View of Somerset Dam, a key feature of the region's landscape. Photo by Engineers Australia
Blair covers a largely rural area, containing most of the City of Ipswich and the entirety of Somerset Regional Council. Its main industries include beef and dairy cattle farming, small crops, construction, defence and tourism. A notable issue affecting Blair is the completion of the final section of the Ipswich Motorway upgrade.
Blair is currently a marginal Labor seat. It has been hotly contested since its creation prior to the 1998 election when the boundaries of Pauline Hanson's seat of Oxley were redrawn.
Hanson chose to stand for Blair in 1998 as it had a more conservative constituency than the shrunken electorate of Oxley, which leaned towards Labor. Hanson won Oxley in 1996 and would have won Blair two years later, with 36-percent of the first preference vote, if Labor and the National and Liberal Parties had not preferenced each other above her. Instead, Liberal candidate Cameron Thompson was elected and stood until his defeat by Labor’s Shayne Neumann in 2007.
Agriculture continues to be the biggest source of employment in the region, representing nearly one in seven jobs. Though the Somerset region’s wool and coal industries are now largely defunct. The rural areas surrounding Wivenhoe and Somerset Dams are still prime cattle grazing land. But many dairy farmers in the area and across the nation have been struggling financially since supermarket giants Coles and Woolworths slashed their milk prices.
“The industry needs some assistance from government,” says Cr Sean Choat of the Somerset Regional Council. “What a lot of people don’t realise is if the farmers are doing it tough, they have to tighten their belts. And they’re not spending the money in the small towns like Toogoolawah, Esk, Kilcoy. So they don’t get the flow on effects of commerce.” he said.
Sitting member Shayne Neumann was previously a lawyer and served as a board member of Queensland Baptist Care (now Carinity) which manages aged care homes and other community services in Ipswich and Laidley. He has taken on additional roles as Parliamentary Secretary in the portfolios of Health and Ageing and Attorney General. However, not all of his constituents are satisfied with the work he has done for his electorate.
For example, though it is only an hour’s drive from Brisbane, the Somerset region has significant telecommunications blackspots. Cr Choat says “I live within 20 minutes of the Federal member for Blair’s campaign office. I do not even have landline phone accessibility in my street. As you can appreciate, ADSL is just an impossible dream. Actually we crave for dial up but we can’t get that either.” Cr Choat says the lack of infrastructure has far-reaching effects on the community, including discouraging tourists from visiting the area and creating a distinct disadvantage for local school and university students.
In the suburbs of Ipswich, residents are upset about the activities of the local Cleanaway dump at New Chum, which they say poses environmental and health hazards and is an eyesore. The dump handles asbestos, construction and demolition waste and heavy metals, among other things. Its management has also expressed the desire to increase the site’s capacity to 1.9 million tonnes by 2021.
The president of the Ipswich Residents Against Toxic Environments advocacy group, Jim Dodrill, says “The dump was established during the time of an ALP dominated Council and an ALP state government. We’ve approached the federal member for Blair, Shayne Neumann for help and advice on this issue but he was disinterested in helping”, he said
The roads in Blair have also caused controversy. Local resident Julie lives in Marburg, just outside Ipswich and regularly commutes to Brisbane for choir rehearsals. She says; “Once I was trying to come to choir and there was a fatal accident on the highway and I spent the entire three and a half hours sitting on the highway because they couldn’t divert the traffic”. Cr Choat agrees that roads are an issue. “Sadly in Somerset the roads are not looked after as well as they should be.”
Julie also wants to clarify something about her electorate. She says that like a third of voters in Blair she voted for Pauline Hanson. But, she says, she’s not a supporter and it wasn’t for the reasons you might think. “At the time both the Coalition and the Labor party were really, really trying to destroy her and I think there was a backlash of people thinking “That’s not democratic!” Whether you agree with her or not, she has a right to get up and say what she wants to.”