April 16, 2019 05:35:54
Loved or loathed — Peter Dutton is battling to hold onto his seat of Dickson in what has become a deeply divided electorate with analysts saying the Home Affairs Minister is in the political “fight of his life”.
Ron Clay may be pissed off, but he won’t say it.
“I tell you I am just cheesed off. Screwed from both sides,” he said.
A health scare cost Mr Clay his job as a security guard, now the 62-year-old can’t find another one.
“Where I am at the moment? I am in the middle of nowhere,” he said.
“I am flat out getting interviews, let alone a job, and the chances of me being employed between now and 66-and-a-half [when I can access the pension] is pretty remote.
“I do not have enough dollars in my superannuation account as it didn’t start for years after I started working.”
Mr Clay lives in a four-bedroom home at Highvale, not far from the leafy village of Samford, with his partner Sally and two dogs.
He has an Australian flag on his mantelpiece and wants his vote to count. But he has little faith in the 2019 breed of politician.
“They act like circus clowns at times,” he said.
Mr Clay says he is put off by Bill Shorten’s plan to change franking credit refunds, a system used by some to fund their retirement.
“My family has traditionally been Labor voters for years and years, but I have gone right off them now,” he said.
“And the Liberals, with the circus that has been going on with them nationally and the leadership changes, I am really cheesed off with them as well.
“To be honest if there was a decent third party I would probably be looking at them.
“I am just very disillusioned with the whole procedure.”
The line of candidates battling to oust Peter Dutton includes Independent Thor Prohaska, United Australia Party’s Stephen Austin, the Greens’ Benedict Coyne, and Labor’s Ali France, but Mr Clay still feels the voters of Dickson don’t have sufficient options.
“Who do you choose? Which is the worst of a bad bunch?”
Asked what he thinks of Peter Dutton — who’s held onto Dickson for 18 years — he defiantly says “not much”.
“The way he knifed his leader. Just from what I see I think he is a very sly character.”
Mr Clay’s sister Linda Clay recently retired from a role in medical research and she too is disillusioned.
“My feeling from the heart is I would never vote for a person that backstabs their leader — for a start I aspire to loyalty in my leadership, so I would never vote for Peter Dutton,” she said.
The Home Affairs Minister failed in his tilt for the Prime Ministership in April last year after helping to oust Malcolm Turnbull.
“People say he is a nice man? He may be, but his policies do not reflect that,” Ms Clay said.
When asked about his stance on immigration, border protection and refugees, Ms Clay doesn’t mince her words.
“I think he is a racist and he does not have much humanity,” she said.
“You cannot put people, whole families, in detention off shore for years.”
Australian National University Professor John Wanna described Mr Dutton’s battle for Dickson politically as “the fight of his life”.
But he doesn’t think his tough immigration stance is a turn-off.
“He is not a renegade member in an electorate that he should not be in, he is very much representative of a lot of the views here,” he said.
“There is a fear about too much migration, different sources of migration, that is a potent issue here in this electorate.
“Anyone who says we want stronger borders, or we want more limited migration intake, [that] does not make them a racist.”
‘It’s always been a close contest’
The seat of Dickson takes in established suburbs like Albany Creek, new housing estates in Warner, and semi-rural areas like Samford — popular with hobby farmers and tree-changers.
Most of its residents work fulltime, with a household income higher than the national average.
But census data shows mortgage repayments and rents are higher too.
It takes about a half an hour to get to Brisbane by train from the southern part of the electorate, but most people drive to work.
In the 1990s, no MP could hold on to the seat for more than one term — including former Democrats Leader Cheryl Kernot, who had sensationally defected to Labor.
But for the past six elections, Peter Dutton has been impossible to dislodge.
He scraped in by just 217 votes in the Rudd landslide in 2007 and after a swing against him at the last election, Mr Dutton now has a margin of just 1.7 per cent.
“We’ve been able to hold this seat I think through hard work and through an understanding of what the priorities are locally for our residents,” Mr Dutton said.
“We’ve done internal polling and I’m happy with where we are.
“It’s always been a close contest.”
Inside his electorate office on a suburban shopping strip in Strathpine, Mr Dutton is keen to talk about the local projects he has secured funding for, such as more carparks at a train station, and the duplication of an overpass.
He is less keen to talk about the impacts of his 2018 leadership bid, which succeeded in ousting Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister, but failed to win Mr Dutton the keys to the lodge.
“I just think people move on very quickly,” he said.
“All of that’s in the past and for me this election is really about what I can deliver today and over the next three years and beyond for my electorate.”
He thinks the change of leader caused short-term pain, but long-term gain for the Coalition.
“I think going into Christmas it was quite a dire situation.
“My sense is that the mood on the ground has turned quite markedly.”
An undecided voter
But the mood hasn’t turned for small business owner and mother of five, Merendi Leverett.
“I feel like him in particular, and the other politicians, are all behaving like school kids and I do not know if I can trust them,” she said.
