Margo Kingston

Margo Kingston

Co-publisher and editor-in-chief at No Fibs
Margo Kingston is a retired Australian journalist and climate change activist. She is best known for her stint as Phillip Adams’ ‘Canberra Babylon’ contributor and her work at The Sydney Morning Herald and #Webdiary. Since 2012, Kingston has been a citizen journalist, reporting and commenting on Australian politics via Twitter and No Fibs.
Margo Kingston


Transcript of the #transitzone interview with Suzie Holt, a co-founder of Voices for Groom on 7 July last year. She nominated after a fruitless search for a high profile candidate and Voices of Groom announced her selection on Twitter. She became the Voices for Groom community #IndependentsDay candidate last November.

Peter Clarke: We spoke to Cathy McGowan from Indi, who I guess is almost the progenitor of this Voices for movement in Australia. She won Indi a couple of terms ago in the federal parliament. And then we spoke to Linda Seymour of Voices for Hughes, the Hughes grassroots movement. So now, welcome to the #transitzone Suzie Holt in Toowoomba this morning.

Suzie Holt: Good morning, Peter. Good morning Margo. Thank you for having me here this morning.

Peter: Is it a bit colder in Toowoomba – it’s freezing in Melbourne again this morning.

Suzie: Actually Peter this morning is typical Toowoomba weather. We look outside we’ve got fog, that mist is coming up over the Range. So it’s very typical Toowoomba weather. We’ve had some rain in town, so people are very happy.

Peter: (Margo) I think you were there quite recently, and before I met my spouse I used to travel up to Warwick every weekend to go gliding. I was a bit of a mad glider in the old days, so I know climbing up Cunningham’s Gap well, I know Toowoomba well. So we’ve both got a bit of a feel for that part of the world, but most of our listeners won’t know Toowoomba. Tell us about this electorate of Groom – what’s it like, what are the people like, what are the boundaries? What sort of feel is there to that electorate?

Suzie:  Toowoomba and the seat of Groom is a very exciting regional area. We’re about an hour and a half out from Brisbane up on the Range, so you leave Brisbane and you come up this beautiful range, so we’re a bit high. And we’ve got quite a diverse region from agriculture, which has been our primary industry, but of late we’ve really been focusing on health and education. So we’ve got an interesting cohort of people around median age of about 38. 

But what traditionally has happened in our region is, the farmers have come into town and they’ve retired here. So our region not only has this cohort of 130,000 people, we also cover 500,000 in our area. Also, because we’re quite an innovative, enterprising region. It’s attracted a lot of people from health, people have relocated from Brisbane partly because of our lifestyle. So we’re great for families, great working opportunities, housing – when there is housing people can afford, it’s reasonable. Lovely opportunities, gardens. Very exciting area.

Margo: It’s a huge hub for health – it’s got excellent facilities – and it’s the hub for the private schools for the whole region. So it’s big education, big health, isn’t it.

Suzie: Our main industry is health. So over 13,000 people are employed here in the health and social services sector. We have three main hospitals up here – one public hospital, two private hospitals and a surgery centre. And we are a hub for education, so people come in from over the border in Moree, we get people from all over Queensland coming here because it is like a hub, tourism hub. And people like it here because we still have those traditional country values mixed in with a bit of a cosmopolitan city sort of feel,. so you can get that lovely cross feel of our region.

Peter: Suzy I’ve always thought it was a fairly conservative place, and there’s a strong religious strand in there as well. That’s just my image of Toowoomba, but I’m picking up from you that that’s shifted a little bit because of some of the immigration that’s happened into Toowoomba. Is it still basically very conservative though?

Suzie: Two thirds of our community would still identify as being Christian. So we are still a fairly conservative-moderate electorate. I think within that conservatism, though…people are interested in social issues and they want action around social issues. People are concerned about the environment. People are concerned about refugees. People in our electorate are concerned about homelessness, and they want to see things happen to help our community. Some of the beautiful things that have come from things like the floods that occurred 10 years ago, is that our community pulls together. So within that conservatism, we have this notion of communities working together and moving us forward. So it is quite progressive.

