Seat of the week: Cunningham

Outside of a loss at the hands of the Greens at a by-election in 2002, the Illawarra seat of Cunningham has remained true to its blue-collar Labor profile since its creation in 1949.

Cunningham covers the northern Illawarra region around Wollongong, which it has accommodated since its creation with the expansion of parliament in 1949. Wollongong had hitherto been in Werriwa, and had been held for Labor or Lang Labor for all but one term since 1919. Cunningham too would remain a safe seat over the years for Labor, with the margin falling below 10% only in the landslide of 1966, and when it slipped to 9.9% in 2013. However, Labor’s hold had a brief interruption after a by-election in 2002, at which the Greens won their first ever seat in the House of Representatives. There had also been a close call amid the blue-collar backlash against Labor in 1990, when the Democrats came within 2.4% of winning the seat.




As redrawn by the redistribution, Cunningham extends north along the coast from Port Kembla and Wollongong at its southern end, through further Illawarra urban territory around Bulli to Helensburgh in the north. Port Kembla has been newly acquired, adding over 8000 voters who had formerly been in Throsby. This has been counter-balanced by the loss of national park territory in the north and the Sydney fringe centre of Heathcote, where around 7000 voters have been transferred to Hughes. Labor’s strength in Port Kembla has caused the margin to return to double figures, from 9.9% to 11.8%.

Cunningham was held for Labor from 1963 to 1977 was the infamous Whitlam government Minerals and Energy Minister Rex Connor, who came to the seat after a 13-year career in state politics. It was held after Connor’s death in 1977 by Stewart West until 1993, and then by Stephen Martin until his mid-term retirement in August 2002. The ensuing by-election was won by Michael Organ of the Greens, who benefited from a large field of independent candidates directing him preferences. Feathers had been ruffled locally by the manner in which the Labor’s candidate, Sharon Bird, had been preselected by the party’s state executive using the much-abused “N40” rule, after Bird defected from the Left to the Right. Organ polled 23.0% of the primary vote to Bird’s 38.1%, and snuck ahead after preferences to prevail by 2.2%. This was the only electoral test Simon Crean ever faced as Opposition Leader, and would remain the only Greens win in the House of Representatives until Adam Bandt’s victories in Melbourne in 2010 and 2013.

Sharon Bird again won preselection for the 2004 election and had considerably better luck with her second attempt, with Organ finishing third behind the Liberals. Bird was a Julia Gillard loyalist throughout Labor’s troubled second term in government, and won promotion in the wake of Kevin Rudd’s aborted leadership pitch in March 2013. She had attained the position of parliamentary secretary for higher education and skills a few weeks earlier, and then had it refashioned as the junior ministry position of Higher Education and Skills Minister. Despite her fealty to Gillard, she remained in the junior ministry after Rudd returned to the leadership the following June, serving in the regional development, regional communications and road safety portfolios. In opposition she has held the position of Shadow Minister for Vocational Education.

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: Cunningham”

  1. Lot less blue-collar than it used to be but Labor still does well here, example of power of political tradition should be a lot more marginal on its social composition.

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