Their names once evoked the dusty frontier of white settlement. Narangba, Caboolture, Kallangur. Today these hardscrabble suburbs are at the centre of a struggle over Australia’s future.
Close enough to Brisbane to feel its prosperity and too far away to participate in it, the suburbs and rural communities of the federal seat of Longman will determine if the Coalition can become the first government since 1920 to win a seat back at a byelection.
Far more than bragging rights are at stake. If Longman falls to the Liberal Party, Malcolm Turnbull may, for the first time, establish a clear political ascendancy over Bill Shorten.
The Labor leader’s pre-1983 plan to raise business taxes, extend welfare and give unions more power will have suffered a blow. Perhaps serious enough to terminate his leadership. Perhaps enough to shift the party’s leadership back to embracing private enterprise.
Those fighting in Longman refuse to predict which way the seat will fall, although pundits think the Coalition has an edge. The result may not be known for a week even though one quarter of the electorate has already voted, in part because one in 10 voters could easily side with One Nation.
The struggle for Australia
The seat almost perfectly encapsulates Shorten and Turnbull’s struggle over Australia’s identity.
Longman’s biggest town, Caboolture, is decaying, economically, socially and physically. Welfare underpins the town’s existence.
At the Caboolture shopping centre one of the prominent spaces is occupied by a government employment agency. Departments of housing and children’s health have prime second-floor positions.
On Thursday the pharmacy was busy filling out scrips for disabled pensioners. Tank tops, tattoos and motorised wheelchairs were everywhere.
The town was identified last year as having the worst record of unemployment recipients turning up to job interviews or work-for-the-dole appointments. “Caboolture is dole bludger capital,” local newspapers declared.
Covering her name
The urban south of the electorate is working class gritty within sight of the more prosperous housing estates that have opened up on the other side of the Brisbane-to-Cairns highway, which forms one of the seat’s boundaries.
On Thursday evening every one of the dozen or so disabled car parks at a leagues club in Kallangur was occupied by 6.30pm. A crock pot sat in a display cabinet, luring diners, who were required to pay when they ordered, to enter a raffle.
Among the strawberry and pig farms that dot Longman’s rural north and west, and on the fringes of the urban areas, support for One Nation runs deep.
No matter that there is barely a dark-skinned non-Indigenous face to be seen.
Bribie Island in the far east, home to thousands of retirees, is a conservative stronghold. Turnbull campaigned within sight of the island on Friday at a sprawling, modern pub complex that was hosting two weddings and serving crab from the adjacent Pumicestone Passage, which glinted under a clear blue sky.
Unfortunately for Turnbull, retired Caboolture public servant Toni Lea decided to have lunch at the pub with her husband on Friday.
When the 68-year-old saw the Prime Minister shaking hands and being followed by half-a-dozen TV cameras, she put, in the words of her husband, her “cranky voice on”.
“I don’t think Bill Shorten is cutting penalty rates,” she told Turnbull, who accuses the Labor leader of cutting deals at the expense of members when he was a union leader.
“Well it would be nice if he was here to explain himself,” Turnbull replied.
Vision of the confrontation quickly spread on social media, where it was celebrated by Labor supporters.
Covering up her name
Back in Caboolture, Susan Lamb’s name had been covered over on an office building facing the shopping centre. “Member for Longman” remained, white on Labor red.
A teacher’s aide who failed to renounce her British citizenship, Lamb resigned the seat in May rather than be forced out by the High Court.
Asked this week which issues would determine the election, she said: “Easy. Jobs, health and education.”
When her Liberal National opponent, Trevor Ruthenberg, was asked the same question, he listed crime, road congestion and jobs, in that order.
Neither candidate acknowledged that hospitals, schools, policing and road construction are the responsibility of the Queensland government.
Economic development is largely in the hands of individual businessmen like Neil O’Callaghan, the co-founder of Aircraft Structural Contractors.
Nestled in a Caboolture industrial park next to a truck-painting business, O’Callaghan’s company repairs commercial aircraft based at Brisbane airport 50 kilometres away.
He has 20 staff, and when big contracts come a labour-hire firm helps him go as high as 100, illustrating the importance contract employees play in supply chains.
