Get InQueensland in your inbox Subscribe

Away from the big smoke, under the radar - watch these independents on election night


Everyone is looking at the metropolitan seats with strong independent candidates. Dennis Atkins thinks there are some out-of-town contests worth watching, including one in Queensland that might surprise.

Print article

A wave of curiosity swept through a weekend television political panel during a discussion about Morrison Government minister Andrew Gee’s revelation he’d considered quitting Cabinet over funding for veterans.

Was the seat of the western rural New South Wales MP in trouble at the coming election, wondered a panelist.

Surely not, remarked another, no doubt considering Calare’s comfy 13.3 per cent margin.

Confirming again the old adage Canberra is the last place to hear the news, Calare is in trouble for the Nationals and Gee, MP since 2016 and Veterans Affairs minister for the past 15 months, knows it.

Gee is under threat from the other side of the independent insurgency we hear so much about, providing yet another front the Morrison Liberals and Nationals coalition has to defend.

Most attention has been focussed on those independent candidates in the metropolitan, mainly inner city, electorates where otherwise safe Liberals are in a clear and present danger.

This movement is seen from Wentworth in Sydney’s inner east across to Mackellar covering that city’s northern beaches and in Melbourne where a swag of seats are in the sights of the independents, particularly Higgins, Goldstein, Flinders and even Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s Kooyong electorate.

Before having a closer look at Calare – and casting an eye over a northern Victorian seat, Nicholls, running along the Murray River – it is worth giving a seat in Queensland some attention.

Groom, centred on the big rural city of Toowoomba, is a solidly safe Nationals and Liberals seat, holding its place in the conservative column since federation, either under its current name or the original Darling Downs moniker. Right now it has a 20.5 per cent safety cushion.

On paper there should be no threat to Groom and its current incumbent Liberal MP Garth Hamilton. Labor is certainly not going to make an impact and neither is a hard right maverick such as a One Nation or Clive Palmer rabble rouser.

However, Toowoomba mental health reform advocate Suzi Holt thinks she can shake things up.

Two things suggest she might. First, there is enough disquiet and unhappiness in the local LNP branches to cause people from Brisbane to Canberra to be worried.

In Canberra Hamilton sits in the Liberal Party room but some Queensland Nationals would like to tempt him to move around the corridor to the caucus of the Coalition’s junior partner.

Led by Senator Matt Canavan – himself once touted as a candidate for Groom – these moves are about making sure current leader Barnaby Joyce can withstand a party room threat after the election.

The Liberals are having none of it and they’ve got solid support among the Groom rank and file. To keep them happy and in line there have been recent high profile visits by senior Liberal conservatives such as junior minister Amanda Stoker and former prime minister Tony Abbott.

Holt, who has deep family roots in the district, is clearly running strongly. A campaign event in Toowoomba, attended by former ABC TV current affairs host Kerry O’Brien and ex-Victorian rural independent Cathy McGowan, almost filled a room with more than 500 people on Wednesday last week.

The Nationals are worried, with Canavan making some pointed and sharp attacks on Holt who was pivotal in forming a Voices for Groom group last year.

It’s hard to see Holt winning but some stagers who know Toowoomba and the electorate more generally reckon she will give it one hell of a shake.

In Calare, a businesswoman from Orange, Kate Hook, is intent on providing a similar shake for Gee on election night.

She might get some help from Labor which looks like running dead in the election – the party has not selected its candidate and locals feel when someone is nominated there will be little if any effort. Hook might have a clear run at Gee.

Calare has been a conservative seat throughout its long history although Labor has held it occasionally. The electorate has tasted the freedom of being outside the grip of the major parties, having had well known independent Peter Andren as the MP for more than a decade after Paul Keating lost in 1996.

Given the general grumpy mood in NSW, seen in and around Sydney but now on fire in regional and rural centres, that 14 percent might not be as secure as it looks.

In the recent South Australian state election the further you travelled from metropolitan Adelaide, the bigger the swing against the (now ex) Liberal Government, reaching a high of 24 percent in far flung Flinders, just held by the now opposition.

This explains why Gee not only pushed back against what he saw as the short-changing of veterans in his portfolio but to make a very public statement about it. The drums of discontent have been heard in Nationals seats in NSW and Victoria for a long time and this coming election might turn up the dial.

Even former Nationals leader Michael McCormack has an independent, Pennie Scott, poking the bear in his electorate of Riverina – dust stirred by a lack of action over decent, sustainable policies on water.

Scott might find it hard but on the other side of the Murray River Rob Priestly could upset the Coalition’s chances of holding the previously safe seat of Nicholls.

Priestly’s prospects are improved because the sitting Nationals MP Damien Drum is retiring, making this an open contest with a Liberal also testing the electoral waters.

Recent polling published in The Age has the contest as a four-way affair with Labor on about 15 per cent and the Liberals attracting just over 20 per cent. The Nationals and Priestly are locked together in the 16 to 17 per cent range.

The interesting things about this poll are the collapse of the Nationals’ vote – it’s dropped almost 35 per cent from 51 per cent in 2019 – and what might happen when preferences are counted.

The Nationals and Liberals are fierce rivals locally and might not be so accommodating when the preferences flow. If there’s enough leakage to Priestly after he gets most of the Labor total, the independent could vault to the lead.

Nicholls should be high on your list of seats to watch come election night. Don’t take your eye off Calare either and check Groom before the last bite of the pizzas.


More Insights stories

Loading next article