Welcome to the first episode of a new series in which the key seats for the federal election will be put under the microscope. And what better place to start than in the Perth northern suburbs electorate of Stirling, which was home to your correspondent from the ages of two to 23. Stirling was created at the 1955 election to cater for post-war suburban expansion, and roughly assumed its current dimensions following a redistribution in 1969. Subsequent growth in Perth’s northern corridor has been accommodated by drawing in the once semi-rural electorate of Moore, and through the creation of Cowan when parliament was enlarged in 1984. Stirling now extends from Scarborough, Trigg and North Beach on the coast through the light industrial areas of Balcatta and Osborne Park, on to low-income Balga and Mirrabooka and the more affluent Dianella nearer the city. This chart compares Labor’s two-party results since the seat’s creation with the corresponding state and national results; the figures in boxes indicate shifts resulting from redistributions.
This map shows the two-party vote by suburb at the 2004 election: red indicates a majority for Labor and blue for Liberal, with the size of the number varying as a rough indicator of the number of votes cast.
In its original incarnation, when it extended inland all the way to Guildford, Stirling was a Labor-leaning marginal held for all but one term by Harry Webb (not to be confused with this Harry Webb) from 1955 to 1972. The 1969 changes produced a 3.4 per cent shift that made the seat notionally Liberal, but Webb comfortably held the seat on the back of the 1969 pro-Whitlam swing, only to lose it in 1972 when Western Australia substantially bucked the national trend (another Labor casualty being Forrest). Ian Viner held the seat for the Liberals from 1972 until 1983, surviving by 12 votes in 1974 and going on to serve as Aboriginal Affairs Minister in the Fraser government. Stirling has since been remarkable for its adherence to the statewide swing, as indicated by this chart showing the deviation from the state and national swing to or from Labor. The range between plus and minus 2 per cent is coloured as this is within the standard deviation for Western Australian electorates from the statewide swing; notably, Stirling has fallen within this range at every election since 1975. In other words, Stirling has been of above-average averageness for 12 elections in a row.
In line with Labor’s strong overall performance, Stirling changed hands when the Hawke government was elected in 1983, with Ron Edwards winning the seat from Ian Viner. Despite an unfavourable redistribution in 1984, Edwards held the seat by narrow margins at the next three elections, surviving by just 234 votes in 1990. He finally lost to high-profile broadcaster Eoin Cameron in 1993, when WA again bucked a national pro-Labor trend. Throughout this period the coastal suburbs assumed an older and more Liberal-friendly profile, but this was counterbalanced by a series of redistributions beneficial to Labor, the most recent of which added Balga and Mirrabooka in 2001. Labor was thus able to regain the seat in 1998, when Cameron was defeated by Jann McFarlane.
Stirling changed hands for the third time in five elections in 2004, after another swing consistent with the statewide result. There were instructive variations in the swing within the electorate: a clear doctors’ wives effect can be discerned in the coastal suburbs, in contrast to the strong swings to the Liberals in lower income areas further inland.
The Liberals’ success came despite the embarrassing withdrawal of their candidate Paul Afkos eight months earlier, when it emerged he had borrowed $300,000 from a man he knew to be a convicted drug trafficker. Afkos stood aside and was replaced by Michael Keenan (right), real estate salesman, state party deputy director and former adviser to Amanda Vanstone and Alexander Downer. Labor suffered a slightly less dramatic embarrassment during the campaign period, when McFarlane told a talk radio caller (who proved to be Liberal activist Michelle Poor, later to run as the party’s candidate for Balcatta at the 2005 state election) that the party’s tax policy might need adjusting.
Michael Keenan has kept a fairly low profile in his first term in parliament, perhaps because his shaky hold on his seat has prompted him to tend to local matters. He faces a formidable Labor opponent in former SAS officer Peter Tinley (left), who was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 2003 after serving as deputy commander of the Special Forces Task Group in Iraq. He earlier served in Afghanistan and as the operations officer when the SAS intervened during the Tampa crisis. Tinley made headlines in November when he described the Iraq war as a strategic and moral blunder; he was promptly approached to run by Kim Beazley, then entering his final week as Labor leader. This thwarted the ambitions of Jim Murie, an official with the Left faction Communications Electrical Plumbing Union, who withdrew his nomination shortly before the preselection vote in February.
UPDATE: Mr Q at Eagles Flying High has helpfully overlaid the above map with state electoral boundaries.