By CAITLIN CROWLEY
A TEAL tidal wave may be threatening blue-ribbon Liberal seats in southern states, but Groom’s incumbent MP said he didn’t expect challenges from independents in Toowoomba to cause more than a ripple.
First term backbencher Garth Hamilton is sitting on what many believe to be an insurmountable margin of 20.5 percent.
However with early voting starting tomorrow, there are some on the campaign trail sensing change in the air.
Independent candidate Kirstie Smolenski said she was constantly encountering voters who were disgruntled with the major parties and seeking an independent alternative.
“I’m talking about on the ground, grassroots, being down the street, being at the markets, being at different functions with different groups, going out to Pittsworth, Oakey, Goombungee. I’m hearing they feel neglected – they feel forgotten,” Smolenski said.
“They don’t like the toxic party politics, they don’t like the rudeness. They’re over the antics and the tactics and the missing out.”
Ms Smolenski shared multiple anecdotes about locals venting their frustrations in recent weeks, including what she said was particularly memorable phone call from a 75-year-old woman who told her she’d voted LNP all her life.
“Then she said, I can not vote for Scott Morrison. She said, as a Christian, I couldn’t vote for him. As someone who thinks he’s a Christian, I couldn’t vote for him.”
Voices of Groom independent Suzie Holt said people were tired of divisive politics.
“I witnessed it on the stage, at the candidates forum, some of the candidates perhaps getting a bit feisty, and I could see the reaction from the audience. They sort of groaned – they’ve had enough of it,” Holt said.
“They want positive representation. Someone who listens to the community, and they want that down in Canberra.
“We’re attracting people probably from the ‘small-l’ liberals and bringing over the Labor lot because people are looking for someone in the middle.
“A good, safe pair of hands, someone who represents the majority of the electorate,” Holt said.
Ms Smolenski said she’d been surprised by how many Labor voters were approaching her, who said they were also tired by the “toxicity of party politics”.
“For them, they’re just unhappy with the party. They’re unhappy with the direction the party has taken. They think that they’re soft and they’re not going to be effective,” she said.
Speaking from his electoral office on Toowoomba’s Ruthven Street, Groom MP Garth Hamilton dismissed suggestions the Liberals were losing supporters to independents locally.
“Far be it from me to get in the way of a media beat up,” Hamilton said.
“I know of two Liberal members who’ve gone across, maybe there’s three. Wow. That would make up point three of a percent. We have more booths already manned than we had in the by-election.
“I don’t know too many Liberals who would buy tickets to a Kerry O’Brien event,” Hamilton said, referring to Voices of Groom’s forum on the future of democracy.
“I laughingly call it Pied Piper syndrome – left-of-centre people thinking they can convince right-of-centre to come across and join them.
“Labor voters, are they really going to walk out on the party of Whitlam just to try and be part of this big story? I don’t think so. We’re just not seeing it on the ground”.
Mr Hamilton said, however, there had been shifts in traditional voting bases, but argued it’s not all one way.
“I would say that’s been offset by Labor’s disenfranchisement with the working class,” he said.
Labor candidate Gen Alpass said she’d been receiving support for herself – personally, as a Labor candidate, and for the party itself.
“It’s heartening to see people getting more engaged this time,” Alpass said.
“The apathy isn’t as prevalent, but still a lot of misinformation around.
“The misinformation of, don’t bother voting for Labor because they won’t be able to win, so just vote for me because I’m the only one who can knock the Liberal party off their perch.
“Yes we can win this, so that primary vote for me is very important.
“Taking those votes away on that sort of rhetoric is not good for anyone because the preference will just run back to him (Hamilton), and he’ll get in anyway.
“I’m a worthwhile candidate. Know that I am strong enough and have the ability to be able to fight for my community in all sectors, and all levels of government.”
If there is growing dissatisfaction with the two major parties in Groom, there’s no guarantee independents will be the ones to benefit.
One Nation and the United Australia Party almost picked up as many first preference votes as Labor did at the 2019 poll.
“The positive responses that we’re getting is actually overwhelming,” UAP candidate Melissa Bannister said.
“I think there’s a lot of ‘silent majority’ out there who are giving us toots and waves and thumbs up every morning when they see us doing our sign blitzes.
“I think they’re really in for a shock here.”
The Greens vote has also increased in recent years, rising to eight percent in Groom at the last election.
“People are very interested in our policies, climate policies, housing policies and raising the aged pension,” Greens candidate Mickey Berry said.
Significantly, the Greens have placed Suzie Holt second on their ‘how to vote’ cards, followed by Kirstie Smolenski, with Labor languishing in fourth spot.
“Both our independents do have a real shot this time around. Politics is flipping a little bit in Toowoomba, I think this seat is a lot more marginal this time than it has been ever before,” Berry said.
“Putting those independents second and third gives them a real shot at winning.”
While there’s unanimous agreement the contest of ideas and quality of debate seen during this campaign has been an improvement on previous elections, there are fierce rivalries and some unexpected alliances between the eight candidates.
“I think there is a nasty side to this campaign,” Gen Alpass said.
“People’s true personalities are coming out, particularly when people who have been in a privileged position in life are suddenly feeling threatened.”
The battle lines are most clearly drawn between the two independent camps.
“I have no clue why Suzie Holt has decided to run,” Kirstie Smolenski said.
“I’ve known her for a very long time and she’s never shown any interest in the community whatsoever. I am really baffled by her.
“Combined with running on her maiden name, nobody knows who she is. So I don’t believe that she’s got a chance.”
Suzie Holt said politics had been a “love” of her life, going back to university where she helped campaign for the Liberal party with her mother.
“For many years we’ve been involved in the community, probably quietly, behind the scenes,” Holt said.
She said her decision to run came about after having some involvement with the LNP’s pre-selection process before the 2020 by-election, and conversations which led to the formation of Voices for Groom.
“Certainly someone had to stand up and it was an opportunity. I’m giving it a crack,” she said.
While both independents have chosen teal among their campaign colours, they’re quick to reinforce their status as ‘genuine independents’, rejecting links to groups like Climate 200 which are bankrolling candidates in high-profile inner-city seats in Melbourne and Sydney.
“We’re running a really different campaign,” Holt said.
“We want a national strategy for the regions that would bring money back to the regions,” Holt said.
Kirstie Smolenski said: “It’s something I’m being asked a lot, are you really independent?”
“We have changed our narrative from being an independent to being a genuine independent, or an authentic independent.
“I’m backing myself, I chose that colour a couple of years ago along with purple,” which Smolenski said represented the Toowoomba violet and the city’s jacarandas.”
As for whether ‘Pied Piper syndrome’ is at play in Groom, Smolenski suggested it was Hamilton who might be surprised come election night.
“It’s no Pied Piper. They’re (voters) not following some music, they’re following what they want,” Smolenski said.
“It’s all good for democracy because that’s what we need, we need to be taken notice of.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Holt, who said more had been achieved by creating a change where people could participate.
“To have people coming out in Groom and talking about politics and engaging, talking about issues and what they want to see for the future, that’s a winner. We’ve already won.”