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Friday, November 11, 2022

Pentecostalism and the LNP’s fight for its soul in Queensland’s Darling Downs | Australian election 2022

A bastion of conservative Christian politics, the electorate of Groom has become a frontline in the battle for the soul of the Coalition.

And while religion barely rates a mention in the official campaign for Groom, there are concerns about the rising influence of pentecostalism, which could explain why the second safest seat in the country has suddenly become seen as one to watch.

The headline factor has been Queensland’s only “voices of” independent candidate, social worker Suzie Holt, who is running against an incumbent on the right of the Liberal National party, mining engineer Garth Hamilton.

Asked if she would have run if a LNP moderate was contesting the seat, Holt’s answer was a straight “no”.

But another independent, nurse and small businesswoman Kirstie Smolenski, has run a campaign that is highly visible on the ground and is competing for the support of disaffected LNP voters.

At the same time, refugee and women’s rights advocate Gen Allpass has run an unusually strong Labor campaign in an effort to prove the seat is “winnable” for her party, despite 120 years of evidence to the contrary.

Groom and its predecessor, the division of Darling Downs, has been held safely by conservative parties since federation in 1901.

The seat is centred on Toowoomba, a city of gardens and churches, perched atop the Great Dividing Range. In all, it covers 5,586 sq km of the Darling Downs’ rich volcanic soil, farming communities, a mushrooming network of coal seam gas mines and the New Acland coalmine.

The LNP’s John McVeigh retained Groom at the 2019 election with more than 70% of the two-party preferred vote.

Once president of the Young Nationals in Toowoomba, a city councillor and minister in the Newman state government, McVeigh – still in his 50s and on the back of such a commanding win in his second term as federal member – seemed destined to emulate the longevity of his father, Tom, who represented the seat in Canberra for almost 16 years.

But despite the resounding electoral result, there were already signs of trouble in Groom.

In 2017, McVeigh was among the 131 members of the lower house to vote “yes” for same-sex marriage. But a narrow majority of the Groom electorate, 50.8%, voted “no” in the preceding national postal survey.

That led Isaac Moody, a Toowoomba businessman associated with the pentecostal Highlands church, to take on McVeigh at the 2018 preselection.

He lost, but factional contests flared into the public again in September 2020, when McVeigh resigned citing family reasons.

A crowded field of candidates jostled to replace McVeigh. Hamilton slipped under the radar, yet the mining engineer emerged victorious.

The LNP’s member for Groom, Garth Hamilton.
The LNP’s member for Groom, Garth Hamilton. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Although Hamilton was not so well known, his articles for Spectator Australia and the guests at his campaign launch, senators Matt Canavan and Amanda Stoker, placed him at the right of the party’s spectrum.

Holt said it was at this time she decided to throw her hat into the ring.

The independent stresses her blue-ribbon credentials. Her mother was a founding member of a Liberal party branch. Her grandfather claimed to have encouraged Joh Bjelke-Petersen into politics.

Holt said she was a supporter of McVeigh, a “lovely fellow”. But she worried about who would fill his seat in 2020.

“I was very concerned where the local Liberal party was heading and its swing to the very hard right,” Holt said.

Allpass had also watched with alarm the “big push of the pentecostal right” in Groom.

She too described the preselection as the catalyst for her campaign.

Smolenski said she had found the result “baffling” – and one that gave her an opportunity at an unlikely victory.

“People just don’t know who Garth is,” she said.

Hamilton said his wife was from Toowoomba, and the couple moved to her home town in 2016 to raise their children.

He said the line that he was “not from here” was an “incredible accusation” from those who “trumpeted” the rights of refugees and one that demonstrated the “hypocrisy at the heart of these candidates”.

Asked about a shift to the right by the LNP in Groom, Hamilton said he was not going to respond “to baseless anecdotes”.

The attacks on Hamilton are unlikely to be anywhere near fatal to his chances at this election if a recent News Corp-commissioned poll is to be believed.

Last week’s YouGov poll had Hamilton on track for a primary vote of 48%, compared to Allpass’s 24%. Holt, Smolenski and the Australian Federation party candidate Ryan Otto would share just 6% of the vote.

But a senior member of the LNP in Groom, who spoke on the condition of anonymity as they hoped the party could “find its way”, said 2022 was not necessarily the election at which the party’s “lurch to the right” could cost it.

They said Hamilton would easily retain the seat at this election.

“What I’m worried about is what happens next time,” they said.

“We’ve seen all these seats, Kooyong, Wentworth, Warringah, Curtin, Mackellar, that all these previously blue ribbon seats could be lost.”

Holt is already claiming victory in her campaign for Groom.

“We wanted to put Groom on the national agenda,” she said. “And we’ve already won.”

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