Margin: Labor 15.2% versus Greens
Region: Northern Melbourne, Victoria
Outgoing member: Kelvin Thomson (Labor)
In a nutshell: Wills is among the seats in inner Melbourne where the Greens hope to expand their empire, and they may find an opportunity with the retirement of Labor’s Kelvin Thomson.
Candidates in ballot paper order
Wills is a traditional Labor seat in Melbourne’s inner north where the party is increasingly coming under threat from the Greens, whose inner city heartland extends to the electorate’s southern end. The Greens achieved a milestone at the 2013 election when they finished ahead of the Liberals to secure second place, ending up 15.2% arrears after the distribution of preferences. The electorate extends from Brunswick in the south through Coburg and Pascoe Vale to Fawnker and Glenroy in the north. It was created with the expansion of parliament in 1949, in place of the broadly equivalent seat of Bourke.
Labor’s strength in the area was established early, with Bourke being held by either Labor or socialist independents after 1910, and Wills in Labor hands outside of an independent interruption from 1992 to 1996. The inaugural member for Wills was Bill Bryson, who won Bourke for Labor in 1943 but lost to an independent in 1946. Bryson was among seven Victorian “groupers” who were expelled from the party during the split of 1955, and he contested that year’s election as the candidate of the Australian Labor Party (Anti-Communist), which would shortly evolve into the Democratic Labor Party. However, Bryson was defeated by Labor candidate Gordon Bryant, who went on to serve as Aboriginal Affairs Minister in the Whitlam government. When Bryant retired in 1980, the seat was used to accommodate Bob Hawke’s long-anticipated entry to parliament, enabling him to assume the prime ministership three years later.
Hawke resigned from parliament immediately after losing the leadership in December 1991, providing Paul Keating with an early electoral test in the form of a by-election for a seat the party had never lost before. The test was failed disastrously: in a record field of 22 candidates, local football identity Phil Cleary outpolled the Labor candidate 33.5% to 29.4%, prevailing by 15.7% after preferences. The result was declared void the following November when the High Court ruled Cleary had not been qualified to nominate as his job as a teacher constituted “an office of profit under the Crown”. The imminence of the 1993 election meant no new by-election was held, but Cleary won the seat at the ensuing election by a margin of 2.4%. Cleary’s position was subsequently weakened when redistribution pushed the seat westwards, and Labor candidate Kelvin Thomson provided his party with a rare highlight at the 1996 election when he polled 50.0% of the primary vote to prevail over Cleary by 5.8% after preferences.
A member of the Right, Thomson had a lengthy stint in the federal shadow ministry from 1997 to 2007, which ended after he gave a reference to colourful Melbourne identity Tony Mokbel, and a shorter one as parliamentary secretary from February 2013 until the government’s defeat in September 2013. Thomson announced he would not re-contest the seat in November, initiating a preselection that was won by Peter Khalil, whose CV includes stints as a national security adviser to then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, an executive to SBS and a role in establishing the new Defence Ministry in post-invasion Iraq. Khalil received decisive support within the Right from the Australian Workers Union and Batman MP David Feeney, together with locally influential figures in the Lebanese and Kurdish communities. However, Senator Stephen Conroy, who forms part of a Right power base in league with Bill Shorten, was pushing the claim of his staffer, Mehmet Tillem. In a field of six candidates, Khalil scored 224 votes out of 700 in the local party rank-and-file ballot, with Mehmet second on 152.
The fate of the Liberals’ preference recommendations in Batman and Wills has been a major talking point of the campaign, after the party’s influential state president, Michael Kroger, suggested the Greens might be favoured over Labor. Kroger offered that the party as led by Richard di Natale were “not the nutters they used to be”, which met a frosty response from conservative elements in the party. The quid pro quo for such a deal would involve the Greens declining to direct preferences one way or the other in the marginal seats in suburban Melbourne. Experience from the Melbourne electorate suggests a changed preference recommendation would cause the Greens’ share of Liberal preferences to collapse from over three-quarters to around a third.
Analysis by William Bowe. Read William’s blog, The Poll Bludger.