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Pick and stick: Why regional Queensland voters are such hard nuts for Labor to crack

Statewide

Labor needs to reclaim some of the regional Queensland seats it lost in the 2019 electoral landslide, but the dogs aren’t barking yet, writes Greg Hallam

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The thought that it’s rare for voters to change their votes in the seven regional federal electorates must make the incumbents sleep a little easier at night. It’s been nine years since the last seismic shift that ushered in the Abbott Government, and six years before that to the Kevin 07 wave.

Why is it so? It goes to the DNA of those living north of the SEQ corner of the state and particularly in the top half of Queensland. It’s well documented there are major socio-economic differences focussed on ethnicity, education levels, nature of employment,  age profile and the like, that set these voters apart from their southern counterparts.

Less obvious is the more personal relationship with their federal representative. The punters get to know them. Because they are the only federal member within cooee their profile is automatically higher. They aren’t competing for media or public attention with fellow federal parliamentarians in what have traditionally been strong media towns – Cairns, Townsville, Mackay, Rockhampton, Gladstone, Bundaberg and the Fraser Coast.

Each centre has its own TV service if not station, print and radio presence. A media bubble if you like.
This model favours big or quirky characters and that’s what the system throws up again and again. Recognisable, relatable and re-electable. “They will stick it up them in Canberra” is both the retort and hope.

The big provincial centres tend to also have their own micro-economies based on agriculture, mining or tourism. For that reason they are often the first in and last out of recessions.

The history of Queensland has afforded them a status not seen in other parts of the nation. They were all originally port cities replete with grand main streets, foreshores, Port Offices, Customs Houses, bonded stores and their own railway lines that ran east west deep into the Queensland inland.

That sense of importance is inculcated into locals from birth, even if it’s now expressed in terms of sporting teams.

Above all else these communities have been dependent on big government for over a century, whether it’s been port, rail or road infrastructure or the regulation of agriculture – think sugar mills, cane assignments and cane trains.

Because of their deep pride and desire to be independent and an in-grown sense of being owed by other Australians, it’s a fine political line to walk between supporting and patronising those voters.

These provincial cities play envy politics better than anyone else in the country, whether it’s between each other, or with Brisbane or Canberra. They have turned it into an art form.

Commentary that these voters are rusted on conservatives belies the fact that the state labor government has a strangle-hold on these same areas. Likewise the Mayors of these same cities are all long-term incumbents, reinforcing the voter reluctance to change their representatives.

History has shown that federal labor has held all of those regional electorates, often for a decade or more – think John Gayler, Ted Lindsay, James Bidgood and Kirsten Livermore.
At the time of the last federal election most of these communities were doing it tough, with higher unemployment, poor trading circumstances (eg lower mining and agricultural commodity prices) prevailed.

At the moment, Cairns aside, they are booming with home owners experiencing their biggest ever house price uplift in a generation accompanied by big net migration to those regions.

It’s often a single big issue that turns these federal electorates – interest rates or WorkChoices as was the case in 2007. At present it’s hard to see such a big issue that will change who voters give a tick to on 21 May.

Disaster mitigation funding, housing affordability, cost of living are all top of agenda issues but unlikely in and of themselves to be a game changer.

Do voters in these regions feel as strongly against Scott Morrison as do Sydney-siders or Melbournites? I doubt it.

Equally the visceral hate of Bill Shorten or even the Bob Brown convoy won’t be a factor this time around.

With just under three weeks to polling date Labor is still yet to hone in on a game-changing argument why voters should upend their incumbents.

Greg Hallam AM PSM is a recently-retired CEO of the Local Government Association of Queensland. He is writing weekly about regional issues affecting the federal election.

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