O’Callaghan’s decision to locate Aircraft Structural Contractors in Caboolture was due to pretty much the only things the town has going for it economically: cheap land, labour and proximity to the Brisbane market.
The company wants to expand, and is working on a way to extend the life of 25-year-old air intakes used on the Rolls Royce jet engines that power a Fokker 100 passenger charter aircraft based at Brisbane Airport.
‘Hock my children’
Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne campaigned at the company’s offices this week, and promised to make introductions to the military.
Given a shot, O’Callaghan promises to hire local staff to deliver big military contracts. “I will hock my house, hock my children, hock something to get funding,” for expansion, he said.
As AFR Weekend walked away, he called out: “Tell them to get rid of payroll tax. It’s killing us.”
Labor is demonstrating its formidable campaign skills in the seat.
This week Labor’s infrastructure spokesman, Anthony Albanese, turned up at the Narangba train station – an outer Brisbane commuter stop – and promised $5 million for extra car parks.
“There are 387 parking spots at this station, but 559 cars on average park here every day for commuters travelling to work to the south, largely,” he said.
Sure enough, even though the modern station was empty of travellers mid morning, every single car park was full and empty cars lined up along an adjacent road.
Such micro announcements are ignored at the national level. But they are a staple of local news coverage.
Labor also knows how to upstage its opponents too. Albanese’s appearance was timed 20 minutes before Pyne’s in Caboolture, which was about 20 kilometres away, making it impossible for reporters to cover both.
There wasn’t a single protester or heckler at Albanese’s photo op. Yet union activists ambushed Pyne when he arrived at Aircraft Structural Contractors.
Posters dot the highways warning voters to “NEVER FORGET” the last state Liberal National Party government, which was thrown in 2015 out after a single term for selling assets and cutting public servants. Helpfully, the posters show photos of Ruthenberg and much-disliked former premier Campbell Newman.
Ruthenberg, a former Air Force fitter and turner, was mocked this week for claiming to hold the wrong military medal. The large, ruddy-cheeked man is somewhat of a known quantity to voters because he represented the state seat of Kallangur for three years.
In front of Turnbull he was required to apologise once again for the medal mishap. Ruthenberg quickly segued into criticism of Lamb’s responsibility for the byelection, which of course has delighted the government.
Turnbull raised only one substantial question that has become a campaign issue: whether the federal government cut funding to Caboolture Hospital. The Labor Party has been running ads for months accusing the Coalition of cutting taxes for banks, which it has tried but failed to do along with all big companies, while reducing funding to the hospital by $2.9 million over the next two years.
In an electorate where 93 per cent of consultations with medical general practitioner are covered by bulk billing, the hospital funding claim is a potent tactic.
The government asserts it increased funding to hospitals in the area by 53 per cent over four years past. “People who work at Caboolture Hospital are disgusted at the way Bill Shorten and Susan Lamb lie,” Turnbull said on Friday.
The truth of the claim is almost impossible to prove or disprove. It is based on assumptions about Queensland’s share from a federal funding increase that Labor says was promised but not implemented.
The Trump Australians
Passed by in the Labor-Liberal debates is a wildcard: voters on the margins of the margin.
On Thursday evening a boxy four-wheel-drive cruised through the southern end of the electorate with a “BIG FAT PUSSY HUNTER” sticker on its rear window, a reference to shooting feral cats.
In a cheap motel carpark further north an agitated young man yelled at his mother: “You f—ing dog.”
“Don’t worry. He’s just forgotten to take his meds,” she said when a manager threatened to call the police.
Two years ago the One Nation candidate in Longman received 8293 votes. Labor won by 1390.
These are the Trump Australians. People so disenfranchised from society that they see no point listening to the claims from Labor, Liberal or Greens. They are unlikely to care that Pauline Hanson is on a cruise in Europe.
Nobody knows how they will allocate their preferences, and it is unclear if One Nation has the resources to put how-to-vote cards in many of their hands on Saturday pushing them into the Coalition camp.
They are the people who will likely determine which way Longman falls again.
This weekend, a nation is in their hands.