The Poll Bludger is currently beavering away at his seat-by-seat federal election guide, to be launched in its full glory whenever the campaign commences. To maximise my visibility in the meantime I will exhibit the fruits of my labours with occasional postings on key seats, starting here with Parramatta. It’s arguably an unfortunate place to begin, as it has been paid too much attention in recent years due to a perception that John Howard’s success in holding it since 1996 has been a paradigm for his government’s electoral achievement. In particular it has contributed to a perception that Howard owes much of his success to a durable turnaround in Labor’s former heartland in western Sydney. Peter Brent at Mumble has much to say about this particular item of conventional wisdom, pointing out that Labor still holds 13 of the 16 western Sydney seats and that while Parramatta the suburb may fit this Labor-friendly mould, the electorate as a whole does not. Nevertheless, the seat has maintained a conspicuous place at the rounded end of the Mackerras pendulum since 1998 and if Labor don’t pick it up they are unlikely to win government.
A quick look at the history of the electorate makes it hard understand why such a fuss is being made of Labor’s failure to carry the seat. Prior to 1977 Labor’s only win here was at the 1929 election that brought Jim Scullin to power. At other times the seat was held by a non-Labor Prime Minister (Joseph Cook, member from federation until 1922 and PM from 1913-14) and by two members who had served as both Attorney-General and External Affairs Minister (Garfield Barwick, 1958-1964, and Nigel Bowen, 1964-1973). When Bowen opted to resume his legal career six months after the Coalition’s defeat in 1972, a young Philip Ruddock inflicted an early humiliation on the Whitlam Government by holding the seat with a 7 per cent swing at the ensuing by-election. All that changed with the redistribution that preceded the 1977 election, when the electorate moved so far to the west that Ruddock’s 9.2 per cent buffer from 1975 became a notional Labor majority of 2.5 per cent. Ruddock jumped ship to since-abolished Dundas, made up in large part of what had been the Liberal-leaning eastern end of Parramatta, which can now be found in John Howard’s electorate of Bennelong. The seat was won for Labor in 1977 by John Brown, who would later become one of the more colourful members of Bob Hawke’s cabinet. Further boundary changes over the years favoured the Liberals, with areas being lost to the prize Labor western suburbs electorates of Reid and Greenway, and by the time of Brown’s retirement in 1990 the seat was marginal again.
Since then Parramatta’s behaviour has not been wildly out of the ordinary as far as New South Wales goes, which along with its position in the upper income-earning quartile should put an end to any talk that "Howard’s battlers" have been deciding the outcome. It is indeed true that the 1996 election saw particularly savage swings against the Keating Government in western Sydney, but these swings were worse in unloseable seats like Blaxland (Paul Keating down 9.1 per cent) and Werriwa (Mark Latham down 9.3 per cent) than in Parramatta (7.1 per cent). Cumulative swings over the next two elections were 1.5 per cent more favourable for the Liberals than the state average, although this is as likely due to the advantages of incumbency as demographic shifts or enthusiasm for the local member, Ross Cameron. In 2001 Cameron mirrored the state average by holding on with the same 1.1 per cent margin he won by in 1998, his swing cancelling out a redistribution that favoured Labor by 3.4 per cent.
Cameron has had an outwardly successful term, being appointed parliamentary secretary first to Larry Anthony immediately after the election, and then to Peter Costello in the October 2003 reshuffle. There have nevertheless been occasions in his career when colleagues may have had cause to doubt his political judgement. He has raised eyebrows on the left by calling for the ABC to be scrapped on the grounds that public broadcasting is out of date, and on the right by conceding that many saw mandatory detention as "primitive and barbaric" and calling on Australians to quit banging on about the Anzacs. He also told HQ magazine he regarded Mark Latham as "very intelligent, insightful and unorthodox", "a person of real intellect and political courage" and "a genuine leader figure". Here he has changed his tune somewhat recently, this week declaring that "Osama bin Laden is stroking his beard and celebrating the advent of Mark Latham".
Last year Cameron was involved in the cash-for-visas scandal, having lobbied extensively on behalf of Dante Tan, the Philippine fugitive businessman granted citizenship by the Immigration Department. It was established that Tan had donated $10,000 to Ruddock’s 2001 election campaign and that his lawyer had made a $2000 campaign donation to Cameron. Tan was also present at a Sydney Harbour fund-raising cruise for Cameron organised by immigration fixer Karim Kisrwani, though all concerned swear that he neglected to cough up when the hat was passed around.
It seems so long ago now, but at the time of Labor’s Parramatta preselection vote in November last year the position would have been regarded as no great prize, given the then-universal expectation that Labor faced disaster at the next election. This no doubt explains the party’s failure to pull any unduly big names out of the hat, with the left’s Julie Owens defeating independent Desmond Netto by 166 votes to 32. The right’s Pierre Esber, a Parramatta Councillor who scored an unwinnable spot on Labor’s list for the 2003 Legislative Council election, initially threw his hat into the ring but withdrew for reasons unclear to the Poll Bludger. Owens is the chief executive of the Association of Independent Record Labels, a worthy enough lobby group but one hardly likely to strike terror into the heart of the governing establishment. Her electoral apprenticeship was served with the thankless job of Labor candidate for North Sydney at the 1996 and 1998 federal elections, at which she predictably failed to cause Joe Hockey any trouble.