In our most marginal seat, Cathy O’Toole embodies Labor’s contemporary struggle

Townsville’s long-serving Labor mayor Jenny Hill (who unsuccessfully contested Herbert in 2001) offers a lukewarm appraisal of Ms O’Toole’s campaign.

«She’s an incumbent, she’s had three years, she’s built a lot of good local support,» Cr Hill says. «But when you’re running with a federal campaign as well, sometimes it can be hard to get your message across.»

Townsville's Labor mayor Jenny Hill says Cathy O'Toole has found it difficult to get her message out.

Townsville’s Labor mayor Jenny Hill says Cathy O’Toole has found it difficult to get her message out.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

Cr Hill, who calls herself a «political powerhouse» on her Twitter profile, accepts Ms O’Toole’s support for Adani. «I can only take her on face value. She’s signed the pledge, she’s very clear she supports the opening of the Galilee [Basin], and Adani is the first mover.»

The problem for Labor is that many voters do not believe Ms O’Toole’s support is genuine. The local newspaper is full of letters expressing doubt. Her LNP opponent Phillip Thompson, a former military serviceman, is evangelical in his support for coal.

Ms O’Toole says Townsville is more progressive than it might appear, pointing out that all but two of the city’s key leadership positions are held by women.

«I think it puts a bit of a myth to the right-wing stuff,» she says. «It’s not about left and right. It’s about listening to the population and it’s about hearing what matters to people. I do think when you’re representing a broad range of people’s views, there is a position where you come to the centre, and you [say]: ‘on average, what are people’s views?’»

Like any marginal seat, Herbert has been showered with money and attention from both sides. Mr Shorten has visited 27 times since July 2015. «I’ve got almost an A4 sheet list of commitments that Labor has made to this city,» Ms O’Toole says.

And yet stacks of voters remain unconvinced by the major parties. A recent poll put support for Clive Palmer’s party in Herbert at 14 per cent — remarkable for a city devastated by the collapse of his Queensland Nickel refinery in 2016. Mr Palmer’s how-to-vote cards will urge voters to direct their preferences to the LNP — potentially a death knell for Labor.


Ms O’Toole says she is absolutely undeterred and describes the preference deal as «a smack in the face» for locals who lost their jobs when the refinery collapsed. And she believes she can still win over those voters who are backing minor parties.

«The people I call undecided are the people who haven’t said they’ll vote Labor or Liberal,» Ms O’Toole says. «I genuinely want to know what makes them tick.»

She only has a couple of weeks to find out.

Michael Koziol is a political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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