Margin: Liberal 2.5%*
Region: Hunter Region
* Labor 8.7% versus Independent at by-election on 25/10/2014
Candidates in ballot paper order
2011 BOOTH RESULTS MAP
Two-party preferred booth results from 2011 state election show Liberal-versus-Labor results in Newcastle and Nationals-versus-Labor results in Port Stephens. Labor majority in red, Liberal in blue, Nationals in green. New boundaries in thicker blue lines, old ones in thinner red lines. Boundary data courtesy of Ben Raue of The Tally Room.
Newcastle is one of three seats Labor has regained since its 2011 election rout, in this case in tandem with its southern neighbour Charlestown in by-elections held on October 25, 2014. Both vacancies were occasioned by resignations of the Liberal MPs after Independent Commission Against Corruption revelations concerning unlawful donations from property developers, and both were forfeited by the Liberal Party in what its state director Tony Nutt described as an explicit act of atonement. Whereas Labor’s Jodie Harrison effortlessly prevailed in Charlestown with 49.3% of the primary vote, Tim Crakanthorp faced a strong challenge in Newcastle from independent candidate Karen Howard, polling 36.9% of the primary vote and finishing 8.7% clear after preferences. Howard has now been endorsed as the official Liberal candidate.
The electorate of Newcastle extends from the town centre into surrounding suburbs west to Waratah and south to Merewether, also taking in the Stockton peninsula on the northern bank of the Hunter River. The redistribution has extended it northwards to take over those parts of Newcastle formerly encompassed by Port Stephens, adding 7000 voters around Warabrook. Along the western boundary, two areas have been transferred out of the electorate, moving 4000 voters around Waratah to Wallsend and 2500 around Adamstown further south to Charlestown. The changes have had only a negligible impact on the margin.
Newcastle has existed as an electorate since 1859 and been lost by Labor only twice since proportional representation was abolished in 1927 with the Unsworth government’s defeat in 1988, when a revolt against Labor in its Hunter area stronghold delivered victory to independent George Keegan, and when the Liberal Party won the seat for the first time in the 2011 landslide. Bryce Gaudry recovered the seat for Labor at a by-election in 1991 and, in the estimation of Damien Murphy of the Sydney Morning Herald, went on to make a nuisance of himself during the Carr era with a long-running critique of office-winning policies.
Gaudry was dumped for preselection at the 2007 election at the behest of the Right, which hoped to replaced him with the then Lord Mayor of Newcastle, John Tate. This infuriated local Left-controlled branches who continued to back Gaudry, the charge sheet against Tate being that he was not part of the Labor grouping on council, had defeated the party’s incumbent Lord Mayor in 1999, and floated the possibility of running against Gaudry as an independent in 2003. Tate claimed Labor had approached him with the promise of a ministry and an assurance that Gaudry planned to retire, but rejected an offer to have the national executive intervene on his behalf when it transpired that the latter was not the case.
Rebuffed by Tate, Morris Iemma and the party’s then state secretary, Mark Arbib, surprised all concerned by instead having the national executive intervene in support of a new candidate, former television news reader and public relations consultant Jodi McKay. This the national executive agreed to do, splitting 13-7 in her favour on factional lines. Both Tate and Gaudry then took the field against McKay as independents, respectively polling 24.1% and 21.0% to McKay’s 31.2%, but McKay kept her nose in front after preferences to prevail over Tate by a margin of 1.2%. Following Morris Iemma’s ejection from the leadership in September 2008, McKay won promotion to cabinet as Minister for Tourism and the Hunter.
With Labor clearly headed for a defeat of historic proportions, the Liberals made a determined effort to topple them in Newcastle, fielding an apparently outstanding candidate in Tim Owen, a senior RAAF officer who had been deputy commander of Australia’s forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. The party also ran a well-oiled campaign locally assisted, it later emerged, through creative readings of campaign finance laws. Owen’s 35.6% of the primary vote compared with just 9.5% for the Liberal candidate in 2007, when the party was playing dead to aid the independents, and made him the first Liberal in Newcastle to exceed 30% of the vote since 1976. His winning margin over McKay at the final count was 2.6%, which in Liberal-versus-Labor terms amounted to a swing of 20.4%. John Tate had again taken the field as independent, but this time his vote was well down to 11.6%.
Owen’s troubles with the Independent Commission Against Corruption began in May 2014, when his campaign director Hugh Thomson admitted that cash donations had been unlawfully accepted from property developers and false invoices issued to pay for campaign staff. Owen then conceded that illegal donations may have funded his campaign, and while he denied having handled any money himself, he felt compelled to announce he would bow out from politics at the election. When ICAC heard in early August that he had been actively involved in efforts to chase down promised money from the company of property developer Nathan Tinkler, Owen stood aside from the Liberal Party. A week later, he admitted to receiving a cash donation from Jeff McCloy, property developer and Newcastle lord mayor, but claimed to have thought better of it and returned the money. However, when Thomson’s statement was tendered to the inquiry the following day, Owen conceded that this had been untrue, and announced his resignation from parliament later that day.
By this time Labor had already preselected a candidate for the election in Tim Crakanthorp, a local councillor who won preselection ahead of council colleague Nuatali Nelmes in May. Despite the forfeit by the Liberals, who polled 36.7% of the primary vote in 2011, Crakanthorp was only able to increase the Labor primary vote at the by-election by a modest 6.3%. Partly this bespoke a strong performance by the Greens, who were up from 14.8% to 19.9%, but it was mostly due to the evident success of Karen Howard in collecting the homeless Liberal vote. Howard’s 26.3% share of the vote followed almost the exact pattern of the Liberal vote in 2011, in that she won booths in the wealthier beachside areas while making little impression in the working-class suburbs of Mayfield and Stockton. She has now won endorsement to run at the election as the Liberal candidate.
Corrections, complaints and feedback to William Bowe at pollbludger-at-bigpond-dot-com. Read William’s blog, The Poll Bludger.