Welcome to episode eight of Seat du jour, an opportunity for you to read about and (hopefully) discuss the individual contests that will determine the May 18 election. So far the series has taken it to Chisholm, Reid, Bass, Pearce, Lindsay, Gilmore, Dickson and La Trobe. Today’s subject is the Victorian seat of Corangamite, the most marginal seat in the land. The Poll Bludger election guide entry can be found here.
Corangamite encompasses the southern outskirts of Geelong and the Great Ocean Road as far as Apollo Bay; rural areas to the west of the former and the north of the latter; and, following the redistribution, the Bellarine Peninsula. The seat has a newly acquired status as an electoral bellwether, having been held for Labor by Darren Cheeseman (now the state member for South Barwon) from 2007 to 2013, and since for the Liberals by Sarah Henderson. Prior to that though, Labor had only won the seat twice in a history going back to federation: in 1910, when future Prime Minister Jim Scullin held it for a term, later to return in the inner Melbourne seat of Yarra in 1922; and with Scullin’s election victory in 1929. The Country Party won the seat with Labor’s defeat in 1931, but it in turn fell to the United Australia Party in 1934, and was held thereafter by it and its successor, the Liberal Party.
Labor’s competitiveness improved when the expansion of parliament in 1984 caused the seat to lose much of its rural conservative territory in the west. The ongoing growth of Geelong has made this a continuing process, its impact felt through changes to both its demography and its boundaries. The latest redistribution has been a further step down this path, eliminating the 3.1% Liberal margin through a transfer of western rural territory to Wannon, encompassing Colac and the lake from which the electorate gets its name. This inspired the redistribution committee to propose renaming the seat Cox, an idea that was dropped after a hostile response.
Corangamite’s watershed moment came with Kevin Rudd’s victory in 2007, when Darren Cheeseman unseated Stewart McArthur, who had held the seat for the Liberals since 1984 and was once again seeking re-election at the age of 70, to the dismay of some in his party. Cheeseman overwhelmed McArthur’s 5.3% margin with a 6.2% swing, then had his narrow margin pared back in 2010 by a 0.4% swing to Liberal candidate Sarah Henderson, a former state host of The 7.30 Report on the ABC, and the daughter of former state MP Ann Henderson. Henderson succeeded on the second attempt with a 4.2% swing in 2013, then suffered only a mild swing in 2016. Cheeseman made a political comeback at the state election in November, when he gained the partly corresponding seat of South Barwon for Labor. Labor’s current candidate is Surf Coast councillor Libby Coker, who also ran in 2016.
Mixed messages have emerged from the Liberal camp about Henderson’s prospects of holding out at the coming election – though few credit the result of ReachTEL poll for the Geelong Advertiser at the start of the campaign that had her leading 54-46. Michael Koziol of The Age wrote in the second week of the campaign of a consensus in the Liberal camp that the seat was a “near-certain loss”, but other reports have indicated that they at least consider themselves a chance. The leaders have made one visit each – Scott Morrison in the first week to court the grey vote, and Bill Shorten on Tuesday to launch yet more health initiatives.