A tale of two seats

A couple of entries in the federal election guide have needed substantial revisions recently, the obvious example being the Liberal vacancy created in the Melbourne seat of Goldstein by the retirement of David Kemp. The names of former federal director Andrew Robb and former state president Michael Kroger were immediately floated, but Kroger has allowed it to be added to the long list of opprtunities he has knocked back owing to business and family interests. The formalities are still in progress but it appears likely that Robb will emerge uncontested when nominations close on Friday.

Robb had long been spoken of in relation to safe seats in New South Wales, his home for the past two decades, but he originally hails from Victoria where he was raised in a large working-class Catholic family that supported the Democratic Labor Party. Like Peter Costello, Robb moved in influential New Right circles after establishing himself in student politics, leading a crusade against the campus left’s dominance of the La Trobe University student council. Robb moved into a job at the newly established and soon-to-be hugely influential National Farmers Federation, becoming executive director in 1985. At around that time the NFF was creating industrial relations history by bank-rolling the Mudginberri abattoir and Dollar Sweets during their landmark legal actions against militant unions.

After leaving the NFF in 1988 Robb worked on the Liberal secretariat, as chief-of-staff to Andrew Peacock leading into the 1990 election, and then as federal party director. The 1990 and 1993 elections didn’t do his reputation many favours but most laid the blame elsewhere. In 1994 however many in the party held him responsible for a leak of party polling with which Kerry O’Brien was able to embarrass John Hewson during an appearance on the 7:30 Report, which led directly to Hewson’s demise as leader. In her book on the 1996 federal election campaign, The Victory, Pamela Williams recounted that when John Howard assumed the Liberal leadership in 1995 he had to be talked out of dumping him (by, among others, Michael Kroger, who "declared that he would bet his life on Robb’s trustworthiness"). The 1996 election result was seen to vindicate all concerned and Robb moved on, launching Conservatives for an Australian Head of State before the 1999 republic referendum and a business career that proved rather more successful, setting up the direct marketing company Acxiom for Kerry Packer.

Robb’s predecessor and mentor at the National Farmers Federation was Ian McLachlan, who would go on to federal politics as the Liberal member for the South Australian seat of Barker, which brings us in a roundabout way to the other federal election guide entry overtaken by recent events. Since McLachlan’s retirement in 1998 Barker has been held by Patrick Secker, who won preselection that year as the favoured candidate of Senator Nick Minchin’s Right faction. Despite holding his seat with a 17 per cent margin, Secker has had a number of occasions in the past year to think that his career might be in jeopardy. Like many South Australian electorates Barker was substantially remodelled in the redistribution that cost the state one of its 12 existing seats, extending north to take the Murray Valley/Riverland from Wakefield which now provides it with about a third of its voters. This area was the electoral heartland of Wakefield MP and House of Representatives Speaker Neil Andrew, who felt that Barker rather than the now unrecognisable semi-urban seat of Wakefield was his natural territory. Andrew averted a brawl by instead opting to retire, but Secker’s widespread reputation as a non-achiever had others in the party thinking they could do better. Crikey nominated three party figures (Ashley Jared, Draz Baric and Nick McBride) as having their eyes on the seat, but the Prime Minister’s insistence that sitting members not be challenged was apparently enough to dissuade them.

Then came widespread reports that the only National Party MP in the state parliament, Karlene Maywald, was planning to take a challenge to Secker directly to the voters after having toyed with nominating for Liberal preselection. Maywald’s popularity locally was indicated by her success in winning a seat as a Nationals candidate in a state where the party’s base is almost non-existent (their candidate for Barker in 1998 polled 2.2 per cent). As talk of her candidacy gained momentum, Secker made the courageous decision to stand by a recommendation of a parliamentary committee on which he sat that would have deprived South Australia of 500 gigalitres of Murray River flows. This provoked a sharp response from South Australian Liberals up to and including Alexander Downer – and, less surprisingly, from Karlene Maywald. In June 2004 Secker belatedly changed his mind.

All the elements for a fascinating contest were in place, but Maywald’s ambitions were also proving of concern to a state Labor Government who had the gumption to do something about it. With the effectively independent Maywald having proved a fairly agreeable cross-bencher in the view of Mike Rann’s minority government, Labor did not want the Liberals recovering her seat of Chaffey at the by-election that would follow a move to federal parliament. Showing the craftiness that has characterised his government, Mike Rann offered Maywald a cabinet position as Minister for the River Murray, Regional Development, Small Business and Consumer Affairs (hiving the first of these off the Environment portfolio being an added twist of genius), which she duly accepted. Rann now sits at the head of South Australia’s first majority government since 1997, and Secker can again breathe easy.

Author: William Bowe

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, has existed in one form or another since 2004, and is one of the most heavily trafficked websites on Australian politics.