Margo: At the byelection last year the LNP got 67% and the ALP got 33%. It is an ultra safe Coalition seat, and I remember ringing you a while ago and saying, ‘Well what on earth are you doing – I mean there’s no point to this’. And you said ‘Well, Margo, there’s actually something going on here’. 

And what appears to have gone on is that this seat was a National Party seat that fell to the Liberals after the failed Joh-for-Canberra campaign, and stayed aligned with the Liberal Party after the merger to the LNP. And what seems to have happened is that the hard right has taken over the branch and the Nats have tried to turn it into a National Party seat. The branches there are fraught about that, and that the person selected for the preselection, Garth Hamilton, is considered a hard right conservative. So what got me interested is you saying ‘Well, weird things are happening, Margo. Liberals are coming across, there is a Liberal membership, desertion of the party, and a sense that this is the last chance to keep Toowoomba as a Liberal seat rather than a National Party seat. I remember you telling me the Chamber of Commerce is asking Voices for Groom for comments. What? And you’ve got an establishment law firm on your board. I mean, it just seems a bit like – is something happening there?

Suzie: Okay, since we set up the Voices movement – I think I put out a tweet in November (2020) – it’s been this lovely organic process, where we thought ‘what are we doing and is it possible’ and it’s been extraordinary, because you’re right, Margo, there has been this incredible shift in that people are actually wanting to be heard, and they are wanting representation and people with integrity. 

I think the shift has come from COVID. And I think that byelection happened … all around the same time. 

During that byelection people in our region were tremendously concerned that there was that shift to the right, that very hard conservative right. And this has been part of our movement, and why, when you asked that pivotal checkpoint for change, we actually want someone in the centre, so people are looking for someone in the centre to represent them. 

So they don’t want this conservative right and they don’t want this extreme left, they want them in the centre. And that is where the majority of people in our region are sitting…

So what happened in COVID is that we have a lot of professionals, a lot of people whose kids came home, who are forced to stay here because of the shutdown. 

And they’ve opened people’s eyes. I think what COVID, because of where we’re seated from a health perspective, we get people in from over the border coming into Goondiwindi. So we’ve had border issues, we’ve had a whole range of things – we’ve been extremely dry with the drought, we’ve got water security (issues). So all of a sudden people have had time to reflect, and I think that shift in that byelection has opened people’s eyes. 

So all of a sudden this Voices movement – we threw it out there around the kitchen table at home so it was a bit like Team Brodie (her husband’s last name)  – I will say it was a bit of a family movement. 

So we’ve learned how to use Twitter, all sorts of exciting things that we never thought we would do. We’ve been pretty frustrated with politics, particularly for our region, where I have two children –  one will move (or have) moved away. And they said, ‘Mum. we’re concerned about the environment. People are really concerned about climate change. We actually want a future, we actually now see I might go away and do medicine or do nursing or do teaching and I actually want to come back and work in our region. We actually want a future for our region. And those politicians or people representing us are not there.’

So I think this little shift has happened. When that byelection occurred the biggest thing that happened was that here we were with hereditary voters who traditionally voted for the Liberal Party and there was all this infighting of extreme right – whether they were a National Party or a Liberal Party. Actually people are tired of divisive politics. They are tired of it. They actually just want to be heard, and we have been this safe seat…

So even though we’re quite enterprising, and we’ve had these incredible opportunities to remove our region forward, there’s been this feeling that we’ve been stifled. So we’ve just been stagnating…

And I think people are genuinely tired of it. So when they went to vote, the common thing we had was that actually there was no-one there to represent us. When we set up the group we invited a diverse group, you can call it a broad church if you want to, of people from the Liberals to the Greens and we got them together. 

So that was a hard task to start with. And we did that deliberately because unless we do that in our regio, we’re never going to create change. So we have to get these people working together. And we were amazed who came. We didn’t expect anyone to turn up and we’ve been amazed at that slow progression coming in. So these people in our region, even though we are conservative, and Peter you are right, we are still a Christian community with those conservative values, but actually, we are progressive, and that’s a little change. People want action.

