Seat of the week: Bendigo

Labor’s long Victorian tide has made a reasonably secure seat from what had once been a marginal, but a big swing following Steve Gibbons’ retirement in 2013 reminded them it can’t be taken for granted.

The electorate of Bendigo has covered shifting territory in central Victoria since federation, and presently extends southwards from the city itself to Castlemaine and the Macedon Ranges around Woodend, and to smaller rural centres in the west and north. The seat has been in Labor hands since it was gained at the 1998 election by Steve Gibbons, who was succeeded by the current member, Lisa Chesters, in 2013. Labor first won the seat in 1913, but lost it to Billy Hughes when he contested it as Nationalist Prime Minister in the wake of the Labor split of 1917, having recognised he would be not be able to retain his existing safe Labor seat of West Sydney. Hughes would remain member for five years before moving to North Sydney. Bendigo was in conservative hands thereafter until 1949, except when Richard Keane held it for a term after Labor came to office in 1929. George Rankin gained the seat for the Country Party when United Australia Party incumbent Eric Harrison retired in 1937.




Bendigo had the curious distinction of being gained by Labor when it lost office in 1949, then retained until they were finally returned to office in 1972. Labor’s 1949 win was aided by the redistribution that followed the enlargement of parliament, in which Bendigo exchanged rural territory for Castlemaine and Maryborough. John Bourchier won the seat for the Liberals against the trend of a substantial pro-Labor swing in Victoria in 1972, which was variously put down to the entry of a popular Country Party candidate, and attacks on Labor member David Kennedy over state aid and his liberal position on abortion. It has since changed hands in 1983, when Bourchier was unseated by future Victorian Premier John Brumby; in 1990, when Brumby would up on Labor’s nine-seat Victorian casualty list; and in 1998, when Steve Gibbons recovered the seat for Labor upon the retirement of Liberal member Bruce Reid.

Gibbons achieved winning margins over five elections ranging from 1.0% in 2004 to 9.5% in 2010, before announcing he would not seek another term in September 2011. He became notable late in his career for his outspokenness on Twitter, where he proclaimed Kevin Rudd a “psychopath”, Tony Abbott a “douchebag”, Julie Bishop a “narcissistic bimbo”, and Australia Day an “Invasion Day” celebrated by “throwing bits of dead animals on a cooking fire just like the people we dispossessed”. The loss of Gibbons’ personal vote presumably contributed to an 8.2% swing to the Liberals in 2013, compared with a statewide swing of 5.1%. However, it was not sufficient to unseat Labor, whose new candidate, Lisa Chesters, emerged with a margin of 1.3%. Like Gibbons, Chesters had been an official with United Voice, one of the dominant unions of the Socialist Left faction (known in Gibbons’ time as the Liquor Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union).

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.

6 comments on “Seat of the week: Bendigo”

  1. Three prominent Labor members for Bendigo were:

    PERCY CLAREY (1949-60) – Crippled by rheumatic fever at 16, he was ACTU president when first elected by just 152 votes on the preferences of an independent. Had some close shaves after the Split, surviving by 266 votes in 1958. Former Victorian minister. Died in office.

    NOEL BEATON (1960-69) – Local sportsman, sports writer and broadcaster, he scraped home in the 1969 by-election by 133 votes and then held his marginal seat reasonably safely until his retirement.

    JOHN BRUMBY (1983-90) – Teacher and union official. Later Victorian premier (2007-10).

  2. I believe that I have read somewhere that Bendigo has had more MPs than any other seat. Is there a wonk out there who can confirm?

  3. bbp – I think when Wilkie got elected in 2010 it took Denison to 16 separate members, but Lisa Chesters’ election to Bendigo in 2013 put Bendigo back equal at 16 also, so theyare equal highest.

  4. Lisa Chesters was saved by a very strong progressive labor/greens vote in hippie and hipster Castlemaine. the town’s booths report green votes similar to inner cirt Melbourne. the Libs threw a fortunate at the seat. Chesters is gutsy and impressive – closer to the Greens than she is to the right of the ALP – and was critical of labor’s refugee policies before she was elected.

  5. It is a long time since I lived in the area. I understand that the place has had a very large growth spurt over the past decade or so. What has this done to the demographics? Apparently lots of commuters ex-Melbourne now live in the area. Must change the rural-urban mix in the nature of the electorate.

  6. Pritu- I’m writing this in Ballarat, and it has had a similar influx of ex-Melburnians in recent years, looking for cheaper housing and perhaps commuting back to Melbourne. Just from a personal observation I’d say the newcomers are generally progressive and would be firming up the ALP/Greens support in the regional cities. They’ve certainly done wonders for those cities’ food scenes and coffee, at least!

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