Seat of the week: Canberra

The Liberals once won the seat covering the southern half of the national capital at a by-election during the terminal phase of the Keating government, but they wouldn’t be holding their breath waiting for it to happen again.

Red and blue numbers respectively indicate two-party majorities for Labor and Liberal. Click for larger image. Map boundaries courtesy of Ben Raue at The Tally Room.

The electorate of Canberra covers the southern half of the national capital together with the bulk of the Australian Capital Territory’s undeveloped remainder, with northern Canberra accommodated by the seat of Fraser. Both seats were created when the territory was first divided into two electorates in 1974. The Australian Capital Territory had been a single electorate since the expansion of parliament in 1949, but its member only obtained full voting rights in 1968. A third electorate of Namadgi was created for the 1996 election, accommodating Tuggeranong and its surrounds in Canberra’s far south, which pushed the Canberra electorate north of Lake Burley Griffin to include the city’s centre and inner north. However, the previous order was reinstated when the seat entitlement slipped back to two at the 1998 election, in large part due to Howard government cutbacks to the federal public service. The two ACT electorates presently have enrolments of around 140,000 voters each, compared with a national average of around 105,000.

The Australian Capital Territory electorate was won by an independent at its first election in 1949, but was held by Labor after 1951. Kep Enderby came to the seat at a 1970 by-election and carried over to Canberra in 1974, succeeding Lionel Murphy as Attorney-General upon his appointment to the High Court in early 1975. Enderby was then dumped by a 10.4% swing to the Liberals at the December 1975 election, and for the next two terms the seat was held for the Liberals by John Haslem. The seat’s natural Labor inclination finally reasserted itself in 1980 with the election of Ros Kelly, who served in the Hawke-Keating ministries from 1987 until she fell victim to the still notorious “sports rorts” affair in 1994. Kelly’s indulgent departure from parliament a year later was followed by a disastrous by-election result for Labor, with Liberal candidate Brendan Smyth gaining the seat off a 16.2% swing.

Smyth unsuccessfully contested the new seat of Namadgi at the 1996 election, and Canberra was easily won for Labor by Bob McMullan, who had served the ACT as a Senator since 1988. The reassertion of the old boundaries in 1998 prompted McMullan to move to Fraser, the Labor margin in the redrawn Canberra being 5.1% lower than the one he had secured on the short-lived boundaries in 1996. Canberra went to Annette Ellis, who had entered parliament as the member for Namadgi in 1996, while Fraser MP Steve Darvagel agreed to go quietly after a brief parliamentary career that began when he succeeded John Langmore at a by-election in February 1997. Ellis added 7.2% to an existing 2.3% margin at the 1998 election, since which time the seat has returned fairly consistent results with Labor margins ranging from a low of 7.0% in 2013 to a high of 11.8% in 2007.

Both Ellis and McMullan announced they would not seek another term six months out from the August 2010 election. Large fields of preselection contestants emerged for the two seats, with the front-runner in Canberra initially thought to be Michael Cooney, chief-of-staff to ACT Education Minister Andrew Barr and a former adviser to opposition leaders Mark Latham and Kim Beazley. However, Cooney shortly withdrew amid suggestions Kevin Rudd was ready to use national executive intervention to block him. The eventual winner was Gai Brodtmann, a former DFAT public servant who had established a local communications consultancy with her husband, senior ABC reporter Chris Uhlmann. Together with Andrew Leigh’s win in Fraser, Brodtmann’s preselection was seen as a rebuff to local factional powerbrokers who had pursued a deal in which the Left was to support Mary Wood, adviser to Housing Minister Tanya Plibersek and member of the Centre Coalition (Right), which the Right was to reciprocate in Fraser by backing Nick Martin, the party’s assistant national secretary and a member of the Left. However, Brodtmann was able to build a cross-factional support base of sufficient breadth to prevail over Wood by 123 votes to 109. Following the 2013 election defeat she was promoted to shadow parliamentary secretary in the defence portfolio.

Author: William Bowe

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, has existed in one form or another since 2004, and is one of the most heavily trafficked websites on Australian politics.

1,955 comments on “Seat of the week: Canberra”

  1. Tom Hawkins
    Posted Tuesday, May 27, 2014 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    Essential 52:48 (again)…

    Under the Hockeynomics Eleventy Principle 48 is a larger number than 52

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