While taking in the devastating election result of May 18, it has given me reason to think about my family history and how that is intertwined with the present-day challenge Labor confronts.
My grandparents lived in the northwest of Tasmania: Donald and Ma Chisholm lived in Smithton, while Reg Leary with his wife Audrey raised nine children 120km away in Sprent. They worked in the forestry industry their entire working life, as did many in the towns within the seat of Braddon.
These days, the Labor primary vote in Smithton and Sprent has dropped from 41 per cent in 2007 to 25 per cent at the federal election in which we lost the seat of Braddon, a 16-point drop since Labor last won majority government. While not many forestry workers are left in those towns, the community sentiment that Labor no longer has their best interest at heart is reflected in this declining vote.
There is a similar story in regional Queensland. Following my election as a Labor senator for Queensland at the 2016 election, I was appointed the duty senator for Dawson, a seat Labor last held in 2007-10. The seat hugs the coast from Mackay in the south to Townsville in the north and is a diverse electorate, with tourism, sugar cane, agriculture and, of course, coalmining making up significant parts of the economy.
For Labor to win the seat, I recognised it needed to lift its vote in the key population centres at each end of the electorate as well as the towns in between. I identified Bowen as one of the towns where Labor could improve its vote; there was recent history of it being a strong Labor town. Indeed, back in the 1940s the people of Bowen had elected and re-elected the only representative of the Communist Party to an Australian parliament.
Despite a concerted effort of leader visits, shadow visits, candidate visits and announcements, the Labor primary vote in Bowen has fallen from 57 per cent in 2007, when Labor last won the seat, to 20 per cent at this year’s election. The Labor primary vote has dropped 37 percentage points across the past four elections.
Since the Liberal and Nationals parties moved into a position of climate change hostility, the Labor vote in many parts of regional Australia has collapsed.
Of course, there are other reasons for the drop-off in the Labor vote during the past 10 years, including the perception of our relationship with the Greens. There is no doubt Labor’s climate change policy and ambiguity on the Adani coalmine led to just one in five Bowen locals voting Labor.
In Bowen, Adani has had a presence in town for eight years following the purchase of the Abbot Point coal terminal. The company employs locals and supports community activities.
If the Adani mine were to go ahead, it’s unlikely anyone out of Bowen would work directly at the mine, but they do anticipate the flow-on benefits. The creation of one job in Bowen is welcome, let alone the possibility of ongoing work that enables people to stay in their community and build a future for their families.
I am an advocate for Labor having strong climate change policies that differentiate ourselves from the LNP and ensure Australia meets its international obligations, but we can’t ignore the hammering regional towns have been giving Labor during the past decade.
I am very confident these regional towns would face a brighter long-term future under a Labor government, but we need to be able to assure the people in these towns that their short-term future isn’t going to be harmed by a Labor government.
When people in regional towns hear transition, they see a transition where a regional job goes, and if a transition job is created it isn’t in their town.
In his speech last week, Anthony Albanese demonstrated that he understood this challenge when he talked about Australians being anxious about facing technological change. He said: “They deserve reassurance that the future of work will help them get ahead and not fall behind.”
This is the challenge Labor has to confront. We must find a way to lower emissions without leaving regional communities behind and creating a vacuum the LNP fills with doomsday scenarios.
I’m confident of Labor’s long-term policy vision for regional Queensland and Australia, but we must get the short-term policy setting right from opposition and then prove those credentials in government for regional Australia to have confidence in that Labor vision.
Much of regional Queensland has been battered by the almost unprecedented drought, but these hardy families have not only been short-changed by the weather; six years of Coalition government has failed them with too little achieved to help out in constructive ways. Labor must face up to this challenge and win back their hearts and votes.
Anthony Chisholm is a senator for Queensland.
This was first published in the Australian on the 7th of November 2019