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Some time during late 2018, Queensland will become home to exactly five million people. That milestone alone is enough for any state to take stock, but when faced with both fiscal opportunity and economic challenges — and a recent state election that exposed a deeply divided electorate — it is clear that Queensland in 2018 finds itself at crossroads. Do we, in our economic and social policy, embrace risk and look forward to an optimistic future, or does a fearful Queensland turn inwards to seek a golden past that may never truly have existed? Do we continue to build a globalised and multicultural Queensland, or do we return to parochialism, protectionism and populism?

Some time during late 2018, Queensland will become home to exactly five million people. That milestone alone is enough for any state to take stock, but when faced with both fiscal opportunity and economic challenges — and a recent state election that exposed a deeply divided electorate — it is clear that Queensland in 2018 finds itself at crossroads. Do we, in our economic and social policy, embrace risk and look forward to an optimistic future, or does a fearful Queensland turn inwards to seek a golden past that may never truly have existed? Do we continue to build a globalised and multicultural Queensland, or do we return to parochialism, protectionism and populism?

The years since the 2008 Global Financial Crisis (GFC) have been economically and culturally unkind to states historically dependent on mining, agriculture and tourism. But, after a decade of economic headwinds that signalled the end to a long mining boom, signs of economic recovery are emerging. Queensland's State Domestic Product reached $309 billion in 2016–17, for example, as the local economy grew by 1.8 per cent. According to Deloitte, Queensland will boast Australia's strongest economic growth over the next four years at around 3.5 per cent per annum. That compares well with Victoria's 3.1 per cent and New South Wales's 2.8 per cent growth. Coal exports — dampened in 2017 after the devastating Category Four Cyclone Debbie — are again on the increase, with coal royalties tipped to exceed $2 billion annually. Agriculture and tourism — too often the forgotten pillars of Queensland's economy after mining and construction — have also improved, with record chick-pea exports to India and an increase in Chinese tourists padding out the coffers. Even manufacturing is touted for resurgence, especially in the regions.

This good news allowed former state Labor Treasurer Curtis Pitt to deliver three surplus budgets between 2015 and 2017, and saw Moody's credit agency remove the ‘negative watch’ from Queensland's AA+ rating. With around 120,000 jobs created in Queensland since 2015, interstate migration — which has slowed to a trickle in in recent years — is again surging, and business confidence has returned strongly to see the most promising investment opportunities since 2013.

But there appears to be another Queensland just below the surface of these impressive numbers. State unemployment still hovers stubbornly around 6 per cent — and is much higher among youth and the long-term unemployed, and in the regions — and state debt is approaching $81 billion to become the highest in the nation. Wages too often grow more slowly than the cost of living, and housing affordability, while not acute as in Sydney or Melbourne, is nonetheless exacting a social and cultural cost. Infrastructure, too, is still sadly lacking across the regions, and some major projects — the Adani coal mine in the Galilee Basin and Cross-River Rail in Brisbane — are opposed by voters outside their immediate catchment.

All this suggests that Queensland's recent economics largesse is unevenly distributed. As parts of Western, North and Central Queensland continue to struggle, South-East Queensland — home to 72 per cent of the state1— continues to attract the bulk of new migrants. Despite the reality that more than half of each year's state Budget is spent outside Brisbane, there remains in the regions a perception that successive state governments govern only for the south-east. This chasm between regional and remote Queensland on the one hand and the south-east corner on the other — one seemingly closing in the 1990s and 2000s, but now arguably reopening — manifests not only in economic statistics but also in voter behaviour. In short, and as the 2017 Queensland election and same-sex marriage postal survey indicate, there exist at least two Queenslands.

It is therefore timely for this themed section of Queensland Review to examine the crossroads at which Queensland now finds itself. The issue includes analyses from Queensland's leading scholars and journalists in an assessment of the 2017 state election and its aftermath so that the options for policy-makers regarding Queensland's future are made clear.

