La Trobe has covered Melbourne’s eastern fringe since it was created with the enlargement of parliament in 1949, drifting south-eastwards over time from its starting point of Dandenong and Croydon. It now consists of two outer Melbourne areas separated by the Dandenong Ranges Boronia and Ferntree Gully in the north and Berwick in the south and extends east through Belgrave to Emerald, Cockatoo and Gembrook. Labor’s strength around Belgrave is countered by ever-increasing Liberal dominance around Berwick, with little separating the two parties in Boronia and Ferntree Gully. Along with other seats in Melbourne’s outer suburban sandbelt, La Trobe played a decisive role in the 1972 election of the Whitlam government, falling to Labor for the first time with a 10.2 per cent swing. It swung almost as heavily the other way in 1975, but returned to the Labor fold in 1980 when Peter Milton defeated Liberal member Marshall Baillieu (presumably part of the clan that includes state party leader Ted). An unfavourable redistribution combined with Victoria’s anti-Labor tsunami of 1990 to deliver a 1.4 per cent victory to Liberal candidate Bob Charles. The seat had a remarkably stable time of it on Charles’s watch, staying with the Liberals by 2.4 per cent in 1993, 1.4 per cent in 1996, 1.0 per cent in 1998 and 3.7 per cent in 2001.
When Charles retired at the 2004 election, the seat emerged as a contest between Liberal candidate Jason Wood (right), a police officer who had worked in counter-terrorism and organised crime units, and Labor’s Susan Davies, who held the since-abolished state seat of Gippsland West as an independent from 1997 to 2002. The result was an easy win for Wood, who defied the loss of Charles’s personal vote to pick up a 2.1 per cent swing that was concentrated in the heavily mortgaged suburbs nearer the city. Wood had won preselection with the backing of the Kennett faction after cutting his teeth as candidate for Holt in 2001. Rival candidates included former state Monbulk state MP Steve McArthur, former Casey mayor Mick Morland and proverbial bad penny Ken Aldred, former member for Deakin and Bruce. At the time of Wood’s preselection it was noted he had been a member of Greenpeace for longer than he has been a member of the Liberal Party, and he has recently caused his party embarrassment by issuing a brochure that failed to sing from its song sheet on nuclear power.
Labor initially endorsed United Firefighters Union official Greg Pargeter, who defeated former state Ferntree Gully MP Anne Eckstein at a preselection vote in March. However, Pargeter was dumped in August as Labor grew increasingly confident that the seat could be winnable with the right candidate. That candidate was Rodney Cocks (left), who has served as a United Nations security adviser in East Timor, Afghanistan, Iraq and Sri Lanka. Cocks assisted in the aftermath of the 2002 bombing in Bali, where he was holidaying, and when the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad was bombed in 2003, killing UN envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello. Cocks’ efforts on the former occasion earned him the Conspicuous Service Medal, and he was named Victorian of the Year in 2005. A book about his experiences, Bali to Baghdad and Beyond, was published last year by Penguin. Pargeter meanwhile has not reacted kindly to his dumping, claiming to have been the victim of a highly personal campaign of smear and denigration. The Australian reported in August that senior ALP figures admitted Pargeter had been subjected to vicious rumours about his personal conduct, including attacks from his right-wing Labor Unity faction. He has recently been back in the news with threats of a well-timed defamation suit against four as-yet-unnamed figures in the ALP, said to include MPs and members of the national executive.
Newspoll, Galaxy and Roy Morgan have all included La Trobe among four Victorian electorates targeted for marginal seat polling. Morgan’s poll a week out from the election pointed to a collective swing of 4.8 per cent, closely echoed by Galaxy’s 4.5 per cent. However, Newspoll’s two polls had the swing at 7.3 per cent at the mid-point of the campaign and 8.3 per cent a fortnight later. Tim Colebatch of The Age detected good news for Labor in an enrolment boom in the electorate, which has been driven by its more Labor-leaning urban areas. Talk has emerged lately of Labor falling just short in all its target Victorian seats, which Dennis Shanahan and Matthew Franklin of The Australian report was the finding of Labor polling targeting 350 voters per electorate.