I AM A born and raised Toowoomba resident, although after finishing my degree at our local University of Southern Queensland, I moved away, never intending to return (as so many young people do in regional Australia). I never thought I could live here again – my views had become more progressive, and my perception was that Toowoomba was a conservative and inward-looking place that lacked opportunities for the future.
It turns out I was wrong…
Circumstances saw me return to Toowoomba with my young family in late 2019 – just before COVID19 changed all our lives. As we emerged from the worst of the pandemic shock, I began my quest to reintegrate in Toowoomba, meet new people and make likeminded friends.
I first met Suzie Holt in January 2021 after several mutual Twitter conversations morphed into DMs and eventually a coffee meeting to discuss the Voices of Groom movement. I must admit, it was astonishing to discover a small, passionate network in the community who shared my views about the lack of quality representation in Groom and disenchantment with the two-party system.
Since that first meeting, and the realisation that change is possible, I’ve seen my hometown through a different lens. Even this small glimmer of hope has changed my perspective about the immense possibilities of this beautiful region – if only we had a federal representative that truly listened to, understood, and believed in our greatest asset – our people.
We are not alone
That was proven last night when two-hundred residents turned out at the beautiful Empire Theatre in Toowoomba to launch Suzie Holt 4 Groom’s campaign.
Upon arrival, my friend Amy and I made a beeline for Kerry O’Brien, who we were excited to meet and welcome to Toowoomba (it turns out Kerry is no stranger to Toowoomba and was a bugle player in the St Lawrence’s bugle band marching in the Toowoomba Carnival of Flowers in 1960 & 1961!).
In the foyer, I spoke with many people who are desperate for change in Groom. Dana Kelly, who has an agriculture background, spoke of her commitment to improving our democracy through a return to accountability and ethics in politics – a unifying theme amongst many Groom voters.
Dana also cited the neglect of agricultural opportunities in our region – sustainable development and food and energy security – as a major failure of our current representative, Garth Hamilton. ‘We have missed opportunities to be a part of big projects in agriculture’, she said.
Penny Claringbull spoke of her alarm at the ‘erosion of accountability’ in federal politics, demonstrated by the complacency of our current member and the way Groom is taken for granted because of its substantial margin.
Penny has a background in sustainable community development, and she cited Groom’s changing demographics as an opportunity to erode some of that margin, and vulnerability to climate change as the key reason we need a representative who will recognise the need to build resilience for our economic and environmental future. ‘There are so many opportunities for jobs in these areas – it’s happening in other places, and it should be happening here in Groom’, she said.
The main event for the night was a panel discussion with some visiting luminaries, well versed in the Australian political landscape and the independent movement. Moderated by the erudite Professor Anne Tiernan, the panel discussed the role of independents in restoring balance to Australian democracy and we heard from Cathy McGowan, Kerry O’Brien, Dr Eddie Barui and Everald Compton.
Before the discussion began, a beautiful Acknowledgement of Country was delivered by Shakita Foster – a young Torres Strait Islander woman and recent graduate of the Glennie School in Toowoomba, now studying nursing with the intent of taking her skills back to her community. Shakita invited guests to open their hearts to understanding, and to move forward together with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people toward reconciliation and a prosperous future for all.
To kick things off Professor Tierney predicted the election will be 14th May and told the audience that “this is likely to be the most consequential election in our recent history”. This is because the health of Australia’s democracy is at stake, and government is incapable of long-term thinking, especially when it comes to solutions for regional and remote Australia, she said.
She then asked Cathy McGowan the first question of the night, “Why are so many independent candidates emerging in this federal election?”
Australians value their democracy. Profoundly.Cathy McGowan
Cathy told the crowd of her belief that Australians value their democracy and now many feel that things are ‘out of kilter’ and there’s a disconnect between the representatives in Canberra and real people.
While she acknowledged that priorities differ across the country, there is a constant theme of dissatisfaction with the current representation in these seats. Importantly, Cathy said three things have happened:
- Communities have organised
- Quality people have put their hand up to run as independent candidates
- People are coming out to volunteer, attend events and support candidates
Why? Because through conversation and listening the passion for democracy is shared and hope for change and a better future is possible.
Professor Tiernan then asked Kerry O’Brien, “Are the major parties dysfunctional?” (prompting a chorus of chortles from both the audience and the panel!) Kerry nodded and said “yes, sadly”, and went on to discuss how rapid global change (especially digital) has created instability and made people anxious, turning them inwards, waiting for someone to ‘pull them out of it’.
The need for leadership has never been more important, he said.
We are in a time that demands leadership.Kerry O’Brien
Regarding the Uluru statement, Kerry thinks that the people are ahead of government and want leadership on this issue too. “People are ready for treaty and truth telling”, he said. This comment was met with spontaneous applause from the audience, affirming his view and making my own heart sing.
