Old dog, new tricks: can Beattie save Labor in Forde?

Former Queenland Premier and new Labor candidate for Forde Peter Beattie and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (right) arrive for a press conference, 8 August 2013. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

The shock entry of former Queensland premier Peter Beattie into the federal election campaign as the Labor candidate for Forde was kept a tightly guarded secret - and with good reason.

It sends two clear messages to the people of Forde. After coming out of political retirement at the age of 60, Beattie would not be running if he thought he couldn’t wrest the marginal seat off the sitting Liberal National Party candidate. And he would not be going to Canberra as an opposition backbencher - so he must believe that Kevin Rudd can win.

Both messages offer a fillip for Labor supporters in a very tight campaign, in which Forde is one of Queensland’s must-win seats for Labor to stay in government.

If the current polls are to be believed, the Rudd government needs to pick up at least six seats around Australia, especially with some seats in NSW (such as New England) and elsewhere already pencilled in as gains for the Coalition.

What drives the people of Forde?

Forde is a microcosm of Australian society, including a complete spread of socio-economic groups. It ranges from large homes on the Albert and Logan rivers, through to community and social housing. It is also incredibly diverse, with the Logan council area claiming people from more than 200 nationalities and ethnic groups, with different languages and cultural heritages.

The electorate has undergone dramatic changes since its creation nearly 30 years ago. Through the 1980s and 1990s, it was at the centre of the south-east Queensland’s population boom. Today, Forde covers a corridor of suburbs between Logan, south of Brisbane, and northern parts of the Gold Coast.

When I first won the seat at the 1987 federal election, Forde took in an area that stretched from Indooroopilly Bridge, in Brisbane’s southern suburbs, down past Logan to the Kingston Butter Factory. By the time I lost at the 1996 election, the electoral boundaries had been redrawn so significantly that Kingston Butter Factory was the only electoral booth remaining from a decade earlier. In fact, I had to move home twice in my time as an MP in order to stay in the electorate.

The key issues in Forde are jobs, transport, health and education. The last major public transport infrastructure was the Gold Coast rail line, built by the federal government and opened in 1994. Access to jobs is a big issue. While there are industrial estates, with only patchy public transport coverage, these can only be accessed by private cars if work times are irregular.

The area also has a Griffith University campus and a TAFE college. While these provide education services, transport access is also a problem for many students.

Local unemployment is higher than the national average, and the cuts to public sector jobs under the Newman state government may help in swinging some support over to Beattie.

Local challenges

Way back in 1986, when I was first preselected as Labor’s candidate for Forde, Peter Beattie was one of the first people to join me on the hustings. We hired a truck, had a band on the back and toured the local shopping centres.

What Beattie will bring to the 2013 election is an enthusiastic campaigning style, along with considerable experience. While he might be a self-confessed “media tart”, he is extremely engaging on a personal level.

Beattie had repeatedly ruled out entering federal politics since stepping down as Queensland premier in 2007, as the Liberal Party highlighted with a YouTube video uploaded soon after the news broke that he would run as a federal candidate.

Much has been made of whether Peter Beattie should live in the electorate, with one man heckling him for not being a local as he arrived with prime minister Kevin Rudd for a press conference at the Beenleigh Events Centre, south of Brisbane.

Beattie told reporters that he had moved into his brother’s home in Shailer Park in the electorate this morning, and that if elected he would buy a home and move there immediately. Whether that is a significant issue in the election is yet to be seen; he is well known to many people in Forde, so it may not be quite the same issue as it would usually be.

Shameless media tart or vote magnet?

Labor branch members have been out campaigning for almost the whole period of the Gillard government. For some it has been a very difficult exercise, made even more so by the massive loss of state members in the 2012 Queensland election, which left Labor with just seven MPs in the state parliament. Resources and morale have been low.

As well as giving Labor its best chance of winning back Forde, I would expect that Beattie’s return could help attract vital extra votes in other fiercely contested Brisbane electorates, including Bonner, Blair and Brisbane.

But this will not be an easy run for Beattie. His opponent is the sitting Liberal National Party member, Bert van Manen, who won the seat in the 2010 election with a 1.6% margin. He is a very personable local man, whose social conservatism will no doubt appeal to many constituents who will continue to support him.

Based on my experience of campaigning alongside him, Beattie’s entry into the race could be a game changer for Queensland - and possibly for the wider federal election. Whatever the outcome, it’s certainly become one of the seats to watch.