|Red and green numbers respectively indicate booths with two-party majorities for Labor and the Greens. Click for larger image. Map boundaries courtesy of Ben Raue at The Tally Room.
Wills covers an area of Melbourne’s middle north, from long-established Brunswick in the south and Coburg in the centre to post-war suburbs further north. Like its eastern neighbour Batman, it straddles the divide between the Greens stronghold of the inner city and the expansive Labor heartland of Melbourne’s northern suburbs. However, the former area carries lesser weight in Wills than in Batman, being confined to the area around Brunswick, which makes the seat substantially more secure for Labor. The electorate was created with the expansion of parliament in 1949, though at that time its southern end was covered by the since-abolished electorate of Burke (an unrelated electorate of the same name covered Melbourne’s outer north from 1969 to 2004). Prior to 1949, an electorate called Bourke had boundaries similar to those Wills has had since Burke was abolished in 1955. Labor’s strength in the area was established early, with Bourke being held by either Labor or socialist independents from 1910 until it was abolished.
The inaugural member for Wills was Bill Bryson, who had won Bourke for Labor in 1943 before losing to an independent in 1946. Bryson was among seven Victorian groupers who were expelled from the party during the split of 1955, and he contested that year’s election as the candidate of the Australian Labor Party (Anti-Communist), which would shortly evolve into the Democratic Labor Party. However, Bryson was defeated by Labor candidate Gordon Bryant, who went on to serve as Aboriginal Affairs Minister in the Whitlam government. When Bryant retired in 1980, the seat was used to accommodate Bob Hawke’s long-anticipated entry to parliament, enabling him to assume the prime ministership three years later.
Hawke resigned from parliament immediately after losing the leadership in December 1991, providing Paul Keating with an early electoral test in the form of a by-election for a seat the party had never lost before. The test was failed disastrously: in a record field of 22 candidates, local football identity Phil Cleary outpolled the Labor candidate 33.5% to 29.4%, prevailing by 15.7% after preferences. The result was declared void the following November when the High Court ruled Cleary had not been qualified to nominate as his job as a teacher constituted “an office of profit under the Crown”. The imminence of the 1993 election meant no new by-election was held, but Cleary won the seat at the ensuing election by a margin of 2.4%. Cleary’s position was subsequently weakened when redistribution pushed the seat westwards, and Labor candidate Kelvin Thomson provided his party with a rare highlight at the 1996 election when he polled 50.0% of the primary vote to prevail over Cleary by 5.8% after preferences.
A member of the Labor Unity (Right) faction, Thomson entered politics as the state member for Pascoe Vale in 1988, and served in the shadow ministry following the Kirner government’s defeat in 1992. He was elevated to the federal shadow ministry in 1997, serving in portfolios including environment and regional development. However, he resigned from the front bench in March 2007 when it emerged he had given a reference to colourful Melbourne identity Tony Mokbel. From February 2013 until the government’s defeat he served as a parliamentary secretary, first in the trade portfolio and then in schools after Kevin Rudd resumed the leadership in June, after which he returned to the back bench. Thomson supported Julia Gillard in the February 2012 leadership ballot, but was among those who defected to the Rudd camp in June 2013. Together with the rest of his faction, he supported Bill Shorten in the post-election leadership contest. While Thomson’s electoral position has at all times remained secure, the Greens achieved a minor milestone at the 2013 election when they finished ahead of the Liberals to secure second place, ending up 15.2% arrears after the distribution of preferences.