Ms Leverett said she has been left “disillusioned and frustrated” by what she sees happening in Canberra.
“I do not like the whole backstabbing with his role in getting rid of Malcolm Turnbull,” she said.
“I am not one of those sorts of people. I like to be upfront and honest and I think that is what politics has to be.”
The exercise physiologist lives with her partner in a Ferny Hills “renovator’s delight” that they’re still saving to do up.
“We are being squeezed from every inch,” she said.
Ms Leverett had to sack her entire staff after rising costs made it impossible to keep her practice open.
She now runs her business part-time as a sole operator from home, and makes up wages by working at a university-based sport and exercise clinic.
“It is pretty tough. I found initially when I went back to have further children it was tough having to take time off work,” she said.
“We struggled quite a lot because we are in that middle-income bracket.
“So we did not qualify for any assistance from Centrelink, but we were down an income.”
Sophie, 4, Will, 14, Caitlin, 11, Merendi Leverett, Lachlan, 2, and Alex, 14. (ABC News: Scott Kyle)
She said her family feels like the “forgotten Australians” — middle income families who pay their fair share of tax but struggle to make ends meet.
The soaring cost of living, power, food and transport, coupled with low wage growth stretch the family budget.
Tax relief and electricity rebates are driving Ms Leverett’s vote.
But even though promises have been made ahead of May’s poll, she has little faith in politicians delivering the reforms.
“I am at a loss, I don’t know who to vote for any more,” she said.
“I am not happy with either major party.
“Each says they are going to do something but once they are elected they do not always follow through on their promises.
“I guess coming from a health background, there have been lots of promises to make changes providing more services for people, increasing rebates under Medicare, that type of thing, but it never happens.
“I’d like to see some really good changes in terms of supporting middle income earners, especially those who are running their own small business.”
Between now and May 18 Ms Leverett said she will study up on the LNP’s budget promises and Labor’s family policies.
Her vote could go either way.
Labor’s Ali France is Mr Dutton’s main opponent at this election.
The former journalist lost her leg in an horrific accident in a shopping centre car park in 2011.
Since then, she’s gone on to represent Australia in outrigger canoeing and has worked in the palliative care sector.
“We are absolutely the underdog in this race,” she said.
“He has had this seat for 18 years. He is a senior minister. He has a bucket full of cash to splash.”
Ms France has set up her campaign office just a few hundred metres down the road from Mr Dutton’s in Strathpine.
There was no shortage of empty shops along Gympie Road to choose from.
“The things people talk to me about are the fact that their wages aren’t going up, that they are struggling to pay the bills,” she said.
“They want to see more funding into their local schools. They want health services that are closer to home and they also want action on climate change.”
But she doesn’t live in the electorate — a fact Mr Dutton sought to capitalise on, only to have it backfire.
Mr Dutton apologised last week after suggesting Ms France was using her disability as an “excuse” for not living in Dickson.
“A lot of people have raised this with me. I think they are quite angry that Ms France is using her disability as an excuse for not moving into our electorate,” he had told the Australian.
Ms France has said if she was elected she would move to Dickson.
“Of course I will be living in the electorate. I work in the electorate, my office is in the electorate and my house, which is set up for my wheelchair, is five minutes from the boundary of Dickson,” Ms France said.
“I have searched high and low for a wheelchair accessible house in the electorate.
“If I am fortunate enough to represent the people of Dickson, I will have to buy a home and renovate it so that it is accessible.
“Unlike my opponent who has nine houses, one of which is in the electorate, I have just one house that has been built to accommodate my disability.”
GetUp! make Dutton a ‘strategic target’
Mr Dutton’s opponents not only include other candidates, but a well-organised campaign from activist group GetUp!.
His current and former roles as Home Affairs and Immigration Minister, and conservative views, have made him a political scalp that his rivals would love to claim.
About 350 GetUp! volunteers are calling and doorknocking the length and breadth of the electorate, urging a vote for anyone but Mr Dutton.
Campaign Director Ruby-Rose O’Halloran said Dickson is the key Queensland seat the organisation will be targeting, with a budget of around $200,000.
“We’ve judged that Peter Dutton as the leader and the most powerful member of that hard-right faction is probably the most strategic target for us,” she said.
“So the way we see it a parliament without Peter Dutton sitting in it is one that will be able to make a lot more progress, pass policy that is a lot more progressive, on all of the issues that we want to see change.”
First-time volunteer Trea Ryan grew up in Dickson, but now lives in the city.
She’s giving up her Saturday afternoon to doorknock homes in Arana Hills for GetUp!.
“People are quite disengaged but you can see why because politicians are behaving pretty badly.”
Ms Ryan is no fan of Mr Dutton and thinks his time in office is almost up.
“From the general vibe, I think people have heard enough about him. They don’t like what he’s up to, what he did to Malcolm Turnbull, and I feel like maybe there’s a change about to happen.”
Mr Dutton dismisses GetUp! as a “left-wing extreme protest group”, hungry for publicity.
