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Queensland rains on PM's parade as tide of support ebbs and flows

Premier Campbell Newman talks to the media during the Queensland floods.

Premier Campbell Newman talks to the media during the Queensland floods.

QUEENSLAND's weather is roughly as volatile as its politics. Storms and floods can ruin lives and livelihoods as viciously and unexpectedly as events can swamp political careers. With Queensland once more awash this week and Prime Minister Julia Gillard announcing a firm but distant date for the federal election, it was not only Queenslanders studying the brooding northern skies for signs. The state's restless moods have become intensely interesting to those doing battle for control of the Australian Parliament.

Gillard's Labor strategists, faced with a looming electoral disaster in corruption-prone New South Wales, are hoping desperately that Queensland might deliver a little ray of sunshine when the September election is held. They are pinning their hopes on Queenslanders maintaining their fury at the style of Liberal National Party Premier Campbell Newman, who only a year ago was on his way to becoming the most ascendant political leader in the nation.

The Gillard troops are working to link federal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott to Newman's job-slashing attitudes, and have for months been spreading the message that if Abbott were to become Prime Minister, he'd rip apart health services and destroy public jobs. Just like Campbell Newman.

But the weather has intervened. Indeed, while Campbell Newman was receiving newfound public plaudits this week for his reassuring presence during the floods that carved through northern Queensland and the unfortunate Lockyer Valley, Gillard, touring ravaged areas in the north, was being criticised on regional talkback radio for daring to announce an election date while communities were suffering and people were dying.

''There are so many mixed messages right now it is very hard to get a handle on what is really going on,'' says prominent Queensland political commentator and senior lecturer at Griffith University's School of Humanities, Paul Williams.

Late last year, Williams told Fairfax that Newman's fall from grace in the second half of 2012 had been the swiftest in Australian history, and he predicted federal Labor would be the beneficiary. The Gillard government, he said at the time, could hold most of its Queensland seats and win a further handful - up to six. All by equating the spectre of Tony Abbott with ''Can-Do Campbell''.

Now, he's not so sure. Though he cautiously predicts a ''net gain'' for federal Labor in Queensland, Williams suspects Newman received counselling from federal Liberal chiefs over Christmas, starting the new year in a much more positive style. He has placed a cap on further redundancies in the public service and promised to listen harder to Queenslanders and outline a vision for the state.

Newman could hardly have failed to reflect on the grim events of just two years ago when his predecessor, Labor premier Anna Bligh, worked to console her flood-struck people. Bligh, commentators at the time declared, had become the ''mother of Queensland'', urging calm and explaining rescue efforts, weeping with survivors and offering state assistance.

But none of it saved her from the wrath of Queensland's mercurial voters. Within a year, Bligh was out of government and the vast majority of her Labor colleagues were thrown out of the Queensland Parliament by voters unwilling to forgive broken promises.

It was, of course, a state election, but Queensland's voters have long played a powerful role in the federal sphere.

In 2007, local boy Kevin Rudd's journey to the prime ministership was guaranteed when Labor won 16 of Queensland's 29 electorates.

In 2010, any hope of Julia Gillard gaining majority government at her first election disappeared when eight of those seats fell in a wave of northern anger generated largely by Gillard and her allies ousting Rudd. The smouldering Rudd continues to be a spectre over Gillard's campaign - yesterday he returned to morning television, resuming his old spot on the Seven Network's Sunrise program sparring with opposition Treasury spokesman Joe Hockey. A huge photo of Rudd wielding a chainsaw appeared on the front page of Brisbane's Courier Mail on Thursday to illustrate the story of Gillard announcing the election date.

The north raining on prime ministers' parades is an old story. As long ago as 1987, Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen's bizarre ''Joh for Canberra'' campaign ended John Howard's ambition of wresting federal power from Bob Hawke. Nine years later, when Howard trounced Paul Keating, Queenslanders helped mightily, returning only two Labor MPs.

Little wonder, then, that the Gillard government is searching for signs in this capricious state. It was only half a year ago, however, that the ALP's senior strategists were gloomily conceding that the Gillard government's dreams of holding federal seats in Queensland, let alone winning any new spots, were all but destroyed. Rudd's electorate of Griffith looked about the only safe harbour.

The ALP was shattered by the state's March 24 election; a disaster for Labor, whose 52-seat majority was savaged by voters, leaving a parliamentary party hardly worthy of the name. Just seven ALP MPs were left after Newman led his LNP forces to an astounding 78-seat victory.

Anything smelling of the word Labor seemed doomed. Anna Bligh, crushed, resigned.

Yet only five months into his term, Newman managed to outrage vast numbers of Queenslanders by announcing he was axing 14,000 public servant jobs, almost a quarter of them from the state's health services.

In a single month between July and August, the Newman government's polling figures collapsed by 12.3 points, with respondents to a ReachTel poll giving the Liberal National Party only 44.2 per cent. Labor enjoyed a 7-point leap from the basement to 31.6 per cent. While it still left the government with a solid lead over Labor, the result shocked many within the Newman government.

Nothing went right for the remainder of last year. In November, Newman lost his second minister when Dr Bruce Flegg resigned from the housing portfolio because his office had allowed lobbying contact with his lobbyist son. Earlier in the year, police minister David Gibson had resigned after being caught driving while his licence was suspended.

At the end of November, with the colourful mining magnate Clive Palmer cheering from the sidelines, three disgruntled LNP MPs quit the party. One of them, former frontbencher Ray Hopper, defected to Katter's Australian Party, becoming leader.

Newman reacted with fury, particularly towards Hopper. His government pushed through legislation on the last sitting night of the year to deny Katter's Australian Party any status, and Hopper was given an office hardly larger than a broom closet in a dark stairwell.

The Newman government's public standing refused to recover. ReachTel's latest monthly figures showed support for the government was stalled on 42.5 per cent, with Labor inching up to 34.9 per cent. Katter's Australian Party, with only three sitting MPs, sat at 10.5 per cent, 2 points ahead of the Greens.

These figures, of course, are relatively academic on the national canvas, referring to a state with another three years before its politicians have to face their voters. As far as the Gillard government was concerned, however, the figures portrayed a significant and sorely needed break in the weather.

Even the infuriated and emergent Katter party offered Labor some potential sustenance. It plans to field candidates in every federal seat this year, and its supporters are thought unlikely to send their preferences to the Liberal National Party it has come to hate.

By late last year, Gillard was making frequent visits to Queensland, ramping up her analogies between Newman and Abbott, and her advisers and senior ministers were privately predicting that the government could hold most or all of its seats in the state while grabbing several extras.

But it remains difficult to imagine where such gains might be made. Lilley, the electorate of Queensland's most senior federal Labor MP, Treasurer Wayne Swan, is the state's only marginal seat specifically polled in recent times. The January 16 poll of 511 residents - a very large sample in a single seat - found Swan likely to lose, with 45.2 per cent of the primary vote going to the LNP and only 38 per cent casting Swan's way.

The political climate up north, in short, remains erratic.

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