Peter: Suzie you mentioned COVID. Of course there are three main aspects to what’s going on at the moment. There’s the stuff up of the procurement of vaccines, which really happened 12 months ago. There’s the stuff up with the logistics of actually getting it out there, and you mentioned Toowoomba as a health area, presumably with a pretty good health infrastructure there. That’s been a big problem around Australia, the actual logistics. There’s of course the absence of a public campaign to actually encourage people to overcome vaccination hesitancy, to try to remedy the mistrust that many people have about the vaccine, going right out to the conspiracy theories with 5G and all that stuff. So I’m very interested in your sense of how people in your electorate would perceive what happened on Friday from Prime Minister Scott Morrison with his 4 phase plan. How would that have gone down with the sort of people you’re speaking with?

Suzie: Actually, Peter, people in our region are pretty frustrated and they’re intelligent and they’re pretty cranky that there’s no supply. So think his Four Point Plan – at the end of the day people actually just want the injection. They’re frustrated with supply. 

One of the biggest issues for our region is still a lack of a plan forward. People have kids overseas, they want to be able to see their grandchildren. People want to see our region move forward –  we need seasonal workers, they want to see our students come back, we get a lot of international students associated with our university. 

I think people are genuinely concerned about the supply issue – on Friday people were struggling to get the vaccine here and what that causes is vaccine hesitancy. In fact we had a phone call at eight o’clock on Friday through the Voices movement about a very well respected person in our community who had lined up and was beside herself at what happened. They were prioritising because they were concerned about the supply issues. And she said ‘I just can’t be bothered now, I just can’t do it’. So that hesitancy around it is causing increased anxiety. I think that people just want to see the numbers they want to see that, actually, have we got the supply for Pfizer? They want to see communication to grace, accurate information.

Margo: The other thing here is one of your big-wigs, John Wagner, the guy who beat Alan Jones on that defo case, actually said ‘Okay, here’s my airport. Here’s some land next to the airport that’s mine. I’ll give you that. I’ll build you a quarantine facility in six weeks, and you’ve got world class hospital facilities next door’. And Scott Morrison and Garth Hamilton said no, and Anastacia said yes, and you;’re going ‘How come Labor’s into regional policy’ and Scott says that’s a desert out there. Like what’s happening there? (Note: Actual comment: “The idea that you can just put these out in the desert somewhere — and I know Toowoomba’s not the desert — but the point being, they need to be close to major capital city airports because the planes aren’t going somewhere else, they’re coming into Brisbane, and that is a very long trek, over to Toowoomba.”)

Suzie: Margo,I’m going to comment firstly on the fact that when Scott Morrison made those peculiar comments about our region not one member, whether it was State or Federal, actually stood up for our region. We have world class hospitals, our health system has already coped beautifully with COVID, we are able to get people from Toowoomba down to Brisbane quickly, quicker than probably an ambulance in Brisbane. We have the facilities, the staff, we could have used it as an opportunity, and no one stood up and represented us. 

And people were pretty peeved. They were pretty concerned that our federal member did not stand up and say, ‘Actually, we’ve got world class facilities here, we’ve got an airport that has global reach, we have three hospitals that all have intensive care that may have coped with this beautifully’. 

The whole thing about the quarantine is that no discussion was held locally. No one brought it up – they have just used it as a political football. And it would have been an incredible opportunity for our region. We could have led the nation. We could have had that up and running in six weeks. It was an opportunity for jobs, an opportunity for discussions to move our health services forward (but) no discussion was held. And I think people are pretty cranky that it’s come to this and people are just arguing backwards and forwards. And we were really disappointed that it just wasn’t an opportunity to move our nation forward and open up our borders.

Peter: Suzie how do locals see the nub of the issue here,  that we’ve got leaky tourist hotels. Annastacia Palaszczuk is saying that they’re stretched to the limit with those tourist hotels. I understand that it was a stopgap measure way back, and that resistance on the part of Scott Morrison that his government have federal quarantine facilities, purpose built, purpose designed, essentially failsafe quarantine facilities – how are people perceiving that nub issue?

