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The battle for Brisbane

Political parties Elections Queensland

Before Saturday’s poll, commentators speculated that the election result would be the outcome of not one national campaign, but of many small, local campaigns, fought out in seats around Australia. On polling day, however, voters delivered very little of the anticipated volatility, giving John Howard a national swing of more than 3 per cent.

But the inner-northern seat of Brisbane defied the national trend. Incumbent Arch Bevis, who has held the seat since 1990 and was one of just two Labor members to retain their seat in the drubbing of 1996, improved his margin from 1 per cent to a more comfortable 3 per cent. It’s revealing to look at why.

Stretching from the rapidly gentrifying inner-city suburbs of New Farm, Paddington, Red Hill and Wilston to suburban Ferny Grove, and taking in the CBD, the electorate of Brisbane is highly diverse. Although it encompasses significant numbers of high and middle income households, a substantial proportion of the local population survives on statutory or very low incomes. The defence force’s Gallipoli Barracks at Enoggera cuts a swathe through this electorate, and is an important influence on the local population.

Like other parts of south-east Queensland, Brisbane is experiencing rapid population growth. So significant, in fact, that 12,000 voters were redistributed to adjacent seats when boundaries were redrawn last year - and this traditionally Labor seat became one of Labor’s Queensland marginals.

Over the past decade, households seeking the considerable amenity afforded by public transport and close proximity to the city have flocked to renovate those iconic Queenslander houses that characterise this part of Brisbane, and to snap up blocks created by sub-dividing large ‘32 perch’ (810 square metre) lots for housing. Property values in the electorate have escalated. Even modest traditionally working class suburbs like Stafford, Keperra and Mitchelton have been swept up in the recent property boom.

On the river and close to the city, apartment blocks proliferate. In these areas an eclectic mix of empty-nesters, urban professionals and Generation Xers have joined (and in many cases displaced) traditional residents, attracted to the restaurants, cafes and other amenities that Brisbanites claim make this Australia’s most liveable city. Further out, new subdivisions bordering established suburbs have attracted young families. This growing population and questions about the capacity of local infrastructure saw the candidates focus on traffic and roads - issues that dominated the recent Brisbane City Council elections, but are not the province of federal governments. Improving traffic flows was a key theme of the local Liberal campaign.

With a large population of families, and a wave of renovation underway, mortgages weigh heavily in the considerations of voters in this electorate. Moving around the suburbs during the campaign, my impression was that the prime minister’s scare campaign on interest rates had bitten, and that small business owners - of whom there are many - were apprehensive about how a Latham Labor government might handle the economy. Talkback radio, letters to the editor and my discussions around the place in the weeks leading up to polling day suggested that the ‘soccer’ and ‘school’ mums were sceptical of Latham’s economic credentials. ‘It will be a disaster for our (consulting) business,’ one told me. ‘We’ll have to move offshore’.

It seemed Labor had also failed to cut through on issues of health. A group of older ladies I bailed up at a local bus-stop were unimpressed by the Medicare Gold package. ‘How will he pay for it?’ they asked. Bulk billing rates have fallen substantially in Brisbane, but the electorate is well served by both public and private hospitals and the city’s specialists - their surgeries concentrated around Wickham Terrace at Spring Hill and the Wesley hospital at Auchenflower - are accessible in theory if not in practice.

This electorate has a surfeit of high-profile politicians. New Liberal Lord Mayor of Brisbane, Campbell Newman lives locally, as does Democrats Leader Senator Andrew Bartlett. Premier Peter Beattie is the local member, and he was upbeat on Saturday as he and his wife Heather queued in the sun at the polling booth at the local state school. There’s something refreshingly egalitarian about the Premier of Queensland lining up with the rest of us and waiting to cast his ballot. Beattie is at his best when out with ordinary people: there was no sign that the controversy surrounding the tragic death of the Energex CEO , Greg Maddock, had diminished the value of Beattie’s support for his federal colleague.

Perhaps as a consequence of the Enoggera military base, young military men have emerged as a new conservative force in this part of Brisbane. Campbell Newman, son of former Liberal Ministers (the late) Kevin (Fraser government) and Jocelyn Newman (Howard government), is a graduate of the Royal Military College Duntroon. His brother-in-law, East Timor peace-keeper Seb Monsour, outpolled Bevis on the primary vote in the 2001 campaign. Major Nick Withycombe, on leave from the Australian Army for the campaign, ran for the Nationals, though he could easily have been a Family First candidate. Withycombe embarrassed the Coalition early in the campaign when he questioned how high-profile Liberal candidate Dr Ingrid Tall, who is openly gay, could stand up for ‘family values’. Tall’s pre-selection seemed to antagonise some local Liberals, several of whom I saw distributing National how-to-vote cards on Saturday. Withycombe improved the Nationals primary vote by more than 1 per cent - about the same margin by which the Liberal primary vote declined.

Of the nine candidates that ran for the seat of Brisbane, Ingrid Tall was the most interesting and certainly the most visible. The former Queensland AMA president ran an energetic campaign: she was quite literally everywhere. Her visibility and local recognition a stark contrast to the prosaically low-key Arch Bevis.

But Tall’s sexuality, which she claimed was irrelevant to voters, may have cruelled her chances of making this a tougher contest for Bevis. The issue was widely canvassed in the newspapers and on local radio and must have damaged her prospects. Evangelical Christian right party Family First refused to direct preferences to Tall because of her ‘lifestyle’. The party, which had posters plastered all over the electorate - in front yards, vacant office buildings, and its stickers proudly displayed on cars - attracted 2.46 per cent of the primary vote, slightly more than One Nation in 2001. As expected, most of their support came from the outer suburbs. As elsewhere, the Democrats were big losers in Brisbane, their support declining by more than 7 per cent.

While Bevis enjoyed a 5 per cent swing on primary votes and picked up preferences from the Greens, who polled more than 9 per cent (an increase of 2.5 per cent on 2001), there are longer-term challenges for the ALP in retaining this seat. Aside from crucial questions over the Labor Party’s future, the recent redistribution, voter volatility and the changing dynamics of Brisbane’s demography will require a proactive strategy in which the personality and profile of the member can be expected to become increasingly important. In the neighbouring seats of Lilley and Griffith, Wayne Swan and Kevin Rudd have each developed a national profile while building local support. Both are seen as tireless federal members who take nothing for granted at home. In the context of his party’s devastating defeat, Bevis will take comfort from the result in Brisbane, but he needs to improve his profile and visibility around the electorate if Labor is to hold Brisbane in 2007.

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