The regional Queensland seat of Herbert was the last seat in the country to declare after the 2016 election. For four weeks both major parties waited for the result while new MPs across the country settled into their new offices and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull appointed his new ministry following the double dissolution win.
O'Toole is the seat's first Labor member in 20 years. She told UniPollWatch it’s an honour to be the first female to hold the seat of Herbert. “I believe that this sends a very clear message to young women in our community that there is a place in politics for women”.
O'Toole says the community is at the heart of her approach to politics. She was born and raised in Townsville and she says meeting people in the community has been a crucial part of her campaign.
“Winning Herbert after 20 years in the hands of the LNP is a huge boon for Labor. We ran a fantastic, locally focused campaign”.
O'Toole also says the win is an endorsement for Labor leader Bill Shorten, who made regional Queensland, and especially the seat of Herbert, a strong focus of the campaign.
O’Toole says you can't underestimate the importance of face-to-face interaction with voters. She attributes her win to the hard work of Labor volunteers, who she says made over 29,000 calls and door knocks in Herbert.
The federal member for the massive neighbouring seat of Kennedy, Bob Katter, says he supports O'Toole's community focus. Katter, who also leads his own self-styled party, told UniPollWatch that the current system allows for more personal engagement with voters.
Recruiting volunteers to door knock and distribute how-to vote cards during the election campaign is "an extremely important part of the electoral system” and is particularly necessary in large regional electorates, says Mr Katter.
Cathy O’Toole managed a 6.9% swing in Herbert.
The seat became headline news after the election when fewer than a 100 votes separated the two major parties. With the real risk that Turnbull would fail to achieve an absolute majority, voters had to endure a slow recount, which went initially to O'Toole and then back to the LNP’s sitting MP Ewan Jones. Only eight votes separated the two, forcing a further recount at the Australian Electoral Commissions’ (AEC) discretion. On 25 July the AEC announced that Jones would likely win by just 12 votes.
Anomalies found in the count, from the possibly incorrect allocation of voter preferences, added to the unease and controversy.
The lead flipped to a 37-vote lead for O’Toole.
Election officials in the company of scrutineers—appointed by the candidates —ensured the strict regulations of the AEC counting processes were adhered to. When the polls closed at 6pm on 2 July and counting commenced, it became apparent that many seats were too closely contested and that winners could not be declared in many of the electorates.
The Townsville Show holiday on Monday 4 July added to the delay. Almost a month after polling day, on 31 July, the AEC announced on Twitter that O’Toole was elected to the seat of Herbert by 37 votes.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull eventually won 76 seats - the bare minimum required to form a majority government.
The Coalition's obligation to nominate a member to become Speaker of the House will make this majority even more tentative.
With such a weak hold on Government, it is possible the Coalition will contest the count with a petition to the Court of Disputed Returns. It has 35 days to serve the writ.
There are also claims of sorting errors from Townsville-based senator, Ian McDonald, although these are unlikely to be the subject of the Coalition's petition.
The AEC website has addressed the claims and outlined that sorting errors are unlikely to go unnoticed during the scrutineering process and therefore not adequate grounds to challenge the count.
Instead, the LNP’s petition could include evidence that some Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel on exercise in South Australia and patients at Townsville Hospital were denied the opportunity to vote.
Will Herbert Make History Again?
Herbert overlaps the Queensland State division of Mundingburra. Mundingburra straddles the federal boundaries of both Herbert and Dawson and has seen similar controversy in the past.
In the 1995 state election, military personnel who were on exercises were not included in the counting of ballots. The Supreme Court eventually overturned the result, calling a by-election in February 1996. Mundingburra electors overturned the 1995 result, providing a useful precedent for the LNP.
Neighbouring Federal Member, Bob Katter against a by-election.
Meanwhile Bob Katter doesn’t support the idea of a by-election.He says he does not believe a by-election will help the LNP’s cause. As Mr Katter says, “the majority is so slim, you won’t be able to go to the toilet or go to your granny’s funeral”.
He told UniPollWatch “the state of things at the moment means that the cross-benchers have become much more powerful”. A by-election will also antagonise voters.
Katter believes that with a single seat majority the LNP will need the cross benchers on side with every piece of legislation. He says Herbert's constituents will not want to return to the polls. “I think if they did they would lose by a great margin because voters will not want to go back to the polls again.”
Mr Katter says “the nature of party politics in the past meant that a majority government did not need to justify its legislation to cross benchers for it to successfully pass in parliament”. The north Queensland MP believes that the current balance of power will mean a more collaborative parliament.
With the balance of power at stake in the House of Representatives, the LNP still has time to contest the Herbert ballot count. Ms O’Toole is untroubled by the likelihood of an LNP challenge. The newly elected MP is refusing to be drawn into speculation, saying simply: “That is a decision for the LNP. I have won this seat and I am focussed on getting on with the job of representing the people of Herbert.”