If you’re looking for Queensland’s most important electorate, you’ll find it just off the Bruce Highway in the suburban sprawl between the iconic old wooden houses and skyscrapers of Brisbane proper and the brilliant beaches of the Sunshine Coast. Welcome to Petrie, the Sunshine State’s most marginal seat.
If you’ve never heard of it it before, it’s probably because Petrie and its representatives have been overshadowed by the shenanigans and media profiles of MPs in neighbouring seats — Peter Slipper and Clive Palmer in Fairfax, Wyatt Roy in Longman and Peter Dutton in Dickson. It might also be because it is the least glamorous part of a state most southerners dismiss as the place where characters from Neighbours move to when they are written out of the show. Petrie is an electorate full of young families and retirees: the former keen to settle down into a place where they can buy a brand-new home for a reasonable price, the latter ready to ease into a quiet life on the Redcliffe Peninsula.
The booming part of the electorate is North Lakes, a master-planned suburb opened to buyers in the early 2000s. For around half a million dollars, you can buy a brand new three- or four-bedroom house off the plan and live within a short drive of a gigantic Westfield mall, Queensland’s only Costco and an Ikea — not to mention schools, a golf course, the beach and the Bruce Highway on-ramp. It looks like Sim City, but that's the price you pay for convenience.
Petrie has been a bellwether seat for nearly 30 years. Current LNP member Luke Howarth only won the seat by 800 votes in the 2013 election and as a result, both Labor and the Libs have been putting considerable effort (and money) into schmoozing voters. The day before I arrived, Malcolm Turnbull and Howarth did a walk-through of the North Lakes Westfield shopping mall. It's the kind of place where golliwog dolls are for sale just metres away from a government-sponsored poster of indigenous NRL footy hero Johnathan Thurston urging parents to enroll their children in kindergarten, and you can buy thongs (the shoes, not the underwear) from a shop dedicated entirely to open footwear, delightfully titled “Thong On”. It is firmly aspirational, and every single person I speak to cites the importance of jobs and growth without a shred of irony.
I approach a pair of tradies in high-vis, show them a picture of local member Luke Howarth and ask if they recognise who it is.
“Is that the leader of the other party?” asksTradie No. 1.
“I have no idea,” says No. 2.
It turns out No. 1 is enrolled in Bonner, more than 50km south of North Lakes, but doesn’t know who the MP there is either (it’s Ross Vasta).
No. 2 says he isn’t enrolled to vote at all, and won’t do anything to change that until he feels strongly enough about politics to do it.
Of course, neither of them recognise a picture of Labor’s candidate for Petrie, Jacqui Pedersen. Labor might have been the working man’s party, but with construction work drying up after the mining bust and contracting becoming the norm, it seems Labor’s traditional voting base might not be so rusted on.
The local pre-polling station is a short walk from the Westfield and has the sort of activity the pre-polling station near my place in Melbourne could only dream of. There are representatives for Liberal and Labor, Family First, the Glenn Lazarus Team and the Australian Liberty Alliance handing out how-to-vote cards, and corflutes from all major and plenty of minor parties. The ALA’s are the most striking, with the slogans “POLITICAL CORRECTNESS IS WRONG” and “PROTECT OUR DEMOCRACY FROM ISLAM” printed on one side and pictures of the candidates (including the notorious Bernard Gaynor) on the other.
“The ALA ladies are actually really nice,” says Nick Cassimatis, who manages an independent newsagency next door. “There are volunteers from other political parties who have used the shop as a thoroughfare and got a bit cranky when we asked them to remove their signs from the front of the shop, but they’ve been quite considerate.”
Luke Howarth’s mother, Denise, was handing out how-to-vote cards outside the pre-polling centre, and after I convinced her I did not work for Labor or GetUp, was more than happy to talk.
“You will not find a harder working MP than Luke,” she says, unsurprisingly. “I mean, I am his mother, but people here notice that he’s in the community. He cares. He’s not there to climb a ladder to be a career politician. People notice that things are getting done now that weren’t getting done under Labor.”
Denise has a point. While Howarth has been MP, funding for some long-promised projects have finally got the green light — most notably the laughably overdue rail line to Brisbane, a new stadium for the local footy team, and funding for a new university campus on the site of the old Petrie Paper mill.
In the evening, back in Brisbane’s South Bank, an acquaintance tells me Queensland Labor is no longer feeling optimistic about their chances in Petrie, nor the neighbouring electorate of Dickson, where Peter Dutton is the local MP.
The Queensland Maroons have already won the 2016 State of Origin, but will still go through the motions next week when they play the third and final game of the series against the NSW Blues.
As far as the election goes: the game’s not over yet, but it looks like the battle for Queensland’s most marginal seat is already in the bag. For the people of Petrie, seeing “Vote Liberal for jobs and growth” in bright blue and yellow beaming down on your food court seems like very sensible advice indeed.