Margin: Labor 5.1%
Location: Central Coast, New South Wales
In a nutshell: Dobell has been the scene of a major political crisis for the government over the past three years, having been reliant over much of the term on the support of its embattled Labor-turned-independent member, Craig Thomson.
The candidates (ballot paper order)
KATE ANGELIQUE McGILL
Held by embattled Labor-turned-independent MP Craig Thomson, Dobell covers the urban areas around Tuggerah Lake just beyond the northern coastal reaches of Sydney, including the coastal retirement haven of The Entrance, lower income Wyong on the interior side, the tourist area from Bateau Bay south through Wamberal to Terrigal, the demographically unremarkable northern Gosford suburbs of Lisarow and Wyoming, and state forest further inland. Terrigal and its immediate surrounds are strong for the Liberals, forming the basis of a fairly safe seat at state level, while the Gosford area and the electorate’s central and northern regions have traditionally been finely balanced.
Dobell was created with the enlargement of parliament in 1984 and held from then until 2001 by Michael Lee, who served in cabinet through the final term of the Keating government. Lee survived a 6.7% swing amid Labor’s 1996 election defeat to hold on by 117 votes, but a 1.8% redistribution shift in the Liberals’ favour would prove decisive at the 2001 election, when Liberal candidate Ken Ticehurst picked up a 1.9% swing to prevail by 560 votes. Ticehurst substantially consolidated his hold with a 5.5% swing at the 2004 election, but even this proved insufficient to stave off an 8.7% swing to Labor in 2007. The seat has since been held by Thomson, who had previously been national secretary of the Health Services Union.
The first intimation of the trouble that awaited Thomson came with allegations his union credit card had been used to misappropriate around $100,000 for purposes including payment to a Sydney brothel, which he claimed had been fabricated amid a backdrop of internal warfare within the union’s Victorian branch. After surviving a preselection challenge by local union official David Mehan, Thomson became one of only four New South Wales Labor MPs to pick up a swing at the 2010 election, his margin increasing from 3.9% to 5.1%. However, his political career began to unravel the following June after he withdrew a defamation against The Age over its reporting of the credit card allegations. A lengthy Fair Work Australia investigation into the union ended with civil proceedings being launched against Thomson in October 2012, with fraud and theft charges following in early 2013. Thomson’s membership of the ALP was suspended in April 2012, and in May he announced he had resigned from the party to stand as an independent.
After delaying preselection proceedings until this time, it appeared the endorsement was set to go to former Gosford deputy mayor Trevor Drake, who emerged as the only candidate when nominations closed. However, when the party’s executive met days before the election date was announced it declined to ratify Drake’s endorsement, having reportedly been alerted to a finding by Gosford council’s conduct committee that he had failed to disclose interests in development applications from a firm for which he acted as a solicitor (although it cleared him of breaching its code of conduct). There were also said to be concerns over presentational difficulties relating to Drake’s status as a former Liberal Party member, and the fact that he did not live in the electorate. With little time to act, Kevin Rudd reportedly approached one his youthful senior advisers from his first tenure as prime minister, current Coles executive Andrew Charlton, who said he was not available due to family reasons. The difficulty was finally resolved a week later with the recruitment of Emma McBride, a Wyong Hospital executive whose father, Grant McBride, held the local state seat of The Entrance from 1992 to 2011. McBride had been discussed as a possible contender when Thomson’s troubles erupted but declined to put her name forward, and her decision to stand evidently required strong persuasion from party administration.
The Liberals also had problematic preselection process, albeit one resolved in good time. An initial ballot in December 2011 was won by Gary Whitaker, former Hornsby Shire councillor and managing director of a local educational services company, ahead of Karen McNamara, a public servant with WorkCover. This was reported as a defeat for the Right faction forces associated with state upper house MP David Clarke and the locally powerful member for Terrigal, Chris Hartcher. However, Whitaker soon faced trouble over allegations he had lived for several years without council permission in an “ensuite shed” on his Wyong Creek property while awaiting approval to build a house there. The following April, the party’s state executive voted to dump Whitaker as candidate and install McNamara in his place, to the chagrin of many local party members.
The already complicated contest took another turn with the entry of former test cricketer Nathan Bracken as an independent, running with financial support from colourful advertising mogul John Singleton. Troy Bramston of The Australian reported on August 12 that Labor polling conducted at the end of July had them leading 55-45, with Craig Thomson recording a primary vote of 6%, but that the party was “more pessimistic now”. A week into the campaign, a combined Newspoll survey of 505 respondents in Robertson and Dobell pointed to a swing to the Liberals of 7%, more than enough to account for the 5.1% Labor margin. Dobell was one of five marginal Labor electorates, including four outside Sydney and one within, which Newspoll targeted with a survey of 1106 respondents conducted over August 12-14 and August 23-28, which showed a collective swing to the Liberals of 7%.
Analysis written by William Bowe. Read William’s blog, The Poll Bludger.