Seat of the week: North Sydney

A deeper look at the scene of Saturday’s by-election, where the Liberals’ hold has only ever been disturbed by the six-year tenure of independent Ted Mack in the 1990s.

The scene of a by-election held on December 5 following the resignation of Joe Hockey, North Sydney covers the north shore of Sydney Harbour from Kirribilli and the Sydney Harbour Bridge at the eastern end to Hunters Hill in the west, extending north through Lane Cove and Willoughby to Chatswood. The recently published draft redistribution proposes adding most of the suburb of Cremorne at the eastern end from Warringah, while transferring a part of Chatswood to Bradfield in the north, with both changes affecting around 6000 voters. The electorate ranks second behind Malcolm Turnbull’s seat of Wentworth as the wealthiest in the country, and is accordingly unwinnable for Labor, although it was held for two terms in the 1990s by independent Ted Mack.




When created at federation, North Sydney covered not only the entirety of modern Sydney north of the harbour, but extended to the Central Coast as far north as Lake Macquarie. Most of this territory was ceded to Parramatta in 1906, but North Sydney continued to cover the entire length of Sydney’s northern beaches. It would not truly resemble the modern electorate until 1922, when Warringah was created to accommodate the northern beaches. The expansion of parliament in 1949 saw it contract into a very compact area from Kirribilli north to Castlecrag, but a relatively stable population resulting from the full development of the area meant it tended to expand thereafter.

Past member of North Sydney include Billy Hughes, who came from Bendigo in search of a safe conservative seat in 1922 and retained it until 1949, when he moved to newly created Bradfield. The only time the modern Liberal Party lost its grip was for two terms after the 1990 election, at which Liberal incumbent John Spender was unseated by Ted Mack, independent North Sydney mayor and two-term member for the corresponding state seat of North Shore. Mack’s margin was cut from 7.7% to 1.8% in 1993, and he declined to seek a third term at the 1996 election, saying he did not wish to receive the parliamentary pension available to members after two terms. It was then easily won for the Liberals by Joe Hockey, who had previously been a policy adviser in the state governments of Nick Greiner and John Fahey.

Hockey rose to cabinet status as Workplace Relations Minister in the final year of the Howard government, a role he was given in the forlorn hope that his friendly image would assist in the selling of the government’s unpopular WorkChoices reforms. In opposition he rose to the position of Shadow Treasurer in February 2009 after Julie Bishop struggled in the role, and it was widely anticipated he would succeed Malcolm Turnbull in the leadership when a party revolt erupted over his support for the government’s emissions trading scheme. However, he then committed a tactical blunder by promising a conscience vote on the ETS legislation, and ended up in third place in the ensuing vote. He nonetheless retained the Treasury role into government, but his political stocks were degraded by the disastrous response to his first budget in May 2014. When Scott Morrison was given the job after Turnbull deposed Abbott in September 2015, Hockey declined an offer of an alternative position in cabinet, and announced his decision to resign from parliament the following week.

The ensuing Liberal preselection was won by Trent Zimmerman, the party’s acting state party president and a former staffer to Joe Hockey, and more recently deputy chair of the Tourism and Transport Forum. The haste with which this process unfolded aroused controversy in the party, which could be broadly understood in the context of a factional divide between a dominating alliance of moderates and the Centre Right, and the marginalised “religious Right”. In the event, Zimmerman enjoyed a fairly modest winning margin of 47-35 over John Hart, chief executive of Restaurant and Catering Australia. Hart was described in media reports as an ally of Joe Hockey’s, but he also received support from more conservative elements galvanised by displeasure at the way the process had been handled.

When the by-election was held on December 5, the Liberals suffered a 12.8% drop in the primary vote against a field of 13 candidates that did not include Labor. The second-placed candidate was Stephen Ruff, an orthopaedic surgeon at Royal North Shore Hospital, who outpolled the Greens to finish second with 18.8% of the vote. Zimmerman’s victory made him the first openly gay person ever elected to the House of Representatives.

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.

One comment on “Seat of the week: North Sydney”

  1. I do not agree that it has always been Unwinnable for labor….it’s more that labor has never really bothered to take the prospect of winning seriously and always produces dud candidates at elections.

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