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State of the states: 19 reasons why Turnbull and Shorten keep flying to Queensland

Flanked by local MP Ewen Jones and Greg Hunt, Malcolm Turnbull announced funding for a new stadium in Townsville and the Great Barrier Reef. Lukas Coch/AAP

State of the states: 19 reasons why Turnbull and Shorten keep flying to Queensland

Ahead of polling day on July 2, our State of the states series takes stock of the key issues, seats and policies affecting the vote in each of Australia’s states and territories. We begin today with a look at New South Wales and Queensland.


There are 19 good reasons why Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten have been spending so much time in Queensland. To win government, Labor needs a net gain of 19 seats nationally – and that’s the exact number of marginal seats being fought over in Queensland this election.

Stretching from far north and central Queensland to a cluster in the state’s south-east, there are 12 federal seats with margins of less than 5%, and seven more on margins of less than 8%, which in a Queensland context can be considered marginal. Of those dozen most marginal seats, the Liberal National Party and Labor each have the edge in five, though the LNP is likely to take back Clive Palmer’s seat of Fairfax. Bob Katter holds the other in Kennedy.

Our team at Griffith University chose ten of those key Queensland seats to watch closely and we have developed interactive profiles of each one, drawing on Australian Bureau of Statistics population, income, housing and education data.

Key issues and seats in regional Queensland

Queensland is Australia’s most decentralised state, and the only state or territory where roughly half of its population of 4.7 million lives outside the capital.

To understand why some election promises matter more than others in Queensland – from a now bipartisan pledge to build Townsville a new stadium, to spending more on the Great Barrier Reef – you need to look at the demographics of marginal seats, as we have done.

In May, Bill Shorten restated Labor’s support for a new stadium for Townsville, now matched by the Coalition. Mick Tsikas/AAP

Take jobs and growth. Turnbull’s much-vaunted “economic plan” aims to transition Australia from the mining boom to the new “innovation economy”. But that means quite different things to voters in the north and west of the state, where unemployment is above the state average of 6.2%.

The state’s unemployment highest rate, almost 12%, is in Townsville, which is in the north Queensland electorate of Herbert, held by the Coalition’s Ewen Jones on a 6.2% margin. There, the closure of Queensland Nickel has compounded the mining downturn.

Queensland’s regional unemployment rates. Department of Employment, Australian Government, CC BY

Add to that the “double whammy” of negative equity in houses and investment properties bought at the peak of the boom. Those factors can also be expected to impact other Coalition seats: Dawson, which lies south of Herbert and includes the city of Mackay; Hinkler, which takes in Bundaberg and Hervey Bay; and Leichhardt, a seat more than twice the size of Tasmania, sprawling from Cairns north to the Torres Strait Islands.

Both leaders and their respective frontbenchers have made frequent visits to regional Queensland, particularly seats like Capricornia, which the LNP’s Michelle Landry holds by 0.8%. Again proving the power of incumbency, Capricornia, Dawson, Herbert and Leichhardt have all benefited from what the Australian Financial Review has dubbed “the Coalition’s $1.7 billion pork barrel strategy”.

On Monday, after months of local campaigning, Turnbull promised $100 million towards a multi-purpose stadium in Townsville. That matched a Labor pledge from last year.

Turnbull used the same trip to announce a new $1 billion Reef Fund to be spent over the next decade, in contrast to Shorten’s earlier campaign pledge of $500 million over five years for additional reef funding and research. The Great Barrier Reef is a hot topic statewide for voters concerned about the environment and climate change. But in these northern seats, protecting the reef is also about protecting tourism jobs.

Regional Queensland is at the heart of another issue that has been simmering for months, and which is sure to raised again in today’s state budget: disaster relief and recovery.

In 2015, much of Queensland felt the brunt of Tropical Cyclones Marcia and Nathan, especially the electorates of Hinkler, Capricornia, Dawson, Flynn, Wide Bay, Herbert and Leichhardt. But it emerged recently that the federal government has “withheld” $1.1 billion in reimbursement funding owed to Queensland under the National Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements.

This issue could gain greater national attention as Queensland, NSW and Tasmania all assess the damage from the east coast low and flooding that claimed five lives.

