Last time around, the seat of Herbert was decided in favour of Labor’s Cathy O’Toole by a measly 37 votes. That automatically makes it winnable for either side, and a forthcoming preference deal between Palmer and the Coalition will greatly aid O’Toole’s rival, Liberal-National candidate Phillip Thompson, who is a former military serviceman.
But it is Palmer’s bright yellow billboards, bearing his trademark thumbs-up, that dominate advertising space around this isolated city of about 190,000. The billionaire businessman has boasted of spending at least $50 million on this election campaign.
Thursday’s issue of the Townsville Bulletin featured three full-page ads from Palmer, including a pledge by his local candidate Greg Dowling for “zonal taxation”, whereby people would pay 20 per cent less tax if they moved 200 kilometres from a state capital.
Dowling – whose nickname is “Dish Head” – has the star power of being a former rugby league prop who played for the Brisbane Broncos and Queensland’s State of Origin squad. He now owns a local Oporto franchise.
The United Australia Party is far from the only minor party in the game in Herbert. Katter’s Australian Party is running a candidate, One Nation is parachuting someone in from central Queensland and Fraser Anning’s newly-minted Conservative National Party is in the mix too.
Debbie Rains, president of the Townsville business chamber, understands why voters have gravitated towards minor parties, including Palmer’s. Unemployment has fallen below 10 per cent but is still high, and is in double digits for young people. Shops are shuttered. “The CBD is unfortunately pretty embarrassing, let’s be frank,” Rains says.
She says when Palmer first set up in Townsville he was seen as “a knight in shining armour”. He injected money and created jobs. Now he has promised to do all that again, starting with the final $7 million owed to former QN workers such as Larkins – though not until after the election.
“Maybe it says a lot about hope around town that he will actually pay off those [workers’] entitlements and inject those funds back into the community,” Rains says.
Larkins does not share that optimism. “How can you trust anyone who spends all of their workers’ entitlements, steals their money, never admits ownership of that or takes blame for it, and leaves owing $300 million to all the other creditors as well?”
As a former union delegate at Queensland Nickel and a Labor Party member, Larkins’ own political views are set in stone. But even she concedes that voters flirting with Palmer have a right to be disappointed with the major parties.
“In the last 10 years they have been very similar, there hasn’t been a major difference between them,” she says. “People are justifiably pissed off. But I think [Palmer] spending between $30 and $50 million on an advertising campaign might have had more to do with it.”
Ewen Jones, the former Coalition MP for Herbert who lost in 2016 and then lost preselection last year, says neither the Coalition nor Labor candidate has done much to inspire voters.
“We’ve still got three weeks left,” he says. “The onus has got to be on the major parties to come out and articulate a vision for where the city, the state and the country are going.”
Michael Koziol is a political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.