“They seek to taint me,” he said.
“They run all sorts of propaganda but again I think you just dismiss all of that and get on with your job.”
In 2017, Mr Dutton said he’d raised $650,000 in campaign donations since GetUp! took him on.
But he won’t reveal how much more he has collected for his election war chest since then.
“We’re not going to telegraph punches to our opponents as you’d understand, but we’ll communicate messages effectively.”
The conservative voter
Mr Dutton has the vote of Lawnton Cafe owner Graham Scott — a rusted-on conservative.
But Mr Scott knows with the sitting MP’s fragile margin, now around 1.7 per cent after the redistribution, his head is on the guillotine.
“I am now concerned because I do see a lot of negative and I do not see a lot of positive. I don’t see a lot of people backing him up for what he is good at,” he said.
“I think a lot of people are disillusioned and he will cop a backlash because of that.
“Overall the man has done a good job but I do believe he is in some trouble.”
The 52-year-old hears a lot of people’s opinions at his suburban coffee shop.
“You’d be surprised how many customers talk about politics,” he said.
Mr Scott believed Mr Dutton’s role in knifing Malcolm Turnbull had won him few friends locally.
“It might be enough for some people not to trust him now, but unfortunately he is in that game and still has to play some politics,” he said.
“I know he has been ostracised because of certain things, but in the long run politicians have to make decisions for the betterment of everybody and can’t please everyone all of the time.”
Griffith University Political commentator Dr Paul Williams said Mr Dutton was certainly a polarising figure.
“He has his great devotees in the seat of Dickson and people who absolutely loathe him,” he said.
“He is admired by some for his conviction politics. He takes a certain ideological stand on certain things like border protection.
“And of course he is equally disliked by those on the other side of the fence for those same reasons like he is a politician that is lacking a bit of humanity.”
Dr Williams said everyone from moderate Liberals to Labor and Green voters would see him as a “party wrecker” and “disloyal” over the ousting of Mr Turnbull.
“That will cost him votes dearly,” he said.
Dr Williams said he believes the campaign to unseat the sitting member is going to get “pretty ugly”.
“GetUp! campaigned pretty assiduously against Peter Dutton in 2016 and they have committed a lot more money and a lot more time and resources to Dickson this time around.
“Which just adds to Mr Dutton’s woes.”
The millennial vote
At Lawnton’s local Crown n Arrow the craft beers are flowing and the live music is blaring.
At a table of seven early-20 somethings, three had no idea who their local member was.
The others had very strong views about the local MP and federal minister who just scraped in at the last election in 2016 by about 1,500 votes.
They joked about lodging “donkey votes” and asking their parents who they should pick.
Alana Scott an outdoor education specialist, said she had no idea a federal election was even looming.
“Not at all. Probably won’t think about it until the night before,” she said.
“I mostly follow what my parents are doing.”
Courtney Flanders also admitted to being a little disengaged politically.
“Don’t give it much thought, just what I see on Facebook,” she laughed.
Although when pressed, the aged care worker admitted a party that promised better funding in her field may get her nod.
“That is my main concern because it is most relevant to me, for what I do,” she said.
Two young electricians sipping their favourite craft brew will definitely be voting Labor — their families have never supported anyone else.
“I just think Liberal make rich richer and poor poorer and Labor stick up for the little guy, the working class,” Joshua Wilson said.
His biggest concern was housing affordability, and easier access to the first homeowners’ grant.
“It is really hard for us to get ahead and we do not get the support that everyone else does,” he said.
Connor Goodall nodded in agreement.
“I know where I stand with Labor, Liberal not so much,” he said.
Like his mates, he gets his news off Facebook. He knew all about Mr Dutton’s role in ousting Mr Turnbull from the top job.
“It made Australian politics look like a bit of a shambles to be honest, let’s get real,” he said.
“Listening to it I thought we are the laughing stock of the world right now.”
He was also well aware of the One Nation sting by Al Jazeera and the “on the sauce” behaviour by Steve Dickson and James Ashby.
“Idiots the lot of them, that is all I have to say. They are a pack of morons.”
‘I want to make my vote count’
The most engaged millennials at the table were friends from school, Mitch Verco and Jess Anderson.
They both work in the community sector helping the disadvantaged.
“NDIS, young people, climate change. I think they are really important, I do not pay much attention to things like local traffic issues,” Ms Anderson said.
“I do not think I really agree with Bill Shorten or Scott Morrison, so I am probably leaning more towards Greens.”
Mr Verco said policies on climate change and funding for community services would sway his vote.
“I do not know who the local members are and what they stand for,” he admitted.
“I will do a bit of a read up beforehand but at the moment I have not made my mind up.
“In saying that, I still want to make my vote to count.”
- Reporters: Lexy Hamilton-Smith and Melinda Howells
- Producer: Nick Wiggins
- Photographs: Tim Swanston and staff
- Digital Editor: Heidi Davoren