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Rotten Robodebt legacy lingers as Liberals attempt re-election in Fadden

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(Cartoon by Mark David | @MDavidCartoons)

The Federal seat of Fadden is currently up for grabs after the exit of former MP Stuart Robert, whose numerous scandals may affect the Liberal Party's chances of re-election, writes Belinda Jones.

THE STARTER'S gun has fired in the 2023 Fadden Federal By-election. Early voting has begun in the Gold Coast seat and so too have the games in relentless pursuit of so-called democracy.

Australians like to pride ourselves on our democracy — a free society where anyone can throw their hat into the ring at election time. Thirteen candidates have thrown their hats into the Fadden ring. An eclectic composition of political hopefuls all vying to be the Federal Member for Fadden, myself included.

The Federal seat of Fadden is currently up for grabs after the retirement of former member Stuart Robert.

Stuart Robert served 16 scandal-ridden years as a Liberal National Party of Queensland (LNP) member, achieving very little for the people he claimed to serve. One of the architects of the illegal Robodebt scheme and the fact he was tied to a litany of other transgressions eventually prompted Robert's retirement from Parliament.

Robert claimed his retirement was to “focus on family” less than a year after winning the seat in the 2022 Federal Election, forcing the costly By-election: over 100,000 Queenslanders have to make the trek back to their local polling places because he decided to pull up stumps one year into his three-year term. Few appear to believe Stuart Robert’s stated reasons for his retirement, which seems to be the go-to excuse for politicians in hot water.

On the hustings in Fadden, Robert’s name seems to be a dirty word. LNP candidate Cameron Caldwell visibly bristles when it is mentioned. The LNP would prefer the people of Fadden forget all about Stuart Robert, stating things like "he’s gone; that’s all in the past" whenever his name comes up — which is often.

LNP candidate Caldwell and the many volunteers who backed Robert year after year obviously want to confine his legacy to the dustbin of history. However, many in Fadden likely remember a lot about Stuart Robert — his absence on the ground in the electorate; the scandals he was involved in; the shady deals; poor policy decisions, but especially his signature illegal Robodebt scheme.

And for any that need reminding, the report by Commissioner Catherine Holmes AC SC, who was charged with weighing evidence from the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme, has now been released.

In a media statement yesterday, which quotes from the report, PM Albanese said:

'The Royal Commission has found that “Robodebt was a crude and cruel mechanism, neither fair nor legal, and it made many people feel like criminals. In essence, people were traumatised on the off-chance they might owe money. It was a costly failure of public administration, in both human and economic terms".'

The LNP has opened its coffers to help get Caldwell over the line: hundreds of Caldwell corflute signs mark the large electorate. Every electronic billboard in Fadden has been booked out by the LNP at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars.

Expensive person-to-person polling by the LNP is taking place – including robo-polling – yet (at the time of writing) the results of that polling have not been released to the public. 

Early voting opened on 3 July. The media arrived right on cue: Channel 9, Channel 7 and local News Corp rag, the Gold Coast Bulletin. A group photo of all the assembled candidates was taken.

However, the media interviewed only the LNP candidate, setting up a clandestine press conference a block away from the Runaway Bay polling place with state MP Laura Gerber. No other Fadden By-election candidate was interviewed.

At early voting polling places, the LNP staked its territory, claiming more real estate than seemed fair. Among the 13 candidates, only the LNP has access to such a financial advantage, throwing hundreds of thousands of dollars to try and get Caldwell elected. A feat that cannot be matched by any other candidate — all others are running their campaigns on very small budgets.

Caldwell also has the media on his side. So far, he has enlisted the aid of Cr Brooke Patterson – a fellow LNP member and Gold Coast City Councillor – and Senator James Paterson has also been seen pre-poll.

On the hustings on Thursday, Caldwell cockily discussed his need to buy a winter wardrobe for “when I get to Canberra” — a sign of the arrogance he shares with the former member for Fadden, that this seat is somehow the rightful property of the LNP. No matter that the LNP is in the midst of a monumental losing streak in both federal and state spheres.

Early voting indicates the LNP may be disappointed when polls close on 15 July. Given the legacy of Stuart Robert, Robodebt and Caldwell’s own history of service on the Gold Coast City Council (he was expelled from the LNP in 2012), it seems odd that Caldwell was pre-selected over other far more electable candidates like Dr Dinesh Palipana

Caldwell may have to put off buying that winter wardrobe — time will tell.

DISCLAIMER: Belinda Jones is running as an Independent candidate for the Federal seat of Fadden in the upcoming By-election.

You can follow IA columnist Belinda Jones on Twitter @belindajones68.

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