Don’t dismiss the very safe seat of Groom as a yawn, even if it is the LNP’s for the taking.
True, the provincial electorate in southern Queensland has never been out of the hands of the conservatives – first the National Party, then the Liberal Party and later the Liberal National Party of Queensland – since it became Groom in 1984.
Before that it was the conservative stronghold of Darling Downs, one of the original divisions created at Federation in 1900, and the seat of a former Prime Minister, Arthur Fadden.
LNP member and former Cabinet minister, Ian Macfarlane, steps down in 2016 having held Groom comfortably since 1998. On a two party preferred basis, Macfarlane gained more than 66, 68 and 58 per cent of the vote in the 2013, 2010 and 2007 elections respectively.
That gap between the conservatives and Labor interests political economist, Phil Griffiths, because of what it makes possible now and later, both in Groom and in the Senate.
The retiring member was “an extremely sophisticated operator” and never complacent, the University of Southern Queensland School of Commerce lecturer says.
“I don’t think Ian Macfarlane ever took a single vote for granted,” Dr Griffiths says.
“Groom will be interesting because a new LNP candidate still has to prove himself.”
In Labor’s favour long term, Griffiths says, is Groom’s major population centre of Toowoomba is growing. More than 105,000 people live there now, according to the Toowoomba Regional Council.
“The bigger and more fluid the city’s population gets, the more vulnerable the Coalition becomes,” Dr Griffiths says.
“A diverse urban electorate inherently means that the Labor vote will go up.”
In the meantime, Labor needs to do well in Groom to bolster its chances of winning more than one Senate seat in Queensland in July.
Unlike big rural electorates with polling booths located in small towns dotted across the area, in Toowoomba Labor can quite easily capture most potential Senate votes.
“All of your supporters might be in the north of the city, but you can bus them to south Toowoomba to staff the polling booths,” Dr Griffiths says.
From its eastern border hard against the escarpment of the Great Dividing Range, Groom spills across Australia’s second-largest inland city to its north, west and south, covering more than 5500sqkms.
It encircles the prime agricultural lands of the Darling Downs, open-cut mining producing up to 7.5 million tonnes of coal a year at Acland, Australian Defence Force installations at the Oakey Army Aviation Centre and Borneo Barracks at Cabarlah and Australia’s only privately-owned airport (Brisbane West) at Wellcamp.
Groom’s most numerous industries are agriculture, construction, real estate, science and technology, and retail. Its biggest employer is health care, the ABS says.
The electorate shares much of its footprint with the Toowoomba Regional Council where Mayor Paul Antonio points to a local economy that is stable because of its breadth and its industrial diversity.
Its current big project, the $1.6+ billion Toowoomba bypass, has an expected completion date of late 2018.
“With the advent of the airport, the bypass, and particularly the Melbourne to Brisbane inland rail project, we’re going to see people wanting to live and work in Toowoomba,” Cr Antonio says.
“It will become one of Australia’s biggest inland ports. It’s got that potential.”
Groom’s economic strength might also be its weakness.
Dr Griffiths says Toowoomba is extremely dependent on government money. The major recipients are the “massive and quite sophisticated” Toowoomba Base Hospital, the retirement home industry, the 12 private schools out of the city’s 15 secondary schools and the University of Southern Queensland (USQ).
“Serious cutbacks in government spending could certainly impact Toowoomba, whether by State or Federal government or both,” he says.
Under cuts announced in the Federal budget in May, USQ would lose $1.5 million over four years in funding that helps students from lower socioeconomic status backgrounds attend university.
Vice-chancellor Jan Thomas says USQ is assessing how it can use its funding more effectively to “continue to give all students the opportunity to take up a university qualification”.
At the time of writing, five candidates had unofficially put up their hands for the seat: Bronwyn Herbertson (ALP), John McVeigh (LNP), John Sands (Family First), Josie Townsend (NXT) and Antonia van Geuns (Greens).
Groom was named after Sir Littleton Ernest Groom who won a House of Representatives by-election in 1901, following the death of his father, William Henry Groom. WH Groom is the only former convict ever elected to Federal parliament.
His son served as a Cabinet minister and was Speaker of the House from 1926 to 1929, when he lost his seat. Re-elected two years later, Sir Littleton represented Darling Downs until his death in 1936.
The National Party’s Tom McVeigh holds the dual titles of the last member for Darling Downs and the first member for Groom. A win to the LNP’s McVeigh in July would make it the only Federal seat in Australia served by two sets of fathers and sons.