Key issues and seats in south-east Queensland

In south-east Queensland, which is home to seven out of ten Queenslanders, jobs are also a concern. But it’s a story of stark contrasts.

Unemployment runs as high as 11% in Ipswich (part of retiring Labor member Bernie Ripoll’s electorate of Oxley) to a low of 3.1% in north Brisbane, and between 4.5-6% to the south and west of the city. In these electorates, cost of living looms among the most significant issues. Labor in particular has focused on costs of childcare, public school funding, and the government’s decision to freeze the Medicare rebate for another three years.

One of the most interesting electorates to watch on election night will be Dickson, in Brisbane’s outer north, which Immigration Minister Peter Dutton holds on a margin of 6.7%.

Dutton wrested the seat from Cheryl Kernot in 2001, but this time he is being challenged by Labor’s Linda Lavarch, a former Queensland attorney-general. Lavarch’s ex-husband and former Keating government attorney-general Michael Lavarch held the seat from 1993-96. A national social media campaign is being waged to “ditch Dutton” by the activist group GetUp!; by June 10, it had reportedly crowd-funded $190,000.

On asylum-seekers and border security, as with managing the economy, the Coalition maintains a decisive edge with voters. This may explain why Dutton went so hard, so early, on refugees in the opening weeks of the campaign. But Dutton’s comments may yet backfire on his leader in the inner-urban electorates of Griffith and Brisbane, which the ABC’s Vote Compass shows are Queensland’s two most left-leaning seats.

The LNP’s Trevor Evans (right) at an anti-homophobia ceremony in Brisbane. Dan Peled/AAP

In Brisbane, Teresa Gambaro’s belated decision not to re-contest the marginal inner-northern seat left the LNP scrambling to find a candidate to challenge Labor’s Pat O'Neill. O'Neill, a former Army officer, has been campaigning since he was preselected in June 2015.

The LNP’s Trevor Evans was endorsed in April 2016. Much has been made of the contest between two “openly gay” major party candidates. But it remains unclear whether economic or social issues will be of more concern to Brisbane voters. Expect the Greens’ candidate Kirsten Lovejoy to have an impact, even more so as a result of the Labor/Greens preference deal.

Why Queensland is always a state to watch

Historically, Queenslanders have favoured conservative or Coalition governments – making it fashionable for some on the left to describe it as a “conservative backwater”. But when it comes to politics, the more accurate adjective is “volatile”.

Queensland voters tend to swing harder than elsewhere, which has proved as decisive in turfing out recent Coalition governments as it has in rejecting Labor.

In 1996, Queenslanders were “waiting on their verandahs with baseball bats” to oust Paul Keating’s Labor government, helping John Howard’s Coalition win all but two Queensland seats.

But in 2007, Queenslanders swung more dramatically against Howard’s government than any other state (7.53% to Labor) to elect “Kevin from Queensland”. Labor won seats in the Coalition heartland in the north (Dawson and Leichhardt), as well as central Queensland (Flynn), and around the outer Brisbane mortgage belt in Forde, Longman, Moreton, and Petrie.

In 2010, Queensland voters repudiated Julia Gillard and played a major role in driving Labor into minority government after just one term: 9 of 18 seats Labor lost in that election were in Queensland.

At the last federal election in 2013, Queensland turned decisively to Tony Abbott. Labor achieved a primary vote of 29.8%, winning just six out of 30 lower house seats.

Then, almost as if to prove how volatile Queensland politics can be, came last year’s state election, in which the LNP went from winning a record majority in 2012 to losing power.

Whether Queensland’s unpredictable behaviour at the ballot box will be repeated on July 2 remains to be seen. With two-and-a-half weeks of campaigning to go, there doesn’t appear to be the kind of mood for change that usually accompanies big swings in Queensland. And Labor’s low base in Queensland, plus the slight margins held in traditionally Labor electorates like Lilley (1.3%) and Moreton (1.6%), makes it an uphill battle.

There is also a developing consensus that the national swings reported in published opinion polls are not translating to the seats that matter. This, and historical experience, may explain why the Coalition looks less anxious in Queensland than some might have anticipated.


Catch up on others in this series.

Correction: Michael Lavarch held the seat of Dickson from 1993-96, rather than the neighbouring seat of Petrie as originally stated. Thank you to reader Peter Kington for pointing out the error.