Labor would storm home to victory in regional Queensland if Helga Smyth decided the May 21 election.
Smyth, a grandmother in Gladstone, discovered the local hospital could not give her all the treatment she needed when she was diagnosed with breast cancer nine years ago. Like other Queenslanders outside the state capital, she was told to go to Brisbane for some of the more advanced treatment because the nearby hospitals and clinics could not provide the care.
“If I had to see a specialist, I’d have to fly down to Brisbane every time and then back home,” she says. “And I would have to nearly argue with them because they will provide a patient with a subsidy for you to go, but they’ll argue with you all the time. And when I was diagnosed with breast cancer I was too sick to work.”
Smyth, who could cover some of the costs with help from her son and daughter, worries about federal support for health and does not hesitate when asked who she will vote for: “I’m definitely a Labor supporter.”
Gladstone, the main population centre in the federal electorate of Flynn, knows how much wealth it produces for Australia and senses that it does not gain enough in return. The industrial powerhouse, a six-hour drive north of Brisbane, exports billions of dollars in coal, gas, wheat, chickpeas, alumina, aluminium and more. Its coal-fired power station is the biggest in the state.
Locals say they cannot find a GP and are sent to nearby cities such as Rockhampton for healthcare. One calls the hospital “horrific” while another says it is “wonderful” but the message from most is that the system needs fixing.
Concern about the health system is probably the strongest issue for Labor leader Anthony Albanese and his candidate, former Gladstone mayor Matt Burnett, in their bid to gain a swing of 8.7 per cent against the government. Their mission looks unlikely on paper but the retirement of the Nationals’ member, Ken O’Dowd, has put the seat in play.
The response from Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his candidate, former state member Colin Boyce, is all about the economy – and the risk of greater ambition on climate change.
Coal and gas prices are high and jobs are easy to find – to the point where employers say they cannot find workers to fill shifts. Yet the stores are quiet along the main street because so many workers can fly in from homes in Brisbane or the Sunshine Coast and stay at camps just outside Gladstone – with housing, meals and gyms – when they clock on at the LNG terminals on Curtis Island.
Workers do not just want good jobs with good pay. They want reliable health, education and other services to make it worth settling in Gladstone and raising families. While jobs are readily available, housing is not.
“There’s definitely a feeling that services need to be improved,” Gladstone Engineering Alliance general manager Peter Masters says. “Gladstone as a community is happy to do the heavy lifting but when you have a look at it, and you break it down, we have trouble attracting and retaining staff into the regional areas.”
The future depends on the speed of the transition from fossil fuels. The government has announced major spending on hydrogen projects in the hope this can replace coal and gas, but Boyce, the Liberal National Party candidate, is openly sceptical about whether hydrogen will deliver. He has not signed up to the net zero target the government has set for 2050.
“Hydrogen has got some specific problems to it that are huge in terms of turning hydrogen into industrial production – specifically, water,” Boyce says. “If we want industrial quantities of hydrogen, we must have industrial quantities of fresh water. At the moment there just simply is not enough fresh water to produce those industrial quantities of hydrogen.”
The message from Boyce is out of tune with the talk from Energy Minister Angus Taylor about investments in hydrogen as a clean fuel source, and totally at odds with Labor’s policy to create 604,000 jobs nationwide by using renewable power to produce hydrogen and storing it as a clean fuel.
But the essence of his argument is that the transition away from coal and gas must be slow – if it happens at all.
Masters, who is not aligned in the political contest, says the community knows there has to be a shift towards new energy sources.
“I’ve seen a bit of a change in the last little while where people understand that it doesn’t matter what their personal beliefs are around climate change, the fact is that government, institutions and big industries are making policies that are going that way,” he says. “So it’s going to affect them anyway. So doing nothing isn’t really an option.”
In Biloela, one hour’s drive inland from Gladstone, the speed of the transition is also critical. The town is near the Callide coal-fired power station and the Banana Shire mayor, Nev Ferrier, says the transition must not be rushed.
“We’re getting assured that they’re not going to close Callide B before 2028 and Callide C by 2038, so we believe we’re going to have time for the transition,” he says. “We’ll see how good hydrogen’s going to be and whether it’s going to be as quick as some people say. Personally, I think it’s going to take a bit longer to get it all up and running. They haven’t put a lot of thought into where the water is going to come from for hydrogen.”
Biloela is best known in southern states as the home of the Murugappan family of Tamil asylum seekers now in community detention in Perth. Family friends Bronwyn Dendle and Angela Fredericks believe people are changing their vote because the government won’t release them.
Ferrier also says the community wants Nades and Priya Murugappan and their daughters, Kopika and Tharnicaa, back in Biloela. “Most want them to come home,” he says. “You’ve got to have rules and regulations but these people are no risk to anybody. You know, those little girls are Queenslanders.”
On climate, meanwhile, Ferrier sounds just as happy with jobs from solar farms as from power stations, as long as there are enough. He knows iron ore billionaire Andrew Forrest has pledged $3 billion for a green hydrogen industry in the region.
“We’re happy to have renewables here in the shire,” he says. “If they close Callide B in 2028 then probably 110 jobs go there. By that time we hope these wind farms might be up and going, and some of the solar farms certainly will be up and going, but they don’t employ many people, of course.”
“It’s going to happen but I don’t think it’s going to be as quick as people think. We have to make sure we don’t close coal-fired power stations down too soon.”
Asked whether Labor or the Coalition has a better approach to the energy transition, Ferrier says they appear to have similar approaches to net zero emissions. He takes Labor at its word that it would not move any faster to close down coal-fired power stations.
Yet voters are anxious about the speed of the transition and may gravitate to a message that is more sceptical than optimistic. Voters are sceptical about the two leaders and their parties to begin with.
Will these Queensland voters stick with Morrison or embrace Albanese? “Sack both of them,” says one woman on the main street of Gladstone. One retiree refuses to vote for any politicians. “They’re a waste of space,” he says. “They talk big and they never deliver.”
The frustration with the two major parties is a big factor in an electorate where 19.6 per cent voted for Pauline Hanson’s One Nation at the last election. Support for Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party was much weaker, at 4.25 per cent, given the anger at the billionaire when he sacked staff at his nickel refinery.
The last time Labor won Flynn, in 2007, the party rode a wave of enthusiasm for Kevin Rudd, the first Queenslander to lead the federal party since the early days of federation. The result was a 7.9 per cent swing. Albanese needs an even bigger one.
This helps explain why Labor is paying more attention to seats around Brisbane such as Longman (held by the LNP on a margin of 3.3 per cent) and Brisbane (4.9 per cent) in the hope of gaining at least a few Queensland seats.
Voters such as Helga Smyth will not be enough to deliver victory in Flynn.
Labor has to overcome the quiet caution in central Queensland about the transition for energy and jobs. Right now, early in the third week of the campaign, Flynn is an unlikely site for a Labor triumph.
- Kean: Morrison government should be ‘more ambitious’ in tackling climate change | Australian News video
- Ukrainians and the government ‘will fight’ against the Russian forces | Australian News video
- Hazzard urges NSW residents to join the ‘booster club’ | Australian News video
( Information from smh.com.au was used in this report. To Read More, click here )