David Solomon and others have correctly identified the coming election as a simple moral choice about the role of government. Queensland voters face the same challenge, but the perspective varies as widely as the character of the state. My wife and I are working in the trenches in the leafy electorate of Ryan. This ought to be a lost cause but isn’t..
Ryan comprises mainly residential and acreage suburbs with some commercial and retail activities. It includes the University of Queensland, located on the Brisbane River at St Lucia, and some farming in the outlying suburbs. But there has also been a spate of unit development around the transport hubs closest to Brisbane, such as Indooroopilly and Toowong.
Despite being named after a reformist Queensland ALP Premier, T J Ryan, the electorate has been a LNP safe seat, only once in living memory being so disrupted by internal shenanigans of branch-stacking to let in an interloper.
But two recent events may suggest the seat could be closer than its past record shows. First, in the 2017 State election, the seat of Maiwar, which sits within Ryan, there was a significant swing against the LNP which left the result teetering between ALP and Greens. Younger voters had recently enrolled, motivated by the same-sex marriage referendum. These young voters (and many of their grandparents) are deeply concerned about climate change.
The second event was a re-run of the shenanigans which tend to characterise seats perceived as forever safe. The incumbent federal member, like those who preceded her, has been something of an absentee tenant. After serving ten years on the Brisbane City Council she served a further ten years in Canberra gaining a measure of success there but with a low profile in the electorate.
One of her former staffers inherited her seat on the Council, where he exhibited pro-developer tendencies and seemed to regard himself as heir apparent for advancement to Canberra. He then white-anted her at the pre-selection table, in what Brisbane’s usually supportive Courier Mail identified as ‘sometimes vicious behind-the-scenes machinations’.
In her farewell address to the Parliament, Jane Prentice expressed her disappointment:
‘Contrary to misleading stories at the time, there was no deal. Impatient ambition, treachery and lies are now more than ever part of our political fabric. The only response to be, ‘Oh, come on, that’s politics.’ Is actually very sad. It is also sad that we are increasingly seeing candidates and elected members whose primary focus is not a desire to serve their communities but to serve themselves.’ Jane Prentice MP, valedictory address, April 2019)
The same senior journalist was outspoken in her response to these events:
‘I doubt that I’m the only Ryan constituent, including habitually Liberal voting ones, not inclined to see [candidate Simmonds] reclining on plush, blue-ribboned federal cushions, strumming a guitar while being fed peeled grapes by lobbyists.’
Simmonds has two opponents who are not standard-issue young apparatchiks and proto-lobbyists: for the Greens an IT specialist and for the ALP a well-rounded educator and manager from the performing arts sector. The latter, Peter Cossar, has gained high visibility through his heavy time commitment to grassroots campaigning and his professional support staff, despite being hampered by the relatively low level of central ALP support in an electorate not regarded as sufficiently marginal.
During the campaign Cossar held a function featuring former Senator, Margaret Reynolds, in her role as National President of the with the Friends of the ABC. He is also a long-term member of the Labor Environmental Action Network and has been an advocate for renewable energy, environmental protection and sustainable development. The main difference between him and the Greens is the proximity to levers of power should either win a seat in the lower house and his commitment to the broader policy platform of the ALP, the existential choice mentioned earlier. Our circle of friends includes people in local areas where ALP hopes are legitimately higher, and more distant places where the watch-cry of chaos and disunity gets more credence.
Ryan is an electorate sandwiched between Dickson and Brisbane, (with the Brisbane River providing the southern border and its local cultural separation). The ALP candidates for both these neighbouring seats have received close attention at state and national level. Like Cossar in Ryan, both appear as outside the norm of ALP candidates and stronger for that reason. Both are the focus of intense scrutiny by the two major parties.
In Dickson, Ali France, a former journalist, has mounted a fierce onslaught on Peter Dutton which has received national coverage, not least for the engagement of GetUp. In Brisbane, Paul Newbury is a loquacious expert with business experience and high academic qualifications in the energy sector, having worked and held management and advisory roles both locally and internationally. His opponent has made little impact locally or in Canberra and occupies the seat of Brisbane on a small margin.
