Another seat of the week: Hunter

Joel Fitzgibbon’s safe Labor seat of Hunter has been drastically altered by a redistribution that took the scalpel to the neighbouring seat of Charlton.

The most radical changes to emerge from the redistribution in New South Wales have occurred in the Hunter region, as the need to reduce the state’s parliamentary representation by a seat has been met by merging the seats of Hunter and Charlton. While the resulting electorate carries over slightly more voters from Charlton (58,000 voters in urban territory on the western bank of Lake Macquarie) than Hunter (52,000 voters in and around the Hunter Valley centres of Cessnock, Singleton and Muswellbrook further to the north), it is the former name that has been put out of commission, thereby sustaining the Hunter electorate through a history that goes back to federation. From the old electorate of Hunter, around 40,000 voters in Kurri Kurri and western Maitland have been transferred to Paterson – an important development, since it turns the 9.8% Liberal margin there into a notional Labor margin of 1.3% – while 9500 voters at rural areas in the north are ceded to New England. At the Newcastle end of Charlton, 26,000 voters around Wallsend have been transferred to the Newcastle electorate, and 18,000 around Cardiff and the northern shore of Lake Macquarie have gone to Shortland. The redrawn Hunter has a notional Labor margin of 6.2%, roughly splitting the difference between the 3.7% margin in Hunter and the 9.2% margin in Charlton at the 2013 election.




Hunter was held for the first term after federation by Australia’s first Prime Minister, Edmund Barton, and became a safe Labor seat from 1910 onwards on the strength of the area’s mining and industrial base. It was held from 1910 to 1928 by Matthew Charlton, who had a fruitless spell as Opposition Leader in his last six years in parliament, and from 1958 to 1960 by another Labor leader in Bert “Doc” Evatt, who sought refuge in the seat after repeatedly being run close in his Sydney seat of Barton. Cessnock was the mainstay of the electorate as boundaries shifted over the years, from which it variously extended north into the Hunter Valley, east into Newcastle, or south to Lake Macquarie. The former orientation prevailed after 1984, when Charlton was created to accommodate the Lake Macquarie region. The more rural orientation of Hunter at that point caused the Labor margin to be slashed from 22.6% to 5.0%, but it remained in the fold by generally increasing margins over the decades that followed, before a hefty swing pared it back to 3.7% in 2013. Charlton was also consistently safe for Labor, providing a home for senior Rudd-Gillard government minister and former ACTU secretary Greg Combet through his two terms in parliament from 2007 to 2013.

Labor’s member for Hunter since 1996 has been Joel Fitzgibbon, who came to the seat in succession to his father, Eric Fitzgibbon, the member since 1984. Joel Fitzibbon survived the stigma of his close association with Mark Latham to emerge as Defence Minister when the Rudd government was elected in November 2007, but he resigned in June 2009 over a code of conduct breach relating to meetings between Defence Department officials and his brother, NIB Health Funds managing director Mark Fitzgibbon. He had earlier received adverse publicity after it was learned Defence Department officials had security concerns over his and his father’s dealings with a Chinese-Australian businesswoman. During Labor’s second term, Fitzgibbon became notable as one of the most public advocates for Kevin Rudd’s return to the leadership. When this was accomplished in June 2013, he returned to cabinet as Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Minister, a portfolio he has retained in shadow cabinet.

When the redistribution left Labor’s three Hunter region MPs chasing two remaining safe seats, the difficulty for Fitzgibbon was rendered particularly acute by his own alignment with the Right, and the Left’s dominance in the party’s Newcastle branches. There were suggestions he might be obliged to take on Liberal MP Bob Baldwin in Paterson, so that Hunter could go to the Left-aligned member for Charlton, Pat Conroy. However, Fitzgibbon’s difficulty was resolved by the retirement of Jill Hall in the southern Newcastle seat of Shortland, which provided a haven for Conroy, and a factional arrangement that secured Hunter for Fitzgibbon in exchange for the Right’s acquiescence to state deputy leader Linda Burney’s claim on the Sydney seat of Barton. Both the Hunter and Barton preselections were enforced by the national executive, foregoing a vote by the local party membership.

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.

3 comments on “Another seat of the week: Hunter”

  1. FitzGibbon should retain this one, still a solidly Labor seat. Demographic change will probably hurt the ALP longterm, but it will likely be a fair while before the seat is marginal

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