“Excuse me,” I said to the nice young man in the ALP t-shirt. “Are you Rhys, Ali France’s campaign manager?”
“No,” he said, with a slightly fixed smile. “I’m the Queensland Health Minister.”
At this point I should have turned on my heel, driven to the airport and flown out. After that promising start, my day in the electorate of Dickson — home of Peter Dutton — went steadily downhill.
It started with a trip to a primary school, where Labor candidate Ali France was handing out how-to-votes. I hung around for a while, trying to work out how the voters navigated the large numbers of volunteers from the fringe parties for which Queensland is responsible. As each person walked along, they had to fend off the febrile attentions of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party, the Australian Conservatives, Fraser Anning and his cohorts and, of course, the Palmersaurus himself. What is it about this state that produces so many outliers? Is it the UV?
Ali France, on the last day of a gruelling election campaign, said she was very proud of her team’s positive messaging on climate change, cheaper child care, dental treatment for pensioners and lower out of pocket costs for cancer patients. Her biggest obstacle, she said, was Dutton’s incumbency: “he is a very high-profile minister and he has been here for 18 years”.
One of the booth workers estimated that the Liberal Party had spent more than a million dollars on campaign advertising and materials in their quest to get Dutton, on a wafer-thin margin, over the line.
Every household in the electorate had received about 50 pieces of Liberal Party direct mail, she said, and the electorate was plastered with unnervingly large photographs of the minister, spruiking his ability to spend zillions of dollars on a highway.
And boy, do the people of Dickson love their highways! All 110,000 residents basically live in a series of suburbs bisected by dinosaur-sized roads and — a Queensland trademark — giant roundabouts. In my marathon driving stint around the electorate I didn’t see a single roadside shop or pedestrian on a footpath; if you live there, you basically have to get in your car and drive to a shopping centre to buy milk. Dicksonians, you don’t need more roads — you need a community.
By midday I had driven to the Strathpine shopping mall to go to the Coffee Club, not knowing that this would be the culinary peak of my day.
Next stop was another primary school, where the AEC had kindly allowed journalists in to film the boxes being opened and the start of the vote count. It was fascinating to see the tsunami of voting papers cascade out of the boxes and into the hands of AEC staffers who smoothed them out, checked to see they weren’t informal and sorted them into piles, removing those which simply had drawings of penises (a surprisingly common occurrence, evidently). It was democracy in action, overseen by the scrutineers from the major parties who check the votes.
From there, I headed back to Strathpine. Outside Dutton HQ, a converted service station, the reptiles of the press hung about waiting for him to turn up while keeping a careful count of the number of times “cocksucker” was shouted from a passing car.
According to the AEC stats, Dutton’s electors are older, whiter and more affluent than the average Australian. The party faithful inside mirrored that profile: a sea of Anglo-Celtic people in blue t-shirts set off by heads of silver hair. Ali France’s father, a former Queensland Labor member, told me he had been handing out leaflets in the expensive end of the electorate where the mood was hostile opposition to Labor’s removal of franking credits. This particular issue had really grabbed their attention, he said, although they were people for whom $3000 was clearly not a large sum.
Finally, Dutton arrived and made a point of quoting Paul Keating: “this is the sweetest victory of all”.
After thanking his volunteers and family, he turned on the Labour Party, saying that “tonight, the people of Dickson have rejected their negative campaigning”.
“The people of Dickson have bestowed on me a great honour… This is a wonderful community in which to live.”
Queensland; it’s not another state, it’s another planet.
Is Queensland really such an outlier in Australian politics? Send your thoughts to [email protected].