Welcome to instalment four of Seat du Jour, which has previously taken us to Gilmore, Dickson and La Trobe. Today we travel to Lindsay, an electorate dominated by the western Sydney fringe centre of Penrith (the entry from the Poll Bludger federal election guide can be found here. Lindsay has supplanted Eden-Monaro in Australian political mythology as the indispensible electoral “bellwether”, notwithstanding that both seats blotted their copybook in 2016 by being won by Labor in the context of a losing election. The Liberals by all account consider recovering the seat crucial to their chances of re-election, given the near certainty they will suffer losses elsewhere.
The Liberals’ optimism presumably derives from the demise of Labor member Emma Husar, who was elbowed aside by her party after workplace bullying and misconduct allegations emerged last July. These were capped by accounts of sexual harassment and indecent exposure related by Buzzfeed, which are now the subject of an ongoing defamation action by Husar. An internal party investigation upheld complaints of offensive and unreasonable conduct towards staff, but rejected the allegations conveyed in the Buzzfeed report. Husar initially announced she would not recontest the seat, but changed her mind in November. However, the party hierarchy blocked her path by formally disendorsing her, having determined in the meantime that their candidate should be Diane Beamer, former state member for Badgerys Creek and Mulgoa.
Lindsay was held for Labor for the first 12 years of its existence by Ross Free, and was generally reckoned to be a safe seat for the party. This illusion was dispelled with the defeat of the Keating government in 1996, when Free was unseated by Liberal candidate Jackie Kelly with an 11.9% swing. Kelly was made to face the voters again the following December after Free succeeded in having her disqualified under Section 44 of the Constitution, on the grounds that her position as an RAAF officer constituted an office for profit under the Crown. Voters did not thank Free for foisting a by-election on them, and Kelly was reconfirmed with an extra 5.0% on the margin.
Kelly retained the seat at the next three elections, encouraging a view that Lindsay embodied John Howard’s key constituency of moderately prosperous white skilled workers in the outer suburbs. It was equally thought to illustrate Kelly’s appeal to local voters, and Howard was duly dismayed when she retired in 2007, just as a redistribution cut the Liberal margin from 5.3% to 2.3%. Any remaining Liberal hopes, both for Lindsay and the election, were sunk in the last days of the campaign, when the husbands of Kelly and the new Liberal candidate, Karen Chijoff, were caught distributing fake pamphlets seeking to tie Labor to Islamic terrorism. The seat was duly won for Labor on the third attempt by David Bradbury, lawyer and former mayor of Penrith, with a 9.7% swing.
Labor strategists became increasingly agitated about Lindsay as the 2010 election approached and the state Labor government went into its terminal decline, culminating in a massive swing at a state by-election in Penrith in June 2010, just five days before Kevin Rudd was dumped as Prime Minister. The party’s then national secretary, Karl Bitar, reportedly demanded that all policy proposals be evaluted according to a “Lindsay test”, inspiring a tougher line on asylum seekers and a shift in prime ministerial rhetoric from Kevin Rudd’s “big Australia” to Julia Gillard’s “sustainable Australia”. The seat recorded a 4.8% swing to Liberals at the 2010 election, which was 1.1% short of the Labor margin. Labor just managed to hang on at the 2010 election, before Fiona Scott won it for the Liberals on the second attempt in 2013 with a 4.1% swing. Scott only lasted a single term before an almost identical swing the other way delivered the seat to Husar.
Lindsay’s prime importance to the Liberals’ strategy at the coming election was demonstrated when Scott Morrison spent the day after the election announcement campaigning there, although Bill Shorten has so far failed to follow suit. A Newspoll survey of 618 respondents for The Australian on April 20 gave Labor a 51-49 lead, from primary votes of Labor 40% (41.1% in 2016), Liberal 41% (39.3%); Greens 4% (3.6%); and 7% for the United Australia Party.