A week ago, on April 28, 150 businesspeople paid $50 each to attend the first ever Toowoomba Chamber of Commerce federal candidates’ forum in Groom, the second-safest seat in the nation. It’s the only candidates’ forum the sitting MP, Garth Hamilton, will attend. He’s boycotting the others – four open mics for audience questions across the vast electorate – claiming bias because Robin Grundon, the president of the organisers, the Toowoomba Business Networkers, has publicly switched his support from the Liberal National Party to independent Suzie Holt.
At the chamber of commerce event, the compere sits Hamilton next to Holt. Questioners test him on why Groom should stay safe when it gets nothing for the loyalty. He has no answers on how to fix the jobs, skills and affordable housing crisis. He and Labor candidate Gen Allpass trade barbs on whether the state or federal government is to blame for Toowoomba not getting a desperately needed new public hospital to service 600,000 people from Glen Innes in northern New South Wales to Kingaroy up north.
Holt grabs the microphone. She has confirmed with the state government that a new hospital was not on its radar: it was clearly up to Groom to make it happen and she was in discussions for a public–private partnership proposal.
Several attendees give her their business cards and request a meeting. Holt’s husband, Miles Brodie, an anaesthetist, rushes over to me with a piece from the local paper, The Chronicle, that has just gone online. It elevated a subscriber survey into an “exclusive poll” showing 22 per cent of LNP voters and 30 per cent of Labor voters in the seat had switched to Holt. Three experts proclaimed the seat one to watch on election night.
The cause of the split in the LNP-dominated establishment was the shock preselection before the 2020 byelection of Hamilton, an unknown hard-right newbie to the region and friend of the Nationals’ climate change denying senator Matt Canavan.
Hamilton replaced incumbent John McVeigh, son of longstanding Groom MP Tom McVeigh. John McVeigh had voted yes to same-sex marriage despite Groom voting no 51-49 per cent, and members of the powerful Christian fundamentalist right responded by joining the Groom LNP branch. When McVeigh resigned, Canavan mused he might stand for preselection, and a motion was put to designate Groom a Nationals seat rather than a Liberal one. When the branch rejected the two female candidates endorsed by Scott Morrison and chose the unknown Hamilton, several members resigned while others formed a third Liberal-dominated branch.
Holt had retired from social work to raise her two daughters, manage her husband’s medical practice and become a trustee for the Empire Theatres Foundation, which supports performing arts in the region. She was asked by moderates to join the LNP and stand for preselection. Instead Holt, Brodie and their two daughters sat round the kitchen table in their grand old Toowoomba Queenslander and formed Voices of Groom, the only Queensland Voices group.
They threw a party to launch it, inviting people of all political colours to an evening of civil discussion. Bigger parties followed and finally they settled on a platform: integrity, enterprise, representation and science (read climate change).
Voices of Groom asked several prominent establishment figures to stand as its independent candidate. All said no – there was no chance of winning and there would be retribution for the candidate in a region where everyone knows where the power is and works within it, where no one talks politics because it is what it is.
So Holt stood.
Her team decided to have nothing to do with Climate 200 – any association would kill her campaign before it began. The southerner thing. The city elites in Sydney and Melbourne thing. Instead, they built an all local, all volunteer campaign initially financed by local doctors and supported by establishment lawyers and businesspeople giving donations in kind – an office to work in, campaign merchandise design, video production. The slogan: #GrowingGroomTogether.
The first indication Holt had caused an itch for the LNP was a hit job in Murdoch’s Brisbane daily, The Courier Mail. Headlined “Voices you can’t trust and rebels without a clue”, the piece seized on a podcast interview I had done with Holt, falsely claiming that an Extinction Rebellion member was on her campaign. It did not report that her core team were ex-LNP members and instead quoted Canavan saying that having any contact with Extinction Rebellion was the left-wing equivalent of an LNP politician “getting support from the KKK”. On Facebook, Canavan wrote that Holt, who has lived in Toowoomba since 1993, was not a “true local” and was funded by “outside, cashed-up, radical activists”.
Holt’s lawyer wrote to Canavan enclosing a letter from her stating she’d voted for John McVeigh, her only out-of-Groom support was former Groom LNP chair John White, who was retiring to the Sunshine Coast, and her campaign was entirely funded by locals.
The public lies stopped. But a whispering campaign began, including personal phone calls where voters were told Holt was funded by Climate 200.
No wonder: prominent local developer Michael McNab swapped two huge posters on his CBD building, which he would usually use to endorse the LNP, to two for Holt. Acting on a complaint, the Australian Electoral Commission asked him to take them down because they were too close to the commission’s office.
