Mackellar covers blue-ribbon territory on Sydney’s northern beaches, and has been held by the Liberal Party since its creation in 1949. After one of the highest profile preselection battles of recent history, the seat is set to be vacated at the coming election by Bronwyn Bishop, its member since 1994. The electorate runs along the coast from Collaroy north to the Pittwater peninsula and inland to Duffys Forest and Frenchs Forest, and has not been affected by the redistribution. This area was covered by Warringah since its creation in 1922, and previously by North Sydney. None of the relevant seats was ever held by Labor, whose closest margin in Mackellar was 5.2% when the Whitlam government came to power in 1972. Bishop is only the third member in Mackellar’s history, her predecessors having been Jim Carlton from 1977 to to 1994, and William Wentworth from 1949 to 1977.
Bronwyn Bishop was elected to the Senate in 1987, and rose to fame with a blunderbuss assault on Trevor Boucher of the Australian Taxation Commission during a committee inquiry. It was with an eye to the prime ministership that she moved to Mackellar at a by-election in March 1994, but her electoral performance proved surprisingly poor, with 23.1% of the vote going to independent candidate Bob Ellis, the late pro-Labor writer and commentator. Bishop took the Liberal primary vote backwards by 4.4%, despite the lack of a Labor candidate. Bishop was given the junior defence industry portfolio when the Howard government was collected, winning promotion to aged care after the 1998 election. She went on to serve in junior ministry positions in the early Howard years, but her standing suffered when she oversaw the kereosene baths affair as Aged Care Minister in 2000, so named for a treatment for scabies that had been used in a Melbourne nursing home.
An ambition to become Speaker appeared to motivate Bishop to sustain her political career after Labor came to power in 2007, so it came as a surprise when Tony Abbott found a place for her in the shadow outer ministry when he became leader in December 2009, notwithstanding Abbott’s description of himself as “the ideological love-child of John Howard and Bronwyn Bishop”. She was duly elevated to the Speakership when Abbott led the Coalition to power in September 2013, and was universally acclaimed as the most partisan occupant of the position in living memory. Her tenure in the position came to an end in August 2015 after a media firestorm over her chartering of a helicopter to attend a party fundraiser, and related acts of extravagance. Abbott stood by Bishop for a fortnight before her position became intolerable, dangerously weakening his hold on the leadership in the months before he was deposed by Malcolm Turnbull. Bishop rewarded Abbott by voting for Turnbull, evidently being of the view that his defence of her should have continued indefinitely.
Bishop’s first preselection battle came before the 2013 election, when she was challenged unsuccessfully by Jim Longley, who had held the state seat of Pittwater from 1986 to 1996 and served as a minister in John Fahey’s government. She was 72 by the time she lost the Speakership, but showed characteristic determination in insisting on seeking another term. Seven challengers initially nominated, the most durable of whom proved to be Jason Falinksi, owner of a health care equipment business, former adviser to John Hewson and Barry O’Farrell and campaign manager to Malcolm Turnbull in Wentworth in 2004, and Walter Villatora, a party activist who has spearheaded a campaign for preselection reforms that are principally favoured by the hard Right, and a close ally of Tony Abbott’s as the president of the Liberal Party’s Warringah branch.
Reports initially suggested that Bishop would be saved by her base of local support and backing from the Centre Right faction, although conservatives were so angered by her support for Turnbull they favoured the seat going to a moderate. Attitudes hardened after prominent local Dick Smith threatened to run as an independent if Bishop won preselection, and a poll was circulated showing he would easily defeat her at the election. Shortly before the ballot, it was reported that Scott Morrison was signalling that the party leadership wished to see Bishop defeated. After the also-rans were excluded in the first round of the April 16 preselection vote, Falinski had 40 votes to Bishop’s 37 and Villatora’s 12. Villatora’s exclusion saw the hard Right vote lock in behind Falinski, who prevailed in the final round by 51 votes to 39.