Suzie: People are pretty frustrated. I think people generally have an appreciation that COVID is airborne, that transmission is airborne. We’ve seen that recently in Sydney with the Delta transmission. People realise that quarantine in hotels is a failure. It actually is not good enough…

Seven leaks in hotels in Queensland. People realise that we need genuine quarantine facilities built. They want it now. They see that as a plan to move our country forward, to open up our borders. They’re just not there. They know that those hotels are a risk and I think people are actually tired of it.

Margo: Another thing that happened this week was it came out that the Victorian Nationals had sought unsuccessfully to disaffiliate from the Nationals federally because of Barnaby’s return and climate change denial is basically its official national policy. And Darren Chester, dumped from the cabinet by Barnaby, in the regional Victorian seat of Gippsland did an op ed this week saying ‘We’re finished if we don’t do something about climate change – our constituency is demanding it’. And I’m just wondering, sure the Victorian Nats are different, the Queensland Nats with the mining seats are right there with Barnaby – they brought him back – is Toowoomba part of that crowd or is it a little bit different?

Suzie: Well, we’re hoping it’s a little bit different. I listened to a podcast with Matt Canavan this morning as well. And looking at that article that Darren Chester wrote, I think we agreed ,you know our constituents in Groom, actually the majority of our constituents are in health, are in education, yet agriculture is one of our biggest industries. So the biggest thing is that we look to that agricultural community. They WANT action on climate. They WANT to address climate change – they can already see that this is something that needs to be addressed, and they are moving forward. If you look at the National Farmers Federation, they are already starting to address those issues… 

If you look beyond, in the South Burnett, it’s always easy to talk about that because of peanuts and everyone can relate to peanuts. The crops in the South Burnett are already being impacted by climate change by 25%. So people in our region are acutely aware of those issues of climate change. They want action. 

So I think with Barnaby coming in and people in Queensland saying he’s coming to represent the regions, actually our region wants action on climate. They want productive farming land, they want that to be long term. 

But we also represent health workers, we represent teachers… so that’s what we’re bringing forward from the Voices movement. And I think export is a huge issue. We do a lot of export and trade – Barnaby’s brought forward some interesting suggestions around China, and certainly we would like to see a more harmonious response to those things so we can progress that for our region. In terms of Barnaby we actually see ourselves as leaning towards moving beyond what he’s representing and saying, actually there’s more to us than those values – we value climate change, we value our region, and we want to represent our region.

Margo:  With your Kitchen Table Conversations, what’s been the word or the words that have come up – what are people looking for from their federal politician?

Suzie: They want to be represented. They want someone who is trustworthy – 

Margo: Trustworthy! You mean, integrity? 

Suzie: Integrity.

Margo: Oh no, they couldn’t want that, they couldn’t. By the way did Toowoomba get a car park?

Suzie: No car parks. We got plenty of paddocks but no car parks.  

Margo: Can I go personal? When I first talked to you on the phone I thought, ‘Oh bloody hell we’ve got a doctor’s wife, perfect!’. You’re a social worker, fellow University of Queensland alumni with me and Peter. You sort of retired after marrying a specialist and looked after your kids and helped him run the business and became very heavily involved in the community…  Tell us how on earth that you started a (Voices for) political movement from Arthur St. Toowoomba.

Suzie: So it has been a family affair. We have started around our kitchen table to get this movement going. And my family is from the country, my husband’s family’s from the country. And I’m reminded of some words of my grandfather, who grew up in the South Burnett. He always said that people are your business and never forget it. I think that when we reflect on politics in our region, they’ve forgotten about the people. So they’ve been representing parties, and people’s voices have been squashed, to use that word, or not listened to or not heard. 

People had been reaching out to Miles (her husband) and I saying ‘Look, we want some change and we don’t know how we can do that’. 

And I had started putting out feelers, saying, ‘Well, what do you reckon about a Zali Stegall approach, do we find someone? What do you reckon about a Cathy McGowan-Helen Haines approach? Is it possible – do we find a star in our community who could represent us?’

So we sort of started putting feelers, talking to our well known people, talking to people who run community organizations, things that we had been involved in, talking to many of our own colleagues, doctors, saying, ‘What do you reckon? Is this a crazy idea for a region that is really conservative?’ 