Kerry also cited the failures of both state and federal governments to acknowledge and adequately address climate change, blaming factionalism for the policy timidity that has left a ‘giant policy vacuum’.
The move towards authoritarianism (of which government incompetence is a symptom) poses great danger to the health of Australian democracy, he said. Hence, the emergence of independents he sees as a healthy process, promoting real conversations between people.
Next, Everald Compton was asked about the phenomenon of career politicians and the effect this has had on our democracy. Before answering, Everald said “I hope I live for the day that Indigenous people’s 65,000 year history is acknowledged in our constitution” – again, the crowd applauded whole heartedly. I must admit, I did not expect such a spontaneous and genuine commitment to this issue in Groom, and I am so very proud that there is.
Everald drew on his vast experience working with different sides of government and told of cross-party relationships with parliamentarians who usually had successful lives before entering politics to ‘give back’, rather than the career politicians with their own self-interested priorities today.
He said the game playing and preoccupation with wedging political opponents for selfish concerns has diminished policy, causing Australians to lose confidence and trust in the political establishment.
Policy is almost a forgotten word in parliament now! There is no discussion about what is the right thing to do. The focus is on maintaining power only.Everald Compton
Kerry O’Brien added, the relationship between politics and the media has had a corrosive influence on policy with a (near) monopoly in print media distorting coverage, which has had an impact on the rest of the media. This is especially in relation to climate change which has essentially claimed six Prime Ministers in eleven years (“a travesty!”). This highlights the importance of the ABC (more spontaneous crowd applause) because hollowed out newsrooms (just like the public service) make the industry weak and unable to hold politicians to account.
Seat too safe
Professor Tiernan invited Dr Eddie Barui, an orthopaedic surgeon in Toowoomba (self-declared “not interested in politics”), to give his perspective on issues relevant to Groom. Dr Barui spoke of the complacency with which the electorate is treated and cited examples where other Queensland cities in marginal electorates have received several new hospitals (Toowoomba, none although desperately needed).
Dr Barui travels with his wife and recalls a change in the way Australians are perceived internationally due to the marriage equality referendum, mandatory detention and demonisation of boat arrivals.
Locking up children, taking their family at dawn out of a community where they are welcome and loved and the parents are hardworking. We are judged on those things – not favourably.Dr Eddie Barui
He also cited Australian climate denial that ignores our closest Pacific neighbours, despite them being the most severely affected, as being another example of poor representation and broken politics in Australia, and perhaps a consequence of people taking our democracy for granted.
A host of other issues were raised during the panel:
- Cathy McGowan spoke about the importance of making the seat marginal in getting resources for the region, and how communities can be empowered in these seats to identify and plan to ensure their priorities can receive funding.
- Everald Compton passionately declared that he’s “had a gutful!” and that parties are “dead, gone and buried”, “it’s time to turn the system upside down!”
- Kerry O’Brien believed that the independent movement could succeed in Queensland because many Queenslanders also feel fed up, anxious and disaffected. In his words, Groom is ‘crying in the wilderness’ in a safe seat, and so far, getting a remarkable response. He made a point that women are forcing their way into positions of power, “clearing out the atrophied veins of the male domain” and changing an unhealthy culture through common sense and a lack of combativeness.
To wrap up the panel discussion, Professor Tiernan invited each speaker to nominate one thing they would encourage that would positively influence Australian democracy.
Measure success by what is achieved. People need to be able to vote with their conscience. We need to make the incumbent uncomfortable and rattle a few cages!
Dr Eddie Barui
Less than 10% of the world live in a democracy like ours. It’s time Australians took our precious right to vote seriously, creatively, and sensibly to make a difference. Use your vote as an expression of your concern.Kerry O’Brien
I came here because I want Suzie to win – not simply to scare anyone. This seat is winnable. Tell your friends, people you know!Everald Compton
Let a thousand conversations bloom. Talk to people about democracy. Do it positively with respect, good listening and we can be the change we want to see.
Growing Groom together
And finally, independent candidate Suzie Holt addressed the crowd to thank them for attendance and to talk about her vision of representing Groom. Suzie spoke of the importance of positivity in opening the conversation about politics and change, and she believes that people want a vision for the future.
Suzie’s priority is making Groom an agricultural hub, focusing on food, beverage, and fibre, and developing a policy for the regions embedded in sustainability and innovation.
Suzie spoke of how her mother has shaped her values – a strong woman standing up for people and being an advocate. She also acknowledged her daughters and husband and thanked them for their support.
Finally, Suzie told supporters:
You are the voices I will take to Canberra.Suzie Holt
And, after such an inspiring evening, I truly hope she is the person elected by the good people of Groom to do just that!