This week’s better-late-than-never installment of Seat of the Week brings us to La Trobe, one of two crucial gains for Labor in Victoria at the 2010 election which helped redressed losses in New South Wales and especially Queensland. The defeated Liberal member, Jason Wood, will attempt to recover the seat from Labor’s Laura Smyth at the next election after winning a preselection ballot earlier this week.
La Trobe has covered Melbourne’s eastern fringe since its creation 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 rapidly growing outer Melbourne areas separated by the Dandenong Ranges Boronia and Ferntree Gully in the north, and the Berwick area in the south and extends eastwards through Belgrave to Emerald, Cockatoo and Gembrook. Labor’s strength around Belgrave is countered by Liberal dominance around Berwick. The redistribution that will take effect at the next election has effected a swap of about 16,000 voters around Bayswater, who have been transferred to Aston, for a similar number in Narre Warren, who were previously in Holt. Another 3000 voters around Pakenham have been transferred to McMillan. Antony Green calculates that the changes have boosted Labor’s margin from 0.9% to 1.7%.
Along with other seats in Melbourne’s outer suburban sandbelt, La Trobe played a decisive role in the election of the Whitlam government in 1972, falling to Labor for the first time with a 10.2% swing. It swung almost as heavily the other way when the Liberals recovered it in 1975, but returned to the Labor fold in 1980 when Peter Milton defeated Liberal member Marshall Baillieu (part of the clan that includes the current Premier). An unfavourable redistribution in 1990 combined with the statewide anti-Labor tsunami at that year’s election to deliver a 1.4% 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% in 1993, 1.4% in 1996, 1.0% in 1998 and 3.7% in 2001.
With Charles’s retirement at the 2004 election, La Trobe emerged as a contest between Liberal candidate Jason Wood, 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 overcame the loss of Charles’s personal vote to pick up a 2.1% 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. It was noted at the time he had been a member of Greenpeace for longer than he has been a member of the Liberal Party, and he went on to embarrass his party ahead of the 2007 election by issuing a brochure that failed to sing from its song sheet on nuclear power.
Wood went into the 2007 election with a 5.8% margin, of which only 0.5% was left after a swing that was most conspicuous in the areas that had moved to the Liberals in 2004. He was promoted to parliamentary secretary for justice and public security when Malcolm Turnbull assumed the Liberal leadership in September 2008, despite the embarrassment he had recently suffered after stammering his way through a parliamentary speech on genetically modified organisms (which repeatedly came out as orgasms). The 1.4% swing that unseated him at the 2010 election was fairly typical for Victoria, which collectively swung to Labor by 1.0%. The successful Labor candidate was Laura Smyth, a lawyer for Holding Redlich whom VexNews linked to the Andrew Giles/Alan Griffin sub-faction of the Socialist Left.
VexNews reports that Jason Wood’s victory in this week’s preselection ballot was achieved with 61 votes in the first round out of 140, against 38 for Mark Verschuur, managing director of Fairmont Medical Products (and, apparently, a former ALP member); 17 for IT uber-nerd and chick magnet Martin Spratt; 14 for local councillor and former mayor Sue McMillan; and 12 for Michael Keane, an anaesthetist and former member of the Liberal Democratic Party.