The Liberal-held seat of Gilmore covers a stretch of southern coastal New South Wales, starting in the north from Kiama at the southern edge of the Illawarra region and extending through Nowra to Ulladulla to the Batemans Bay region. The redistribution has shifted the electorate southwards by transferring 16,000 voters around Shellharbour at the Illawarra end to the electorate of Whitlam, as Throsby has been renamed, and adding the 22,000 voters of the Batemans Bay region from Eden-Monaro. This adds 1.3% to the precarious 2.6% margin that remained when the seat swung to Labor in 2013 upon the retirement of Joanna Gash, the Liberal member since 1996. Demographically, the electorate is notable for having the second highest median age out of the 150 House of Representatives electorates, along with the ninth lowest media family income. Such is its combination of urban Labor and conservative rural areas that it is actually the wealthier areas where Labor is the strongest.
Gilmore was created in 1984, but it was initially a Nationals-held seat whose coastal territory was limited to the area immediately around Nowra, from which it extended inland through Goulburn all the way to Cowra and Young. It assumed a more familiar look in 1993, when the interior territory was ceded to Hume, Kiama was gained from Throsby in the north, and Ulladulla was gained from Eden-Monaro in the south. Batemans Bay was gained in 2007 and lost in 2010, and is now back again. Labor’s only win came immediately after the gain of Kiama made them competitive at the 1993 election, when they were further assisted by Nationals member John Sharp’s move to the safer ground of Hume. Labor’s Peter Knott overhauled a notional Coalition margin of 0.8% with a swing of 1.2%, producing one of the more surprising results of Paul Keating’s sweetest victory. The Nationals polled only 5.1%, and the party has not contested the seat since.
Labor’s slender margin was demolished by a 6.7% swing in John Howard’s landslide of 1996, and the seat was held for the Liberals throughout the Howard and Rudd-Gillard years by Joanna Gash. Like a number of members for key marginal seats, Gash performed well electorally during the Howard period, particularly in 2001, when Peter Knott hampered his effort to win his old seat back by saying American foreign policy had “come back to bite them” in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks. This was followed by consecutive swings to Labor of 4.6% in 2004 and 5.3% in 2007, but this still left Gash with a 4.1% margin intact. A gain of Illawarra territory at the subsequent redistribution gave the seat a notional Labor of 0.4% at the 2010 election, but Gas easily accounted for this with a 5.7% swing in her favour.
In January 2012, Gash announced she would be scaling back her political career by running for the mayoralty of Shoalhaven, to which she was duly elected with 63.2% of the vote in the local government elections held the following September, and bowing out of federal politics when the next election was held. She was then succeeded as Liberal member by Ann Sudmalis, a former Kiama councillor, who won a fiercely contested April 2012 preselection over a moderate-aligned rival, Shoalhaven councillor Andrew Guile. Both had worked as staffers to Gash, but Guile had fallen out with her, and Gash supported Sudmalis. Sudmalis went on to have an unspectacular electoral debut, suffering a 2.7% swing to retain the seat by a margin of 2.6%, which presumably reflected the loss of Gash’s personal vote.
Ann Sudmalis has become noted as a conservative during her debut term, having lined up in opposition to same-sex marriage and supported Tony Abbott when the leadership issue came to a head. There were suggestions she might face a moderate-backed move against her preselection in early 2016, after she put noses out of joint by publicising her opposition to the Baird government’s council amalgamation plans. However, the move was reportedly scotched by senior figures in the government who were concerned about a female conservative being dumped by a male moderate amid a time of high factional tensions. Two state Liberals, Kiama MP Gareth Ward and Bega MP Andrew Constance, were said to have designs on the seat, either in the short term or with a view to succeeding Sudmalis in 2019. Ward had been one of the main backers of Andrew Guile during the 2013 preselection.
Labor’s candidate is Fiona Phillips, a Nowra TAFE teacher who ran in the state seat of South Coast at the March 2015 election.