This linked collection of seats and those nearby – Lilley and Moreton – represent one area where the ALP needs to cut a swathe if it is to harvest victory. The key issues are climate change and benefits to education, aged care and health services, which compete in door-stop discussions with the hip-pocket nervousness associated with taxation changes being measured in specific dollar costs.
Outside our piece of leafy Brisbane, the calculus is very different. Inter-generational equity is more often measured in terms of access to jobs and improvement in wages. The enthusiasm for action to combat the effects of climate change is tempered in the search for more immediate employment benefits in the exploitation of coalmining options.
The key imponderable reported by our friends and relatives – in places like Townsville and Mackay as well as outer-suburban Brisbane – is the unsettling polling support being given to a variety of minor parties and independents aligned along the right-wing spectrum. And what happens to the preference flows once voters have indulged their penchant to lodge a protest.
Current polling suggests that there will be a topsy-turvy Senate where minor parties and independents may create unpredictable outcomes. And the weekend papers were full of anticipated hostility to the ALP and the scarcely believable proposition that women voters adore the clownish presidential posturing of the Prime Minister and disregard his actual record and the men who stand behind him.
Sitting in Brisbane it is hard to judge the relative significance of minor parties because their values seem so dissonant. In the past, One Nation and Hanson has played a major role in preference allocations in Dickson but that brand might have been damaged. There is an absence of such people on the ground and it is hard to judge the impact of the overwhelming presence of Palmer advertising. He may fill the void of offering a celebrity alternative for unengaged voters forced to go through the motions of making an intelligent choice. But given the preference deals in place, it seems most of the protest vote against the major parties will leak back to the LNP.
The electoral mood outside Brisbane is very hard to fathom, as even our friends detect, including one who lives in Mackay. Whether or not that volatility and One Nation potency is a factor in the south east electorates of Queensland, it is likely to have an exaggerated effect in an electorate like Dawson (based around Mackay in north Queensland). Dawson adjoins Herbert to the north (based around Townsville) and Capricornia to its south (based on Rockhampton). All sit on knife-edge margins.
Dawson is currently represented by ultra-conservative LNP George Christensen, recently dubbed the ‘Member for Manila’ because of the time he has spent there with his Filipina fiancee. Border protection and hostility towards non-white immigration are conservative staples in Dawson, despite the fact that it is not a particularly ethnically or religiously diverse electorate.
Mackay, formerly a sugar cane growing area, has become reliant on the coal mining industry in its western region. Coal export ports have been developed off the coast at Mackay which themselves have become a bone of contention to environmentalists because of their proximity to the Great Barrier Reef. Queensland politicians from all the parties in Mackay and beyond identify a ‘separateness’ about the northern part of the state and quite often what plays well in the south-east will have little impact in the north.
The recession caused by the mining downturn affected Mackay to a greater extent than anywhere else in Queensland and Mackay became a poster case for Queensland’s (and indeed Australia’s) reliance on mining and its economic consequences.
The apparent prevarication of the ALP on Adani, the open support provided by the CFMEU and other unions give added effect to the volatility factor in this electorate. A rally was held in Mackay yesterday to support Adani, with the Mackay mayor a keynote speaker. The full spectrum of right-wing parties is on offer among the nine candidates on the ballot paper, all directing preferences to Christensen. It is likely that Katter will head this otherwise disreputable field and his supporters may exercise more care with their preferences.
Such is the sense of unpredictability and possible panic on the anti-ALP side of Queensland politics, that Peter Dutton, the bastion of hard-line conservatism personified, took time out from his own marginal electorate last week to campaign even further north than Mackay – in the ultra-marginal seat of Herbert, beating the border security drum. This absence could be explained as bone-headed over-confidence about his future leadership role or hard-headed judgments by the party apparatus about his chances in Dickson. We will know on Saturday night.
Roger Scott is an Emeritus Professor of Public Administration in the University of Queensland and former Director-General of Education in Queensland. He was the Inaugural Director of the TJ Ryan Foundation in Brisbane.