1998 Queensland State Election: Enter Pauline Hanson
Over the last few days there has been an important debate about the need for Labor to distance itself from the Greens. History tells us that things can go terribly wrong when, in order to cling to office, a major political party enters into an alliance with a more extreme political party.
This is precisely what happened to the National/Liberal Government in Queensland in 1998.
The 1998 Queensland election was marked by two major events - the election of Peter Beattie as Premier and the entry of One Nation into State politics. In the upshot Beattie proved to be the more enduring force - but for a while in 1998 it was touch and go.
As you will see from these ads, Labor's campaign had to deal with not just one, but two conservative opponents - the National/Liberal coalition and Pauline Hanson's xenophobic "One Nation" Party.
Labor had been in opposition for less than three years. It had won the 1995 election by just one seat but lost government on the floor of the Parliament following a by-election loss in the seat of Mundingburra.
Having never actually won the election, the new National Party Premier, Rob Borbidge, struggled for legitimacy. In order to create an impression of strength he took to making bold declarations of intent. One such statement "If we fail then throw us out" would come back to haunt him in the 1998 election as you will see from how Labor seized on Borbidge's words and turned them against him. In much the same way, Kevin Rudd harassed John Howard years later with Howard's proclamation that "Australian families have never had it so good".
Labor was also able to exploit the failure of the Borbidge government to achieve very much in just two and a half years in office. You will see from the ads how Labor portrayed the government as "ditherers".
When the 1998 Queensland election came around, One Nation was set to field candidates in seats across the State, thus creating a major issue for Labor which saw traditional supporters, particularly middle aged and older men who felt they had been left behind in a rapidly changing workforce, move over to One Nation. Labor sought to counter this drift in votes with an ad we dubbed "Wally the Worker" - a mechanic who probably fitted the One Nation profile - making it clear that he would rather vote Labor than support a coalition between the Nationals and those "Liberal Party playboys". The idea was to tell conservatively inclined people who had once voted for the ALP that it was OK to come back to the Labor fold rather than move across to One Nation.
Another tactic we employed in the campaign was to enlist the assistance of the actor Michael Caton who had recently starred in "The Castle". Michael travelled the length and breadth of the State doing interviews encouraging would be One Nation voters to stick with Labor. Try as we might though, we could never convince Michael to direct his famous catch phrase "tell them they're dreaming" against our opponents.
The emergence of One Nation created even greater problems for the conservative National/Liberal coalition since the Nationals were philosophically closer to One Nation than either the Labor Party or the Liberals. The potential for One Nation to drive a wedge between the Coalition and its more conservative voters was very real. The only way the Borbidge government could counter this development was to announce that it was prepared to do deals with One Nation in order to attract the crucial second preference vote of people intending to give their first vote to One Nation.
While a preference deal did serve to shore up this segment of voters for the Nationals, it also meant alienating city based Liberal voters who were offended by Pauline Hanson's extreme views. So, by solving one problem the Nationals created another, maybe bigger, one.
The decision by the Coalition to exchange preferences with One Nation also gave Peter Beattie the moral high ground and he used it to his advantage by declaring that Labor would always put One Nation last on its "how to vote cards". So, while Labor still stood to bleed votes in rural and provincial seats to One Nation, it put itself in the running to pick up seats from the Liberals in the city.
It also gave Labor the opportunity to portray a National/Liberal/One Nation Government as inherently unstable and extreme. As you will see from these ads, Labor used up a lot of energy making the point that if elected, the Coalition would be "dancing to One Nation's tune".
For all these reasons the 1998 Queensland election was probably the most complex campaign I have ever worked on. We were lucky to have Mike Kaiser as Labor's campaign director. Along with John Della Bosca, Mike was the best campaign director I have ever worked with. Their styles were very different but similarly effective. John Della Bosca, had what sometimes seemed like a chaotic approach - where disparate campaign elements (which were seemingly unconnected) came together at just the right time. Kaiser on the other hand was an engineer by training and his attention to detail was there for all to see - it was as if he was building a bridge to a very specific set of blue prints.
These ads were our way of dealing with the complexities of a campaign where party loyalties were shifting like a seismic shock.
You will also see that we even had some fun trying to move away from an overly scripted approach to campaign advertising by having Beattie deliver his lines in a series of "question and answer" ads in a rather unscripted way. Kaiser and I wrote the script outlines on the sets while the shots were being prepared. We then took Peter through what we wanted him to say and he took it from there.
In the end the election was, to misquote the Duke of Wellington on the Battle of Waterloo, a damn close run thing.
When counting had finished Labor held 44 seats in a Parliament of 89 - precisely the same number it started with. However, along the way it lost six seats to One Nation and won six seats from the Liberals. In turn the Nationals lost five seats to One Nation and one seat to an independent. So, the coalition held 32 and One Nation had won a remarkable 11 seats. After 12 days of negotiation Labor was able to form a government with the assistance of a rural independent. (Where have we heard that story recently?)
Despite his government's minority status however, Beattie went on to win the following 2001 election in a landslide. In all he won four elections, making him one of the most successful politicians in Queensland political history. Working with him from his first day as Opposition Leader to his last day as Premier, eleven years later, was his Chief of Staff, Rob Whiddon. How different though, could the story have been had Beattie and Labor fallen short in that remarkable 1998 campaign?
I have stated before that the federal Labor Government never had to enter into a formal alliance with the Greens. If history tells us anything its that Labor should never allow the Green tail to wag the brown Labor dog. Labor's immediate and long term survival depends on a formal separation - and soon.
To see more ads from the 1998 election, click here.