I’m a day behind schedule with Seat of the Week, owing to the extra work required to give due attention to the seat which matters more than any other. I speak of course of Lindsay, the western Sydney electorate which first emerged as a favoured barometer of national opinion after Labor’s surprise defeat off a double-digit swing in 1996. Its place in electoral folklore was cemented by the 2010 election, when Labor’s apparent obsession with it caused the party’s then national secretary, Karl Bitar, to demand that every proposed policy pass a “Lindsay test”. This was seen to have inspired the shift in prime ministerial rhetoric from Kevin Rudd’s “big Australia” to Julia Gillard’s “sustainable Australia”, and a tougher line on asylum seekers which was signalled in the first days of Gillard’s prime ministership through a photo opportunity with member David Bradbury aboard a warship off Darwin.
Lindsay is based around Penrith 50 kilometres to the west of central Sydney, from which it extends into conservative semi-rural territory to the north (Castlereagh and Llandilo) and south (Mulgoa and Orchard Hills). Labor had a 12.3% notional margin when the seat was created at the 1984 election, and its inaugural member Ross Free held it for margins of around 10% throughout the Hawke-Keating years, having previously been member for Macquarie from 1980. Free was most unpleasantly surprised to find himself turfed out by an 11.9% swing to Liberal candidate Jackie Kelly at the 1996 election, but was able to secure a re-match because Kelly, who had not expected to win, had failed to get her affairs in order before nominating (she was still serving as an RAAF officer, an “office for profit under the Crown”). Voters dragged back to the polls on a technicality rewarded Free with a further 6.8% drop in the primary vote, translating into a further 5.0% swing to the Liberals on two-party preferred.
The combined 16.9% swing to the Liberals meant the electorate’s demographic profile came to be seen as typifying John Howard’s constituency: high numbers of skilled workers on good incomes, low levels of tertiary education and a distinctly less multicultural flavour than suburbs closer to the city. This view was solidified by Kelly’s persistent electoral success despite the area remaining loyal to Labor at state level. The swing to Labor in 1998 was just 0.3% compared with the 1996 election result, producing one of a number of decisive marginal seat outcomes which secured the return of the Howard government from a minority of the two-party vote. This confirmed Kelly’s status as a prime ministerial favourite, helping her win promotion for a time to a junior ministerial position thought by many to have been beyond her competence. Kelly nonetheless continued to perform well electorally, picking up a 2.4% swing in 2001 and nearly holding even in 2004. To John Howard’s dismay, Kelly opted to retire at the 2007 election, at which the seat was further endangered by a redistribution which cut the Liberal margin from 5.3% to 2.9%. Any remaining Liberal hopes, both for Lindsay and the election as a whole, were demolished in the final days of the campaign when the husbands of Kelly and her successor candidate Karen Chijoff were among those caught distributing pamphlets purporting to be from Muslim extremists, in which Labor was praised for its support of the “unjustly” treated Bali bombers.
There followed a resounding 9.7% swing to Labor candidate David Bradbury, a Blake Dawson Waldron lawyer and former Penrith mayor who had run unsuccessfully in 2001 and 2004. There were reports in 2009, denied by Bradbury, that he was not of a mind to run in Lindsay for a fourth time, as he was concerned at the impact of the state government’s unpopularity and hopeful the departure of Roger Price might provide a safer berth for him in Chifley. Labor’s concerns were powerfully reinforced by a devastating 25.7% swing in a by-election for the state seat of Penrith on 19 June 2010, which preceded Kevin Rudd’s demise as Prime Minister by five days. The interruption of the by-election resulted in what seemed an inordinately long delay in the Liberals choosing a candidate, before marketing executive Fiona Scott was finally given the nod less than a week before the election date was announced. In the event the Liberals picked up a swing of 5.2% which only slightly exceeded the 4.8% statewide swing, falling 1.1% short of what was required. The post-election review conducted for the Liberal Party by Peter Reith identified the delay as a failing of the party’s campaign, and recommended the party’s federal executive be given a “last resort” power to ensure the selection of candidates for important seats in good time.
David Bradbury has twice won promotion since his re-election, first to parliamentary secretary to the Treasurer immediately after the election, and then to Assistant Treasurer and Minister Assisting for Deregulation in March 2012 after Kevin Rudd’s unsuccessful leadership challenge. The latter promotion was achieved at the expense of NSW Right colleague Robert McClelland, who was dumped from the ministry after publicly backing Rudd. Bradbury will again be opposed at the next election by Fiona Scott, who won a March 2012 preselection vote against Hills Shire councillor Robyn Preston by 62 votes to 42. It had been reported the previous September that Tony Abbott had approached Jackie Kelly with a view to making a comeback, but she was unequivocal in professing herself uninterested.