With the Poll Bludger’s threadbare federal election guide nearing completion (to be fleshed out further in coming months as much as time permits), the time has come to reactivate the dormant Seat of the Week series. We return with the seat of Parramatta, where Labor member Julie Owens’ 0.8 per cent margin has turned into a notional Liberal margin of 1.1 per cent following the redistribution. The electorate now covers an elongated strip from Carlingford and Dundas west to Kings Langley and Blacktown, with the southern boundary running just south of the Parramatta town centre.
A quarter of this territory consists of an area gained from Greenway to the west, from Grantham and Prospect north through Seven Hills and eastern Blacktown to Kings Langley. The new area follows the rest of the electorate in that the northern part is strongly Liberal (as are Winston Hills and Carlingford to the east), while the remainder leans to Labor (as does Wentworthville and Parramatta itself). Similarly, the North Rocks area gained from northern neighbour Mitchell went 62-38 the Liberals’ way in 2004. Elizabeth Wynhausen of The Australian writes of a faultline through the electorate which separates Sydney’s poorer south-west, including Lebanese and Iranian enclaves at Harris Park and North Parramatta, from stolid Winston Hills in the north. Much of the former area, including 29,000 voters in Westmead, Harris Park, Rosehill, Rydalmere and Dundas, has now been tranferred to the electorate’s southern neighbour, Reid.
Parramatta was created at federation, shrinking over time from Sydney’s broad north-western outskirts into the immediate area of the town itself. A conservative stronghold until 1929, it was held for the first 20 years by Joseph Cook, who served as Liberal prime minister from June 1913 to September 1914. Labor’s only win prior to 1977 came with the election of Jim Scullin’s government in 1929, when their candidate Albert Rowe picked up a 13.4 per cent swing. This was undone with a vengeance when the Scullin government was defeated in 1931, when the seat swung 19.5 per cent to the newly founded United Australia Party. Subsequent members included Sir Frederick Stewart, who served as External Affairs Minister for one highly eventful year from 1940 to 1941; Sir Garfield Barwick, Menzies government External Affairs Minister and Attorney-General, and later controversial Chief Justice of the High Court; and Philip Ruddock, who began his parliamentary career when he won the seat at a by-election in September 1973, adding 7.0 per cent to what had been an extremely narrow margin in 1972.
The watershed in the seat’s history came with a 1977 redistribution that effectively changed the existing seat’s name to Dundas, of which Philip Ruddock became the inaugural member, while creating a new seat of Parramatta that extended deep into Sydney’s Labor-voting west. The newly safe Labor seat was won by John Brown, the koala-hating Hawke government Tourism Minister who is remembered for inappropriate use of his ministerial desk. Brown resigned as minister in 1987 after misleading parliament and quit politics in 1990, when he was succeeded in Parramatta by Paul Elliott. Redistributions in 1984 and 1993 returned the seat to the marginal column by pulling it back to the east, reducing the margin to 1.0 per cent ahead of the 1993 election. Elliott was able to increase his margin on that occasion, but the 1996 election proved a bridge too far, with Liberal candidate Ross Cameron picking up the seat with a 7.1 per cent swing.
Despite sometimes making the news for the wrong reasons, Cameron held Parramatta against the 1998 GST swing (a relatively mild 1.1 per cent) and a highly unfavourable redistribution in 2001, which added much of the area now being returned to Reid. He was rewarded for the latter success with a parliamentary secretary position, and looked for all the world like a promising up-and-comer. Unfortunately, his career went into meltdown two months out from the 2004 election, when he felt compelled to tell Fairfax’s Good Weekend magazine that he had committed numerous infidelities throughout his married life, including a present affair which was under way while his wife was pregnant. Cameron became one of only three Coalition MPs to lose his seat (the others being Trish Worth in Adelaide and Larry Anthony in Richmond), suffering a small but decisive 1.9 per cent swing.
Labor’s winning candidate was Julie Owens (right), classically trained pianist, chief executive of the Association of Independent Record Labels and owner of an unspecified small business. Owens is associated with the Left faction, having won preselection with support from factional chieftain Laurie Ferguson. When speculation emerged that Ferguson’s neighbouring seat of Reid might be the one for the chop when New South Wales was cut from 50 seats to 49, Ferguson openly mused that he might have to fall back on Parramatta. While that was not to be, Owens was done a poor turn of a different kind by the redistribution, and must now pick up another swing in order to retain her seat. After much speculation that former navy officer Tim Bolitho was the front-runner, the Liberals have preselected another former navy man in Colin Robinson, who now works as an electrician and is a member of the Electrical Trades Union. A certainly lack of urgency surrounding the Liberals’ search for a new candidate was noted, prompting suggestions that the party is not wildly optimistic about its chances.
See Crikey’s marginal seat guide for my precision-tooled electorate maps marking 2004 two-party and swing results in each individual booth.