Seat du jour: Macarthur

What was once a bellwether seat in Sydney’s outer west has become stronger for the Liberals at recent elections, but the latest redistribution has tilted the ground back in favour of Labor.

The seat of Macarthur at Sydney’s south-western edge once had a record as a bellwether to surpass Eden-Monaro, having been held by the winning party at every election from 1949 to 2007, but it has recently taken a more conservative turn and stayed with the Liberals through the Rudd-Gillard years. The electorate is centred upon Campbelltown, located 50 kilometres south-west of central Sydney, and encompasses suburban territory around the Hume Motorway and semi-rural areas to the north. The ongoing urban development of this region makes it prone to dramatic redrawing at redistributions, and the latest has been no exception. The electorate has been drawn deeper into the suburbs by absorbing 40,000 voters around Ingleburn, Eagle Vale and Minto, formerly in Werriwa, which is balanced by the loss Camden and surrounding areas of the urban fringe to Hume. The exchange has been dramatically favourable to Labor, bringing the Liberal margin down from 11.3% to 3.3%. This has had disruptive consequences for the Liberal Party, with Macarthur MP Russell Matheson having to be dissuaded from challenging Angus Taylor for preselection in Hume.

Macarthur extended considerably further to the south after its creation in 1949, when it ran from Camden through the Southern Highlands to southern coastal Illawarra. The latter areas were transferred to the new seat of Throsby when parliament was enlarged in 1984, and Macarthur was compensated with the northern end of the Illawarra around Bulli. It finally lost contact with the Illawarra in 1993, when it moved back into the Southern Highlands around Bowral, and gained a more clearly suburban orientation in 2001, becoming concentrated around Campbelltown and Camden. The Liberal member through the party’s era of ascendancy from 1949 to 1972 was Jeff Bate, who ran as an independent at the 1972 election after losing preselection. The seat was then held for Labor during the Whitlam years by John Kerin, and for the Liberals during the Fraser years by Michael Baume. Both would return after their respective defeats, Kerin as member for Werriwa in 1978, and Baume as a Senator in 1984. The seat had three Labor members during the Hawke-Keating years: Colin Hollis from 1983 to 1984, when he moved to the new seat of Throsby; Stephen Martin from 1984 to 1993, when he moved to Cunningham after an unfavourable redistribution; and Chris Haviland from 1993 to 1996, when he lost his endorsement.

With the election of the Howard government in 1996, Macarthur was won for the Liberals by John Fahey, who was moving to federal politics after serving as Premier of New South Wales from 1992 until the government’s defeat in 1995. The redistribution before the 2001 election produced a familiar situation in which the Liberals’ position in Macarthur was weakened through a transfer of low-income suburbs in outer Sydney, causing the sitting member to eye off the safer neighbouring seat of Hume. However, Fahey’s designs on Hume met with what looked likely to be successful resistance from its sitting member, Alby Schultz. Fahey was ultimately compelled to retire on health grounds, and his seat was contested for the Liberals by Pat Farmer, a former ultra-marathon runner noted for his 15,000 kilometre charity run round Australia after his wife died of heart failure. Farmer did outstandingly well to hold the seat with a swing in his favour of 8.7%, easily accounting for its notional Labor margin of 1.7%. A further 2.5% swing in 2004 boosted his margin to 11.1%, which he needed every bit of to withstand a 10.4% swing to Labor in 2007.

Farmer alienated local opinion by moving to the expensive north shore suburb of Mosman after the 2007 election, and there was some surprise when he put his name forward again for preselection in 2010. He was soundly rebuffed in the ensing ballot, suffering a 22-9 defeat at the hands of Russell Matheson, a police sergeant and former mayor of Campbelltown. Redistribution had again left Macarthur with a notional Labor margin, but Labor’s standing in Sydney at the time of the 2010 election was such that Matheson was able to retain it with a swing in his favour of 3.5%. This was followed at the 2013 election by a further swing of 8.3%, the eighth biggest of the election. Matheson is identified with a local party faction known as the “southern cartel”, together with state Wollondilly MP Jai Rowell, which shifted its allegiance from the Right to the ascendant moderates late in 2015. The faction is notably strong in the Camden branch, which would have given Matheson a ready-made base of support from which to challenge Angus Taylor, the Right-aligned member for Hume. However, the prospect caused considerable consternation due to Taylor’s reputation as senior ministerial prospect, and the lack of any similar expectations for Matheson. In February, Malcolm Turnbull promoted Taylor to an assistant minister position, and told Matheson he was expected to stay in Macarthur.

Labor’s candidate is Michael Freelander, a Campbelltown paediatrician.

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.

4 comments on “Seat du jour: Macarthur”

  1. William, I believe that the year 2013 in the following sentence should be 2007.

    “Farmer did outstandingly well to hold the seat with a swing in his favour of 8.7%, easily accounting for its notional Labor margin of 1.7%. A further 2.5% swing in 2004 boosted his margin to 11.1%, which he needed every bit of to withstand a 10.4% swing to Labor in 2013.”

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