The first public proof that Holt’s campaign had legs came on March 15, when 200 people attended a function at the Empire Theatre annex to hear Cathy McGowan, Kerry O’Brien, local orthopaedic surgeon Dr Edward Barui and Everald Crompton, originator of the long-delayed Inland Rail network project, discuss the state of our democracy and how independents could change the game.
That morning McGowan, the co-founder of Australian Women in Agriculture, spoke at a breakfast where many big name women in the sector showed up. She spoke of the parliamentary inquiry she and John McVeigh had organised to propose an Australian regional policy only to see it die without action. Holt pledged to revive the idea in Canberra and develop an agriculture vision for Groom with their help. She later pledged to oppose any new coal or coal seam gas (CSG) mining in the Darling Downs and back farmers enraged by the proposed route of the Inland Rail project.
Holt’s task is not just to win the votes of disenfranchised progressive Liberals and small businesses desperate for a vision for Groom but also rural conservatives. She regularly visited the outlying rural towns of Oakey and Pittsworth, unused to any attention since 80 per cent of voters live in Toowoomba, and earned extensive coverage in the Oakey Champion and The Pittsworth Sentinel.
The second indication of the itch: Hamilton followed her to Oakey to have his photo taken with the owner of Oakey’s electrical store, mimicking Holt’s photo with the owner the week before.
The third was unheard of in Groom: election promises of $1.3 million for flood mitigation and seed funding for a Toowoomba Railway Parklands precinct. “Working together,” Hamilton wrote in a flyer, “will help grow our region.” On Tuesday, another $50,000 was announced to provide the showgrounds with solar lighting.
Last Saturday, grazier Frank Ashman hosted Holt at his Brymaroo property an hour west of Toowoomba, with support from multiple Oakey businesses, including Ray White Real Estate, Oakey Rural Supplies and Oakey Electrical, and several farming groups. Some attendees were members of the Oakey Coal Action Alliance, fighting an extension of the controversial Acland coalmine in the courts. Others came on the recommendation of friends and neighbours, having been told Holt was worth a listen.
Ashman switched from the LNP when he stood for One Nation in a state seat years ago, believing Pauline Hanson stood up for the little guy. He says since then Hanson has “been corrupted by the system and now backs coal and CSG here … Suzie talks our language because she talks about agriculture.”
Holt says she has to prove she can get things done, that new power could unleash the potential of a “stuck” Groom. She convinced a high-profile Queensland musician to consider buying a CBD building and seeking local investment in a major music venue to revive a CBD in deep trouble since the pandemic. Word got around – an LNP councillor asked for an invite to a meeting to discuss the plan and said he’d be happy to be photographed with Holt. A leading publican from a prominent family asked to attend, too, invited her to lunch, and said he’d put Hamilton last.
The night after the big forum, the Toowoomba Business Networkers held a second forum in Labor heartland, the Club Toowoomba bowls club. As in Oakey the previous week, only four candidates attended – the anti-vax candidates from One Nation, the United Australia Party and the Australian Federation Party, and Suzie Holt.
Sixty people gathered. One yelled “Name ’em and shame ’em” when the host advised that others were “unable to attend”. When speeches were done, angry voters who’d lost their jobs or refused the Covid-19 vaccine jeered when Holt said she was glad mandates would end soon but that she supported their continuation for healthcare workers. She was howled down when she tried to elicit their personal stories.
When it was over Holt approached each questioner and settled in for discussion on what they could agree on, while her husband conversed with the Federation Party’s Ryan Otto and others for an hour, responding to their anti-vax arguments and explaining why he thought it inadvisable to treat Covid-19 with ivermectin. A young male anti-vaxxer told Holt he’d preference her “because you showed up and listened to me”.
Only One Nation candidate Grant Abraham was not explicit on preferences. Holt won’t preference; the UAP’s Melissa Bannister and Otto said they’d put the big parties last. Abraham said head office decided his how-to-vote card due to “strategy” and stressed voters could preference whoever they liked. Next day the LNP and One Nation confirmed the hard-right party would preference every LNP candidate in exchange for LNP senate preferences, giving it the chance of a second senate seat. Hamilton gave One Nation his second preference, while Labor and the Greens preferenced Holt.
She can’t win, of course, can she? Still, the Groom campaign is now a fight – there are daily stories in The Chronicle and on Seven and Nine local news; donations are pouring in to allow Holt to fund radio and TV spots in the home straight.
Holt told me at the end of my visit: “In my 51st year, I’ve overcome my nerves to do public speaking for the first time, met voters across the electorate and shaken it up in Groom. People are discussing politics and imagining a vision for our region, and that’s a win in my book.”
Margo Kingston has closely followed Holt’s campaign and covers it on Twitter and at No Fibs.
Ahead of the election, The Saturday Paper surveyed readers on which issues they wanted to see covered in more detail. This piece is part of a series based on your responses.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 7, 2022 as "Voices carry".
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