Of all the seats in Queensland to poll, why in God’s name would you pick Lilley? This was the question asked by William Bowe last week in his blog The Poll Bludger. Bowe is one of Australia’s growing band of influential on-line psephologists. He was perplexed by the decision of a Brisbane newspaper to poll Wayne Swan’s Labor-held seat of Lilley rather than one of Queensland’s volatile seats more likely to change hands in the 24 November election.
The poll was taken by Galaxy for Brisbane’s Sunday Mail on 28 October. It showed Swan’s primary support has risen 10 per cent since the last election - no great surprise, given the Labor swings elsewhere. So why “in God’s name” poll there? A clue to the answer is that the Mail, a News Ltd publication, is more likely to publish a poll in Mammon’s name rather than God’s.
While the electoral focus of William Bowe and the other psephologists is firmly on the key marginal and “bellwether” seats, they sometimes forget the rest of the country is also going to the polls. Bowe acknowledges that a Brisbane monopoly newspaper such as the Mail has to consider every area equally. And Lilley does have a star attraction, If the polls are right, and Labor does win the election, then this seat will be held by the man Kevin Rudd said would be the next Federal Treasurer.
Wayne Swan won the seat by a margin of 5.4 per cent in the 2004 election. Lilley remains, notionally at least, a Labor marginal seat. And it is not an entirely fanciful notion. Named for the 19th century premier of Queensland, Sir Charles Lilley, the seat takes in about 140 square kilometres (pdf) of inner north-eastern bayside suburbs. It is bounded clockwise by the Brisbane River, Breakfast Creek, Webster Road, Cabbage Tree Creek, North Pine River and Moreton Bay. Lilley is mostly residential but also includes industrial areas as well as Brisbane Airport, the Boondall Wetlands and Brisbane’s two racecourses. The seat is roughly analogous to the Brisbane council wards of Hamilton, Northgate and Deagon.
Prior to European settlement, the area was home to the Oondunbi people. They used the lands for food gathering, camping, meetings, conflicts and burials. The first Europeans to arrive were Moravian missionaries who established the German station in Nundah in 1838. They were followed four years later by lay settlers who lusted for the Oondunbi lands and forced them off.
Slowly Brisbane spread its tentacles. Mass settlement took off thanks to public transport. The railway to Sandgate opened in 1882 and it was followed by trams to Ascot in 1899. Today, Lilley has an ageing and mostly Anglo-Irish population. While annual family incomes in the leafier suburbs of Ascot and Clayfield are above the Brisbane average, the industrial belt suburbs of the electorate are below the city’s average.
This demographic mix has seen the seat held by all major parties over the years. Wayne Swan first won in 1993 but was unseated in the Howard landslide election win in 1996. He won the seat back from the Liberals two years later and has increased his margin in every election since. He puts his success down to good local knowledge and hard work. “I think I understand the area well, I’ve spent a lot of time working here and getting extensive knowledge of the community,” he said. “A federal electorate is a large area and it takes time to get to know it.”
Greens’ candidate Simon Kean-Hammerson is also taking the time to get to know his electorate. Born in Kenya, he grew up in Victoria and Sydney and moved to Brisbane in the early 1990s. He has lived in Lilley ever since. Kean-Hammerson was immediately attracted to the friendliness of the area. “Brisbane was a lovely cosmopolitan town with great potential for business” he said. “You walked down a street and someone would smile at you. I didn’t see that down south”. The Galaxy poll puts his support at seven per cent.
The Liberal candidate is 33 year old accountant Scott McConnel. He was the only person to apply for Liberal preselection in Lilley. McConnel told the Sunday Mail in May he faced "an uphill battle" to win the seat. The Galaxy poll bears this out with his support at just 32 per cent. McConnel did not comment on the poll and he also refused to make himself available to interview for this article.
His reluctance to go on the record is matched by several Brisbane-based Liberal candidates. Democrat Senator Andrew Bartlett has noted the consistent non-appearance of Liberal candidates at public pre-election forums. Dr Jason Wilson, convenor of the citizen journalism website Youdecide2007, is also frustrated by the problem. He says the Liberals have repeatedly broken appointments and not returned calls. “We thought it might be us after Herbert MP Peter Lindsay gave us an unguarded interview that was picked up by the Fairfax Press,” he said. “But it looks more like the Liberals don’t trust their members who aren’t A-list performers to deliver”.
Back in Lilley, Wayne Swan is happy to talk. He said the secret of his success was a common-sense approach. “I work hard, am disciplined and I like to get results.” Former Labor leader Mark Latham was no fan of these characteristics and The Latham Diaries described Swan as a “robot”, “careerist” and a “machine man”. Swan sees it differently. “The reason I’m in politics,” he said, “is that I want to make a difference to my local community and my country”.
His confidence is growing and he impressed with a solid performance in his debate on Tuesday with Treasurer Peter Costello. If Galaxy is right, the local community agree more with Swan’s assessment of himself rather than Latham’s. Lilley looks set to reward him with a handsome majority in November. It may not be an obvious seat to poll, but it does say Lilley is ready to back Wayne Swan as their local Treasurer.