Confident O’Brien ready for calm Election Day

Fairfax, Qld


Mathew Channer

Road to glory: Fairfax MP Ted O’Brien is eyeing a third term in Canberra

Fairfax MP Ted O’Brien introduces himself with the confidence of someone who has already won the upcoming Election. It is just under three weeks before Australians head to the ballot box, and he is already anticipating the sense of calm he will feel in the final hours leading up to Election Day.

“The final week of the campaign, you find a level of peace because you know you’ve done your bit and it’s up to everyone else,” Mr O’Brien said. “You’ve done everything you can.”

He sits easily in a chair in his well-lit office in Maroochydore. He has good reason to feel confident. After winning the seat in 2016, he won again in 2019 with a 2.57 per cent swing. Excluding Clive Palmer’s three-year term, Fairfax has been a Liberal-National Party stronghold since 1990. Now, despite the Australian Labor Party inching ahead in the federal polls, one Queensland Liberal MP, at least, appears calm, self-assured, and ready for a third term.

Mr O’Brien says his success is partly due to his approach to leadership, which is to embody the unique culture of the Sunshine Coast, which he described in his maiden speech as a “rare place that still possesses all that old style romantic charm of a small community but with a happy, vibrant, modern population”.

Six years on, Mr O’Brien’s attitude to the Coast hasn’t changed, despite a population boom and unprecedented economic growth. “There is something very cultural about the Coast,” he said. “Although economic strategies might change and infrastructure might change, culture trumps all those things. The economy here has been going gangbusters compared to elsewhere. But, culturally, we haven’t changed who we are, unless we have leadership which takes us in a different direction, and I hope that doesn’t happen.”

Mr O’Brien says he is the leader who will make sure it doesn’t. “I’d like to think people know me by now,” he said. “My pledge has been to deliver for the Sunshine Coast, to be the Sunshine Coast’s man in Canberra and not Canberra’s man on the Sunshine Coast.”

It’s a familiar catchphrase, appearing on the homepage of his website, in his victory speech after the 2019 Federal Election, and in the canvas copy of his maiden speech mounted to the wall in his reception area. According to him, he is keeping his promise.

“I’ve lived up to that pledge, and my record of delivery speaks for itself,” he said. “We now have more Federal Government funding for the Sunshine Coast than we’ve ever had. That doesn’t just happen. You’ve got to be prepared to fight for it.

“The mix of strategy, advocacy and persistence have all helped secure that money. That’s my style, and that’s what I offer, moving forward, is continuing to try to deliver.”

Mr O’Brien’s campaign, then, rests on what has already been achieved as much as what is promised. Yet some of the recently announced plans for Federal spending on the Sunshine Coast are for projects for which initial plans pre-date his legacy.

“It has probably been talked about for 20 years,” Fairfax Greens Party candidate Sue Etheridge said, speaking about the proposed heavy rail upgrade between Beerwah and Maroochydore CBD. Twenty-one years, in fact. Initial studies for a new public transport link between Beerwah and the Sunshine Coast were first completed in 2001. The $1.6bn in Federal funding secured for the upgrades in this year’s Budget has been a central focus of Mr O’Brien’s election campaign.

“A lot of the things being announced are re-announcements of re-announcements,” Ms Etheridge said. “Every election Mr O’Brien talks about the same thing, and not a lot happens, and then next election he talks about the same thing.”

The $1.6bn for heavy rail is just one of several large infrastructure projects federally funded on the Sunshine Coast since Mr O’Brien took office. Other investments include $240m for upgrades to the Bruce Highway interchanges at Maroochydore Road and Mons Road, and $160m for the Sunshine Coast Highway Mooloolah River interchange. While federal spending on infrastructure in the region is at an all-time high, Mr O’Brien has been criticised for being too focused on infrastructure and not enough on other issues such as the growing housing crisis.

“We’ve got a lot of housing for people who can spend $700,000 or $800,000 on a house, but not much for everyone else,” Ms Etheridge said. “Rents here on the Sunshine Coast have increased ridiculously. And there is a lack of rental properties.”

Mr O’Brien’s Plan for Fairfax, released in April, makes no mention of specific plans to alleviate the pressures of a rapidly rising housing market in his local area. With the exception of infrastructure, his plan is reiteration of promised Government policy. Four of its five main points parrot nation-wide initiatives such as the halving of the fuel excise, low and middle-income tax relief, and achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, with a few local initiatives thrown in to personalise it to the Sunshine Coast. In many ways, despite his promise that he is “the Sunshine Coast’s man in Canberra”, he also appears a rule-abiding Liberal, having consistently voted along party lines since 2016.

Yet Mr O’Brien is adamant that his approach to the Sunshine Coast is the right one. “Federal funding for health, for education, and for other services, are at their highest levels in history,” he said. “If any other candidates wish to criticise my record on infrastructure, I ask them to commit to the $1.6bn put in the Federal Budget to have heavy passenger rail through to the Maroochydore CBD. Not one has committed to deliver.”

Perhaps that’s because not all of them agree. “Everything needs a balance,” Mrs Etheridge said. She said the current leadership and federal expenditure in Fairfax isn’t allowing for a balanced population.

“We’re finding a lot of people are leaving the area,” she said. “That creates a problem. Every society needs a good balance of experiences, income types and employment types. There’s not much point having the Sunshine Coast populated by millionaires because you won’t find people to work in cafes and restaurants.”

There’s little doubt the Sunshine Coast is evolving, with balance or without it. Current forecasting predicts the region’s population will exceed 430,000 by 2031, up from last year’s population of approximately 350,000. Rental prices are soaring, and there are now 17 Sunshine Coast suburbs with a median house price of over $1m. All of which are factors which could be contributing to what Ms Etheridge calls the region’s “growing social inequity”.

So, is the Sunshine Coast changing without Mr O’Brien’s knowledge? According to him? No. “The only thing that changes culture is leadership,” he said. “The thing that would put us at risk as a region would be if we had leadership that wanted to fundamentally change the identity of who we are.”

His message appears to echo that of the Federal Government: stick with what you know. It’s worked for him in the past and, with a 13.4% swing needed to unseat him, looks likely to work again. He might find it harder to be the Sunshine Coast’s man in Canberra if he is relegated to the Shadow bench, but whether Prime Minister Scott Morrison or Labor leader Anthony Albanese comes out on top after the election, Fairfax should prepare itself for another three years of Mr O’Brien.

Regardless of what his challengers are saying about him, he is sticking to his guns. “Criticism comes with the game,” he said. “As a region we’ve never received so much Federal funding for infrastructure. If it’s a criticism that people wish to make of me, I hope they sing that criticism from the rooftops.”