Ordinarily, the water problems of an island indigenous community would struggle to get even cursory attention during a federal election campaign.
But timing and geography have conspired to ensure that the woes the people of Palm Island have experienced with their water supply are front and centre of this campaign, at least in the hotly contested seat of Herbert.
Palm Island has had to deal with 14 emergency warnings not to drink the local water this year alone, as operational problems with a relatively new water treatment plant installed by the State Government continue to plague the community. A frustrated Mayor Alf Lacey has been unable to get either the state or federal governments to address the issue…until this week.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion yesterday travelled to the island, with LNP Herbert candidate Phil Thompson in tow, to promise $2 million to fix the plant if the Morrison government is re-elected on 18 May. Both went out of their way to condemn the State Government and Labor’s Herbert candidate Cathy O’Toole for what they claimed was inaction on the issue. Senator Scullion said the money, from the Government’s Indigenous Advancement Fund, would be delivered to Palm Island Aboriginal Shire Council for repairs and maintenance.
Ms O’Toole holds Herbert by just 37 votes, making it Australia’s most marginal seat. It also makes Palm Island’s problems ripe for campaigning. As it happens, it was Ms O’Toole’s turn to travel to the island today, where she promised a Labor government would spend $3 million on repairing the plant.
Suddenly, Cr Lacey and his community are swimming in solutions. Naturally, Ms O’Toole and Mr Thompson (who has a slight lead in the opinion polls) would hope that their efforts to resolve the island’s issues will attract votes on Saturday. This might be the case, or it might not. It is worth noting that Ms O’Toole won just over 72 percent of the vote on Palm Island at the last federal election, while her then LNP opponent Ewen Jones, attracted just 7.5 percent.
But, so tight is the contest in Herbert that local issues like Palm Island’s water supply have the potential to turn the election.