And I think part of that was that we reached out to a law firm and two friends of ours that who helped run that firm said to us, ‘Listen, we want to be able to bring staff into Toowoomba and they want to be able to fit into this region and they want it to be progressive and we want young people to come to our region, and we want to make it attractive and we want it to be exciting, we want to see changes’. 

Margo: As exciting as Indi! Regional energy plan – 

Suzie: This is what people have been talking to us about – how can we change our federal member to take notice of climate change? How can we actually have a conversation in our region about climate change? How can we talk about the environment? 

We did an hour conversation – I have to tell you our Kitchen Table Conversations in Queensland had to be around ‘drinks for democracy’, because we are Queensland, and we had to take the edge, and we had to bring people together to have a bit of a conversation – 

Margo: So you had a party, not a meeting – 

Suzie: So we have just challenged all the Voices movements to say, ‘Actually in Queensland we need to go out there and party’. So this has been a celebration of people participating. So from this crazy, wild idea that actually people might be interested we did make people come together, and I was pretty strict. We said if we’re going to create this change people have to be committed.  People actually committed, so I made them do a homework exercise and come back in two weeks. 

I said ‘they’re not going to come back’. We had more people coming. So we went from about 25 to now we invite 50 to a core group. So what we’re getting is people from the Liberal “party to the Greens and Labor and everyone in between. 

Some people who’ve never voted. I had 30 year olds saying to me, ‘We are so frustrated that we don’t actually care about politics’. And I said, ‘But you run big businesses and you employ a lot of women and you want to make changes and you’re being progressive’. 

‘But we are tired of not being heard’. 

So we have some really exciting small businesses and they’re . actually quite forward, but here they’re telling us, ‘Actually we’ve just lost interest in politics’. 

So this is what we’ve created – this environment and a space where all of a sudden people are saying, ‘Actually you know what, I actually care about our community, I actually care about the fact that we want a voice in Parliament that’s standing for our region, that is quite exciting, that is wanting to attract young people, is looking at issues related to areas like health, that wants to move us forward’. 

Change with energy. People have big ideas. They want to make it happen. So all of a sudden the Voices movement has gone – this group, we can see some excitement. So even though it sounds pretty idealistic, this is what’s happening. We’ve come from very small beginnings to people suddenly reaching out saying actually, ‘What do you think about the State budget? And how does that reflect on what you’re hearing from the people?’

Margo: What I liked when I spoke to you (was) the idea that you got everyone from greens to liberals in the same room to say, ‘If we’re civil, is there common ground here’? And of course it’s a conservative seat and of course a candidate has to say if crossbench has a balance of power, they would give confidence and supply to the Coalition. But that doesn’t mean that there’s not an awful lot of common ground, where basically every voter could get behind the right candidate to say, ‘Right, time for Groom to shine, time to join the push for a national regional policy’, as Helen Haines and Darren Chester are wanting. How have you stopped  polarisation, how have you stopped people punching each other out at these events?  Or have they been relieved to have a safe space to talk normally about politics without hating each other?

Suzie: So we had to agree on some values. And that was respect, integrity, representation and science. They were our values. So when we came together and we agreed upon those values, that’s what changed it. So we (had) a conversation about how we would move forward and not disagree, because I did have Extinction Rebellion with conservative right in a room saying ‘We’ve got a vote!’. In our group that’s what we’ve got, and they did agree – the biggest thing is, actually, people in our region want science. They’re enterprising. They want representation. And they’re innovative. So that’s what we’ve brought together in these values. And people want a representative to be their best selves, that Cathy McGowan. And that’s how we brought people together.

Margo: What’s the next step? I understand you’ve got an AGM this month – then what happens with finding the right candidate for Groom?

Suzie: So we will use the process that Dennis Ginnivan (Voices for Indi co-founder) has used for Indi, and if we feel that a candidate we approach, or people want to nominate, we certainly will explore those options of running through that very similar process to Indi. If a candidate doesn’t rise we will certainly use a checkpoint process to see whether we endorse one of the other candidates in our region. If not we will just continue to work as a grassroots movement to try and ensure that the voices in our region are really heard and represented with those values, and continue to try and encourage a working relationship with the member.

