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Coal not the only burning issue in Queensland’s blue collar seat of Flynn

By Ben Smee
‘We’ve got to get rid of Morrison’: Gladstone mayor and ALP candidate for Flynn, Matt Burnett, addresses a crowd gathered for Labour Day in Gladstone, Queensland.
‘We’ve got to get rid of Morrison’: Gladstone mayor and ALP candidate for Flynn, Matt Burnett, addresses a local crowd on Labour Day. Photograph: Rhett Hammerton/The Guardian

Leo Williams sits on his esky having a smoke by the side of the road. His gumboots are covered in mud that has spattered up on to his hands and face and is starting to cake.

His boss, Noel Elliott, slinks down next to him up against an empty weatherboard building near the centre of Gladstone in central Queensland, where they’re doing some work on the drain.

It’s the Labour Day public holiday in Queensland. The crew have been here since the early morning, trying to get their job done while there’s no traffic in the city centre.

“Blokes working on Labour Day, that says a bit doesn’t it!” says Williams, to explain why he’s a lifelong Labor voter.

Elliott says he has been a swinging voter in recent years but will support the Liberal National party this time.

“We’re on different teams,” he says of the group of workmates.

“There’s a lot of [blue-collar] workers around here. A lot of the small businesses are struggling. There’s a lot of empty shops.

“Everybody’s down on Morrison at the moment but it hasn’t been really a fair time for him because of the Covid and that sort of stuff.”

Leo Williams, Noel Elliott and Brian O’Shea having a break from construction work.
Construction workers Leo Williams, Noel Elliott and Brian O’Shea on a break. Photograph: Rhett Hammerton/The Guardian

The third member of their crew, Brian O’Shea, rips crumbs from his sandwich and tosses them to a peewee on the footpath. He reckons the bird would do a better job than either Scott Morrison or Anthony Albanese.

“I just vote so I don’t get fined, mate,” he says.

‘The biggest fear is people are going to lose their jobs’

As the Gladstone Labour Day march moves past the vacant office of the retiring Liberal National MP Ken O’Dowd, one of the CFMEU members raises a middle finger and screws his face up in defiance.

Gladstone is the largest population centre in the electorate, and home to about a third of its enrolled voters.

This part of the seat is blue-collar Labor heartland, but these are also some of the folks whose shift away from Labor – amid a fraught debate about coal and climate change – became a defining story of the 2019 election. At Gladstone’s largest booth, the two-party swing to the LNP was more than 10%.

Unionists and their families march for through Gladstone to mark Labour Day.
Unionists march through Gladstone to mark Labour Day on 2 May. Photograph: Rhett Hammerton/The Guardian
Adam Hamilton and Paul Higgins.
Manufacturing workers Adam Hamilton and Paul Higgins. Photograph: Rhett Hammerton/The Guardian

Paul Higgins, a manufacturing worker, says he thinks the energy transition is “an inevitable thing”.

“I think the biggest fear is that people are going to lose jobs straight away,” he says.

His mate, fellow Manufacturing Workers’ Union member Adam Hamilton says: “I’m a little bit more sceptical. I think there’s still a place for coal and there needs to be a balance in the transition.

“Sometimes I think we try to rush this, the new clean energy and all of that sort of stuff instead of slowly transitioning.”

Flynn was one of the country’s most marginal seats before the 2019 election, but is now held by the LNP by about 8%.

The state member for Callide, Colin Boyce, is running for the LNP in place of O’Dowd. Labor has chosen the popular Gladstone mayor, Matt Burnett.

One Nation polled almost 20% of the primary vote in 2019, but Pauline Hanson’s party has previously endorsed Boyce and declined to campaign against him. The LNP candidate has been a vocal supporter of the coal industry and said during the campaign that the Coalition’s net-zero commitment was a flexible, non-binding plan that leaves plenty of “wiggle room”.

‘We’d just like a plan’: Boyne Island teacher Emma Smith says she is voting the the Greens.
‘We’d just like a plan’: Boyne Island teacher Emma Smith says she is voting for the Greens. Photograph: Rhett Hammerton/The Guardian

Burnett tells the May Day rally he supports the coal industry, but that the LNP wants to “fight this on coal [alone]”.

“We want to fight this on everything.

“Even if you can’t put us first,” he told the crowd of unionists, “you’ve got to put us above the LNP, because we’ve got to get rid of Morrison.”

Emma Smith, a teacher from Boyne Island near Gladstone, says she is voting for the Greens and that real-world concerns of regional communities – such as inequality, healthcare, housing and education – have become obscured by phoney city v regions debates.

“I get it, sometimes we feel like a poor cousin to Brisbane. But I get a bit annoyed that politicians often like to say we don’t care about the same things as city people. Of course we do,” Smith says.

“We’d just like a plan. We’d like [politicians] to be upfront, acknowledge that changes are going to come, and say ‘Here’s what we think about how we’re going to tackle them’, rather than just saying that coalmines are going to be open forever.”

‘Had enough of both major parties’

The seat of Flynn covers 132,824km of central Queensland – in country that takes in broad-acre farms, coal-seam gas drilling and unionised towns at the southern end of the Queensland coalfields.

