Margin: Labor 1.0%
Location: Central Coast, New South Wales
In a nutshell: Following the disastrous parliamentary tenure of disendorsed Labor member Belinda Neal, Labor’s success in defending a wafer-thin margin in Robertson was one of the surprises of the 2010 election night. Neal’s successor Deborah O’Neill will have her work cut out repeating the feat a second time around.
The candidates (ballot paper order)
PAUL HENRY SHEERAN
STEVEN SPENCER WHITAKER
KATE DA COSTA
One of the happier aspects of the 2010 election for Labor was an apparent tactical win in New South Wales, where a statewide swing of 4.8% yielded the Coalition a notional gain of only four seats – half of what would have been achieved on a uniform swing. Remarkably, the four marginals Labor retained against the trend all located outside Sydney were the only four in the state which swung in Labor’s favour: Eden-Monaro (2.0% swing), Page (1.8%), Dobell (1.1%) and, most fortuitiously, Robertson, where a 0.1% winning margin from 2007 became 1.0% in 2010. This was despite the unceremonious departure of Labor’s accident-prone sitting member, Belinda Neal.
Robertson covers the coast about 60 kilometres north of Sydney, with the Hawkesbury River marking its southern boundary with Berowra. All but a small share of its voters live at its coastal end, which includes Labor-leaning Woy Woy, Liberal-leaning Terrigal and marginal Gosford. The remainder of the electorate covers Popran National Park, McPherson State Forest and the Mangrove Creek dam. Although technically a federation seat, it was a different beast when it was created, covering the inland rural areas of Mudgee, Singleton and Scone. As it was drawn over time into the increasingly urbanised coast, the conservatives’ hold weakened to the point where Barry Cohen was able to gain it for Labor in 1969, and to withstand the party’s disasters of 1975 and 1977. The seat drifted back slightly in the Liberals’ favour thereafter, and was held by them throughout the Howard years by Jim Lloyd, who unseated Labor’s Frank Walker in 1996 with a 9.2% swing.
Robertson returned to the Labor fold in 2007 when a 7.0% swing delivered a 184-vote winning margin to their candidate Belinda Neal, wife of Right faction powerbroker and then senior state minister John Della Bosca. Neal had earlier served in the Senate from 1994 until 1998, when she quit to make a first unsuccessful run in Robertson. Once elected Neal soon made a name for herself with a peculiar parliamentary attack on a pregnant Sophie Mirabella, and an episode in which she allegedly abused staff at Gosford restaurant-nightclub Iguana Joe’s. In 2009 her husband, who had been present during the Iguana Joe’s fracas, resigned as state Health Minister after it was revealed he was having an affair with a 26-year-old woman.
Suggestions that Neal’s preselection might be in danger emerged soon after the Iguana Joe’s incident. A challenger emerged in the shape of Deborah O’Neill, an education teacher at the University of Newcastle and narrowly unsuccessful state candidate for Gosford in 2003. O’Neill won the favour of local branches and, so Peter van Onselen of The Australian reported, “NSW Labor Right powerbrokers”. The national executive allowed the decision to be determined by a normal rank-and-file ballot, in which O’Neill defeated Neal by 98 votes to 67. O’Neill went on to prevail at the election against Liberal candidate Darren Jameson, a local police sergeant.
The Liberal candidate for the coming election is Lucy Wicks, who was contentiously imposed on the local branches by the fiat of the party’s state executive. This reportedly occurred on the insistence of Tony Abbott, who lacked confidence in the local party organisation owing to the poor result at the 2010 election and the recent preselection of a problematic candidate in Dobell. The solution involved imposing candidates on both electorates; choosing women for reasons of broader electoral strategy; and sharing the spoils between the warring Alex Hawke “centre Right” and David Clarke “hard Right” factions (local potentate Chris Hartcher being aligned with the latter). Robertson went to the soft Right in the person of Lucy Wicks, who according to the Telegraph was a particularly galling choice for members due to her tenuous local credentials and membership of the very state executive which imposed her as candidate.
A week after the election was called, a combined Newspoll survey of 505 respondents from Robertson and Dobell pointed to a combined swing to the Liberals of 7%, easily enough to account for the slender Labor margin in Robertson. Robertson was again targeted by Newspoll as one of five Labor marginals in New South Wales, including four outside Sydney and one within, conducted from 1106 respondents over August 12-14 and August 23-28. It collectively showed a swing to the Liberals of 7%.
Analysis written by William Bowe. Read William’s blog, The Poll Bludger.