Margin: Palmer United 0.0%
Region: Sunshine Coast, Queensland
Outgoing member: Clive Palmer (Palmer United)
In a nutshell: Clive Palmer’s three-year rollercoaster ride having come to end, the Sunshine Coast seat of Fairfax looks likely to return to its normal conservative ways.
Candidates in ballot paper order
KEITH ALEXANDER CAMPBELL
The Sunshine Coast electorate of Fairfax has been a major focus of political attention since the lead-up to the 2013 election, at which Clive Palmer succeeded in winning the seat for his Palmer United Party. His political successes having proved to be short-lived, Palmer will not be contesting the seat at the coming election, and it appears all but certain that it will now be won for the Liberal National Party by Ted O’Brien, whom Palmer defeated in 2013. The electorate presently covers the Sunshine Coast from Maroochydore north to Coolum Beach, the Bruce Highway from Palmwoods north to Eumundi, and a short stretch of the Mary River around Kenilworth. At the time of its creation in 1984 it was centred around Noosa, which had previously switched back and forth between Wide Bay and Fisher. The creation of Flynn at the 2007 election caused Fairfax to be reoriented southwards to a smaller but more populous region inland of Maroochydore, with Noosa and its surrounds returning to their old home of Wide Bay.
Prior to Palmer’s win, Fairfax had been held by the conservative parties at all times since its creation with the expansion of parliament in 1984, most recently by Alex Somlyay, who retired at the 2013 election after 23 years as member. The seat had been held by the Nationals until Somlyay won it as Liberal candidate in 2013, the turning point arriving with the retirement of Evan Adermann, the member of a local political dynasty who had held earlier held Fisher from 1972 to 1984. The Nationals candidate in 1990 was Senator and former Treasury secretary John Stone, but the party’s post-Fitzgerald inquiry nadir proved to be an inopportune time for a move to the lower house, and Somlyay surpassed him in the count with help from Democrats preferences. Occasional efforts by the Nationals to field candidates over the following years met with progressively diminishing success. Somlyay’s lowest winning margins over Labor were 4.4% in 1998, when One Nation polled 17.7%, and with Kevin Rudd’s statewide sweep in 2007, when a 9.4% swing cut the margin to 3.0%.
With Somlyay having indicated his intention to retire well in advance of the 2013 election, the general expectation was that he would be succeeded as Liberal National Party candidate by James McGrath, who had been director of the party’s enormously successful 2012 state election campaign. However, McGrath instead chose to set a cat among the pigeons by contesting preselection for the neighbouring seat of Fisher, whose local branches had long been cultivated by Mal Brough with a view to returning to politics at the expense of sitting member Peter Slipper. McGrath promised local preselectors he would not seek to use Fairfax as a fallback option if his bid for Fisher failed, and he duly opted for a position on the Senate ticket when this transpired. The Fairfax preselection was instead won by Ted O’Brien, the Buderim-based managing director of government relations firm Barton Deakin.
O’Brien’s seemingly smooth run to parliament ran into trouble in April 2013, when Clive Palmer announced he would contest it as part of his newly formed Palmer United Party, ostensibly with the “aim to be Australia’s next prime minister”. Palmer had long been a major donor and influential figure within conservative politics in Queensland, starting with his roles as campaign director of the National Party at the 1983 state election and media spokesperson in 1986. By 2012, Palmer’s mining-related wealth was rated at $5 billion by BRW magazine and $795 million by Forbes, although the true worth of his assets was much disputed. Palmer canvassed the possibility of running for Liberal National Party preselection in Wayne Swan’s seat of Lilley in mid-2012, to the consternation of many in the Coalition hierarchy including Tony Abbott. His status as a loose cannon within the party intensified as he criticised ministers in Campbell Newman’s state government and complained of the influence of lobbyists, which progressively resulted in his suspension and resignation, followed by his announcement in April 2013 that he was starting his own party.
With help from an enormously expensive national advertising campaign, contentiously funded through donations from his mining companies, Palmer succeeded in electing three of his candidates to the Senate while prevailing in Fairfax by 53 votes, following a count that was complicated by his voluminous challenges to the validity of votes counted for O’Brien and unsupported claims of corruption on the part of the Australian Electoral Commission. O’Brien outpolled Palmer by 41.3% to 26.5% on the primary vote, but Labor and Greens preferences proved just sufficient to close the gap. After an encouraging start, Palmer United’s standing in the polls withered as two of its three Senators resigned in November 2014 and March 2015, and Palmer’s personal stocks were fatally damaged after his Townsville-based Queensland Nickel company collapsed with 237 jobs lost and $74 million owing in workers’ entitlements. He announced he would not seek another term in Fairfax in early May, and scotched expectations he raised at the time that he might run in the Senate during the early stages of the campaign.
Ted O’Brien again won the right to contest the seat for the LNP in a May 2015 preselection vote ahead of Peter Duffy, a construction manager; Don Jamieson, a banking manager; Chloe Kopilovic, a solicitor; Adrian McCallum, an engineering lecturer at the University of Sunshine Coast; and Mark Somlyay, an accountant and the son of Alex Somlyay. Labor’s candidate is Scott Anderson, an IT consultant.
Analysis by William Bowe. Read William’s blog, The Poll Bludger.