About an hour’s drive to the west of Gladstone, Cassandra Sorensen and Tamara Francis are having breakfast at a cafe in Biloela town centre. Cass says they don’t have too long to talk, she’s about to drive to Rockhampton “to hear Craig Kelly speak”.

“This is one of the most important elections I can remember, and I think the United Australia party are aligning with my values,” Sorensen says. “My whole family are union delegates, Labor voters, and there’s no way in hell I’ll vote for them again.

“There’s a lot of National party stalwarts around here who say there’s no way they’ll get their vote this time, too.”

Francis says she’s always been a Liberal and National voter, but she’s “had enough of both the major parties”.

Biloela locals Cassandra Sorensen and Tamara Francis.
Biloela locals Cassandra Sorensen and Tamara Francis. Photograph: Rhett Hammerton/The Guardian
Biloela barber Steve Bates says he’s likely to vote for a minor party.
Biloela barber Steve Bates says he’s likely to vote for a minor party. Photograph: Rhett Hammerton/The Guardian

Next door, barber Steve Bates has a chat about his signed picture of Melbourne gangster Mark “Chopper” Read. He’s also likely to vote for one of the minor parties.

“The [major parties] keep saying they’re going to do everything for us, but they won’t, they don’t.”

Albanese or Morrison? “I don’t like either of them to be honest. I don’t think major parties are going to get what we need until they lose multiple seats. It’s been the same for too long now.”

Biloela is an agricultural hub and home to the Callide coal-fired power station. The town might be better known to outsiders as the conservative community that embraced – and fought for – the Murugappan family of Tamil asylum seekers. Sorensen says many UAP and other minor party voters also support the family.

Angela Fredericks, a local psychologist who has helped lead the campaign to bring them home, says the issue has brought many of the town’s National voters to reconsider. Labor’s promise to bring them home could have an impact.

“I was a long-time LNP supporter, family background LNP, and last election was the first election I voted Labor, purely on this issue,” she says.

“I know multiple other people who, since the last election, will change their voting preferences, too.”

Biloela psychologist Angela Fredericks says she knows ‘multiple’ people who will switch their vote away from the Liberal National party this election.
Biloela psychologist Angela Fredericks says she knows ‘multiple’ people who will switch their vote away from the Liberal National party this election. Photograph: Rhett Hammerton/The Guardian

‘I would hate to see a change in government’

Even the back roads, like the one from Banana to Baralaba, are plastered with election signs. The billboards attempt to sell farming equipment, roadside motels and political candidates to weary travellers.

Barry Tucker drives his prehistoric tractor down the main road through Baralaba, population 317, to a mechanic’s workshop on Stopford Street.

Tucker has lived here for 60 years. He worked in a coalmine straight out of high school. He says many locals are opposed to plans for a new coalmine nearby, and they’re growing frustrated at the impacts of coal dust from the existing one.

“I was pretty strong for Labor, but since I’ve retired I’ve got different views on things,” says Tucker.

“I don’t reckon Labor is for the worker any more. From what I can gather with Albanese, he’s nowhere near it.

“And Morrison … have you seen that ad on TV, the one ‘That’s not my job?’ Well he’s got the dollars mate, so whose job is it?”

Farmer Barry Tucker: ‘I don’t reckon Labor is for the worker any more.’
Baralaba farmer Barry Tucker: ‘I don’t reckon Labor is for the worker any more.’ Photograph: Rhett Hammerton/The Guardian
Advertising for Colin Boyce, who is the LNP candidate for Flynn.
Roadside advertising for Colin Boyce, the LNP candidate for Flynn. Photograph: Rhett Hammerton/The Guardian

Another few hours along the Capricorn Highway, in the town centre at Emerald, Jeanette Bunting and Nancy Daniels are opening their post boxes and having a chuckle at the Liberal National party’s flyers. Both will vote for the LNP.

“For my money I would hate to see a change in government,” Bunting says.

“You need to have a great amount of expertise to do the work that needs to be done at the moment. I think the worst thing that could happen would be a hung parliament.”

Tish Ryder, who runs an engineering mechanical business in Emerald, says she’s leaning towards the United Australia party.

“I am a conservative … and I feel the [LNP] has moved more towards the left with net zero, they’ve lost me. They’re not truly representing their electorates,” she says.

“People are getting annoyed with that usual election cycle, politicians come out of the woodwork and … we’ve heard it all before. They’ll say we’re going to fix the hospital. Well, we keep hearing that every time.”

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Dive Deeper:
Queensland shows what happens when liberals desert the Liberal party
The state Liberal National party’s pursuit of conservative causes has contributed to it being all but banished from Brisbane
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Health, resources key to Labor’s pitch
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Sitting LNP member Julian Simmonds is facing a genuine three-horse race in the traditionally blue-ribbon Liberal seat, with both Labor…
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Labor demands answers on $500,000 payment to former staffer Rachelle Miller, Josh Frydenberg spruiks resilient economy
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Get all your news in one place