Margo: Is there a chance you could stand, or would you rather be a backroom girl?

Suzie: Margo anything is open at the moment. I can say that I’ve enjoyed the process. I love community engagement. I have thrived on bringing people together. And I have found it extraordinary that through that trust and the relationship that people have come together and have said, ‘Oh actually, you know what? We could get an independent up and it’s a possibility’. For a conservative town like Toowoomba to suddenly say…this could be a possibility that’s already changing itself. To even have people thinking like that we’ve  already moved forward. 

Peter: Perhaps we’ve seen Scott Morrison ditch the National Cabinet, effectively, and we’ve got the four phase plan that came out on Friday which was about as substantial as a ciggy paper. And we’ve still got the same problem. We’ve got short vaccine supply. We don’t have the federal quarantine. We don’t have a potent public communications campaign to get people vaccinated. So we’re still facing exactly the same problem. 

Am I drawing too long a bow to think that this next election could be a COVID election. What do you think, Margo?

Margo: It’s interesting because the whole standard analysis says that strong leaders do well in COVID. And that’s proved the case so far with the State leaders but I think the problem for Morrison, which is why he’s freaking out and saying go and get vaccinated despite medical advice (is) that it’s suddenly becoming clear that Morrison has failed in COVID. 

A three-pronged fail – he can’t get the vaccines out, he can’t get the effing vaccines, and he literally refuses to build quarantine stations to end this stop gap thing. I mean, this Quarantine is solely a federal responsibility and he’s outsourced to hotels. 

The big one for me, the one where I actually cried, was when it came out that top priority disabled people in care homes weren’t vaccinated… let’s have a target. Let’s not have a target. 

My point is that he was ready after that spending budget to go early, to go in Spring. And now it’s much more complicated because it’s looking like, actually, the buck stops with him. I think he’ll go later now, and now we’ve got the bombshell of Barnaby – God knows where that’ll go. 

I don’t know if you saw Turnbull the other day, but look, it is crystal clear that Malcolm Turnbull and John Hewson are supporting a breakaway Liberal Party via the Voices for movement because they are convinced that the party has been taken over by the hard right, that it is anti science, that it is not good for the country. 

So that’s what we’re watching. And to have Cathy McGowan, John Hewson and Malcolm Turnbull gunning for the small l liberals is another complication for him, I would have thought…  

Did you have a look at where all the car park money went? Gee they were propping up what one would have thought were safe Liberal seats. I mean, who knows? 

All I know is that there is a chance for participatory democracy. For  the public to say ‘Enough, let’s look around, let’s not go ‘Oh, that’s liberal or that’s Labor, we’re going to vote for them’, is interesting. 

It’s the only interesting thing about politics at the moment for me. 

Politics in Canberra is stuck. The political media is broken, the political parties are broken, our discourse is broken. So why not see if good people at the grassroots will have a go at changing it up? 

I’m stoked and I tell you what I’m thinking?  20 years and when I was in, in mainstream media, to the Herald to the Age to, to everyone, ‘Get off the bus and go and live in the marginal seats and report on the ground the real characters, what’s really happening, the complications’.

So I’m tossing up between Groom and Hughes. I’m going for the outliers. I’m I’m going to either live in Groom or live in Hughes for the election. And I hope a lot of other journos do too, because it is going to be bloody fascinating. 

Peter: You just reminded me, I remember we (did) a couple of programs on the very theme of getting off the bus, didn’t we, remember about the media being carted off in the magic mystery tours to photo ops etc. Get off the bus, and the exactly the same challenge remains. 

Suzie, you get the final word. Is this going to be a COVID election? Do you think drawing upon what you’ve learned from the electors there in Groom? 

Suzie: I think it will be a COVID election. I think that people are frustrated and that’s exactly what it will be. I think it will be next year. I think people are pretty cranky about supply issues. And go Groom! We want to see you all in here because we are being brave. We are being bold. And we are going to give it a go up here to really shake it up and be heard. 

Suzie, thank you very much for joining us in the #transitzone. It’s been a real pleasure to hear your voice. 

Suzie: Thank you kindly for having me. It’s been a delight.