In Queensland, whose unicameral state parliament makes it perhaps Australia’s toughest arena for the Greens to win office, the party once had a foothold. The Labor defector Ronan Lee briefly flew the green flag in the leafy westside Brisbane electorate of Indooroopilly.
The former journalist and publicist Scott Emerson snagged the seat in 2009 on his path to the upper ranks of the Liberal National party. But the ground has shifted somewhat under the shadow treasurer’s feet, with a redistribution that now has halved Emerson’s notional margin to 3%, in a new seat called Maiwar which retains a definite green tinge among its educated, “post-material” constituency.
Emerson, the incumbent and the only candidate who lives in the electorate, betrays no sign of anxiety that he could fall prey to a reverse case of what in 2012 the LNP called a “decapitation strategy” (the targeting of senior Labor MPs who were ousted in a landslide).
“Maiwar will be a very tough contest and I’ll be facing the challenges of Labor, the Greens, unions and GetUp all campaigning against me,” he says. “There’s very positive feeling out there but I’m not taking anything for granted.”
The Greens candidate Amy MacMahon’s ground assault on the Labor deputy premier, Jackie Trad, in South Brisbane has drawn most of the attention leading up to the 25 November polling day, but some Greens campaigners think an upset victory in Maiwar is their best chance on paper.
Their candidate is Michael Berkman, an environmental lawyer who has acted in conservation group court challenges to Adani’s proposed Carmichael coalmine. His was the first public voice calling for Labor to veto a loan from the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility.
“I feel like I know the detail of this project as well as anyone does,” Berkman says. “I would absolutely be happy to take anyone to task on their support for a project that in so many respects doesn’t stack up.”
Labor sources say their candidate, Ali King, will finish second to Emerson on primaries and that the tightest contest will involve Trad, who would still prevail in South Brisbane.
But the Greens point to pulling more primary votes than Labor in 23 out of 26 booth counts within Maiwar in the last federal and council elections. The Greens figure they need an extra 1,554 votes – a 5% to 6% swing – and have enlisted 120 people to knock on 12,217 doors.
Their Maiwar campaign has received backing from one of the more prominent and less conventional figures of the Australian corporate landscape: the Wotif co-founder Graeme Wood.
Wood, who is also an investor in Guardian Australia, has donated $5,000 to the campaign. This will pay for a dedicated campaigner to field and coordinate a burgeoning number of volunteers, who the Greens say are coming in faster than they can handle. Five hundred have already signed up.
A day before Annastacia Palaszczuk’s dramatic and unexpected move last week to pledge to veto any federal loan for Adani, the former Australian Greens leader, Bob Brown, told the Guardian: “Here’s the curious thing: we’ve got a leading Greens candidate who’s got the solution for either of the big parties that wants to deal with the most unpopular part of the Adani package, and that’s giving taxpayers’ money to this filthy rich corporate.”
Brown added with an element of prescience: “It’d be a very popular move but of course, [Palaszczuk] has painted herself into a corner. But it’s amazing what people will do when elections appear to be slipping out of their grasp.”
Thie week Brown said a belated veto by a returned Labor government was “not quite the nail in the coffin for Adani”.
But the election of any of the three most likely Greens candidates – Berkman, MacMahon, and the environmental scientist Kirsten Lovejoy in the inner northside Brisbane seat of McConnel – would be “a hammer blow on Adani’s progress”, Brown says.
Berkman tells the Guardian a Greens MP in a hung parliament where One Nation has leached away major-party votes could play an unusually pivotal role.
“I think with Adam Bandt [the federal Melbourne MP] and Jonathan Sri [the first Brisbane Greens councillor], we’ve seen just how influential the Greens can be even when they’re a single member of a parliament or chamber,” he says.
“It takes it to a whole new level when you’ve got tight parliaments. I think the Greens can play a really pivotal role in this next parliament in terms of being there on the crossbench to counteract some of the risks that come with One Nation having a role again.”
The question of the LNP ultimately cutting a deal with One Nation to guarantee supply for a minority government – and its unspoken reservation of the right to preference the Hansonites in vulnerable Labor seats in defiance of a now-defunct bipartisan shunning of One Nation – is unlikely to play well with small “l” liberals who support the LNP in Maiwar.
Asked about the prospect of supporters becoming disenchanted by this, Emerson says “the only reason that preferences are even an issue is that Labor changed the voting system” because it wanted to harvest spent Greens preferences in key seats such as Maiwar.
“The only thing we’ve seen so far is that One Nation is going to put sitting members last and that means if One Nation are preferencing in Maiwar they’re going to preference Labor ahead of me,” he says.
Emerson says he does have people asking him about Adani in terms of party policy. “I explain to them that our view is that it is a project that has very stringent environmental criteria that it’s had to pass through. But also it’s important in terms of creating jobs for Queensland.
“I try to have a sensible and honest discussion with people about it. Some people won’t agree with what I say but most of the people are just pleased I’m happy to talk to them and address those issues with them.”
Emerson says that “obviously the Green vote has always been very high in my electorate, that’s nothing new”. “The first time I ran, it was 25%,” he says.
As the aspiring treasurer, Emerson would be carrying the can for the Adani Naif loan, which the LNP supports in the face of what even its leader, Tim Nicholls, acknowledges is majority opposition.
Emerson sent out a letter to constituents that listed “concern for the future of the Great Barrier Reef” as among the three biggest issues for locals.
His proposal is fairly unspecific: “We need to form an alliance between reef users to ensure the Great Barrier Reef is protected.”
Whether or not this cuts it with Maiwar voters depends on the resonance of another issue Emerson insists he is asked about more often, even in one of Queensland’s most affluent seats: living costs. “Particularly electricity prices and particularly in the last six months,” he says, pointing also to issues such as substandard rail services and traffic jams.
“I always make sure that I explain to people that we take a balanced approach to those issues.”
The Adani proposal has played a larger role in the state election than many expected, including Berkman. “I think it’s a great testament to just how significant this issue is in the eyes of the community.”
Berkman says while Labor is calling for the mine to stand on its own two feet, he would push in parliament for legislative steps to undo the concessions granted to the miner, such as its unlimited licence to tap groundwater.
Brown says the Greens – who in the past have had to be content with their leading lights including Drew Hutton being “the best parliamentarian Queensland never had” – have a chance to break their sunshine state hoodoo.
“There’s a great conjunction here of three winnable electorates, three very solid and attractive candidates, and the biggest environmental and economic issue to confront the electorate in Queensland in at least two decades,” he says.
“Whichever way you look at it, people who oppose the Adani mine can’t vote elsewhere but the Greens. And it’s a vote changer, at least as potent as the Franklin dam was 35, 40 years ago.
“Queenslanders have got it sweet because they’ve got good options. It’s one of those elections where everything’s up for grabs.
“It’s going to be an exciting event when it comes.”