This section opens with an analysis by Griffith University's Paul Williams of how the Palaszczuk Labor Government remained competitive during its first term despite economic challenges and a litany of political impediments that might otherwise have defeated a minority government. Williams posits that the 2017 election was Queensland's third extraordinary successive poll — 2012 saw the Newman-led Liberal National Party attain Australia's largest parliamentary majority, while 2015 saw the majority lost after a single term — and argues that Labor's unexpected return to majority government was a function of voters’ desire for stable governance and, potentially, the beginning of the end of Queensland's recent electoral volatility.

Pauline Hanson's One Nation (PHON) was expected to win up to ten seats at the 2017 election and potentially hold the balance of power in yet another hung parliament. Understanding exactly why PHON won just a single seat, despite a high-profile campaign, with a primary vote far below its 1998 zenith, is therefore critical to understanding the future of Queensland populism. Frank Mols and Jolanda Jetten of the University of Queensland attempt to unlock an answer through their analysis of PHON's recent electoral performance. Here, Mols and Jetten challenge the thesis that economic downturn and increased immigration increase populism's appeal. Mols and Jetten argue that support for populist parties tends to follow a V-curve pattern, with such parties attracting both the economically challenged and the comfortable middle class. Their findings confirm other research that points to income as a poor predictor of voters’ preference for populism.

A clear pattern also emerges in the support for minor parties at the 2017 election. Where PHON performed especially poorly in the south-east, The Greens polled well in a result that again supports the ‘two Queenslands’ thesis. Indeed, the 2017 election will remain a watershed for The Greens: after a campaign defined largely by the contentious Adani coal mine, The Greens won their first parliamentary seat, Maiwar (formerly Indooroopilly) in Brisbane's inner west, and performed well in other inner-city districts such as South Brisbane. From his analysis of the 2017 same sex marriage postal survey result and the state election itself, Griffith University's Niels Kraaier finds that South-East Queensland residents — particularly those living in the 200-kilometre stretch between the Tweed River and Noosa — hold considerably more progressive views on, for example, LGBTIQ issues, than their regional counterparts. Conversely, Kraaier finds that PHON support — strong in the regions but weak in the south-east — sees traditional ‘masculine’ values dominate the regions. Again, in finding support for the ‘two Queenslands’ thesis, Kraaier concludes that it is timely to revisit secessionist questions, but this time with the south-east taking the initiative to head up a new and progressive South-East Queensland.

The University of Queensland's Chris Salisbury compares and contrasts Annastacia Palaszczuk's election victory with the LNP's tribulations following the Newman government's defeat in 2015. Salisbury recounts how Palaszczuk was labelled an ‘accidental premier’ — in his view, an unfair epithet that the LNP Opposition attempted to exploit. Pointing to Queensland's tradition of populist, authoritarian leaders, Salisbury argues the 2015 election may have signalled voters’ desire for a ‘feminised’ government that offers consultative leadership.

Finally, Courier-Mail journalist Trenton Akers recounts the 2017 election campaign through the news media lens, reminding us of this election's historical significance. It was, of course, the first occasion on which a woman state premier (although not territory chief minister) had been re-elected; the first election since 1989 conducted under compulsory preferential voting; and the first election since 1986 to elect an expanded Legislative Assembly now boasting 93 seats. Akers also finds that the 2017 saw parties and candidates invest heavily in social media, and concludes that PHON's lacklustre performance did not lack substantial news media coverage.

Queensland is often described in both the scholarly literature and the popular media as ‘different’. The results of the 2017 Queensland election, where PHON performed poorly and The Greens well, might suggest that such difference is dissipating — or at least that the state's south-east is becoming closer economically, socially and culturally to Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra than it is to Townsville, Cairns or Mt Isa. Ultimately, the reality that two Queenslands — a have-more and a have-less — compete for policy-makers’ attention continues to be the state's biggest challenge. How well the re-elected Palaszczuk and subsequent governments meet that challenge depends on how well those policy-makers understand the issues raised in the essays that follow.

Endnote

1 Some 72 per cent of Queenslanders live in the state's south-east in eleven local government areas, making it one of the fastest growing regions in Australia — but just 34 per cent of Queensland residents reside in Brisbane. This makes Queensland the only state where the capital city does not demographically dominate the state.