But if Queensland is anything to go by, the campaign could make a difference. Here, the ALP campaign succeeded and the LNP failed.

The LNP campaign initially had the feel of an incumbent cruising to victory. Until a frantic, flailing last week, it never seemed to accept defeat was possible.

Astonishingly, the LNP advertising was initially almost identical to that used in the New Zealand general election last year. A nautical metaphor (in New Zealand a rowing skiff, in Queensland a surf boat) was used to convey progress and the need for continuity.  Yet the differences were legion.  New Zealand Prime Minister John Key was massively more popular than Campbell Newman. There were no big broken promises or job cuts or asset sales on the New Zealand political agenda. There was far more concern in New Zealand about the chaos of an alternative Labour-led government supported by several smaller parties.

The ALP campaign braced for an expected negative advertising assault and the campaign tested how LNP attack lines would be seen by focus groups. This showed overwhelmingly that economic management credentials were where Labor was most vulnerable.  This issue was used when the LNP finally went negative but it was never hammered home. Instead, a lot of LNP advertising resource was wasted on a scare campaign about a hung parliament.

In the critical final week of the campaign, the LNP message was diffuse and weakened by Newman's charges that the bikie gangs were funding Labor, suing Alan Jones and making electorate promises conditional on an LNP MP being elected.

ALP campaign director Anthony Chisholm made the call to focus on asset sales – which will also be a major issue in the NSW election –  and this was executed near perfectly  by leader Annastacia Palaszczuk in press conferences, interviews and the campaign debates, as well as by the advertising agency Campaign Edge headed by Dee Madigan. 

At the beginning of the campaign in UMR tracking, preventing asset sales was the fifth most important issue (attracting 12 per cent or responses) behind economic management, jobs, health and education. By the end of the campaign, it had more than doubled to 27 per cent and only trailed jobs. Economic management, the LNP's strong suit,  had fallen to third.

Palaszczuk rose to the occasion in the campaign. Starting off barely known by swinging voters she was eventually ahead as preferred premier by a decisive 47 per cent to 34 per cent among voters in the basket of target seats tracked by UMR.