Corangamite has covered a shifting area around Colac 150 kilometres west of Melbourne since its creation at federation, its complexion changing somewhat with the absorption of the Geelong suburbs of South Barwon and Belmont in 1955. It was one of Labor’s two gains in Victoria when Kevin Rudd came to power in 2007, giving Labor its first win in the seat since the Great Depression. In its current form the electorate includes the Geelong suburbs south-west of the Barwon River and the Great Ocean Road as far as Apollo Bay, together with rural areas to the west and north. The Geelong suburbs, which include Liberal-leaning Highton and marginal Belmont and Grovedale, contain a little over a third of the electorate’s voters, and are distinguished (along with Torquay) by a younger demographic profile and a preponderance of mortgage payers. Growth in Geelong, Torquay and the Bellarine Peninsula left the seat over quota at the redistribution to take effect at the next election, resulting in the transfer of most of the Bellarine Peninsula (accounting for about 5700 voters) to Corio. This has had a negligible impact on the Labor margin, which on Antony Green’s calculation goes from 0.4% to 0.3%.
Labor’s only wins in Corangamite prior to 2007 were in 1910, when future Prime Minister Jim Scullin became member for a term (he would return as member for the inner Melbourne seat of Yarra in 1922), and at the 1929 election when Scullin’s short-lived government came to power. The Country Party held the seat for one term from 1931, after which it was held by the United Australia Party and then the Liberal Party. The enlargement of parliament in 1984 cost the electorate its most conservative rural territory in the west, but it took another 23 years before Labor was able to realise its hopes of gaining the seat. It was assisted to this end by the “sea change” phenomenon, the ABC TV series of that name having been set in the electorate at Barwon Heads. This has drained about 10% from the Liberal primary vote in the Great Ocean Road towns since the early 1990s, with the Greens vote there burgeoning to 17% at the 2010 election.
Corangamite was held from 1984 to 2007 by Stewart McArthur, who to the dismay of some in the Liberal Party sought another term in 2007 at the age of 70. His Labor challenger was 31-year-old Darren Cheeseman, an official with the Left faction Community and Public Sector Union who won a hotly contested preselection over Peter McMullin, the Right-backed mayor of Geelong and candidate from 2004. Cheeseman went on to overwhelm McArthur’s 5.3% margin with a 6.2% swing that was evenly distributed throughout the electorate. Faced at the 2010 election by a fresh Liberal candidate in Sarah Henderson, a former state host of The 7.30 Report and daughter of former state MP Ann Henderson, Cheeseman was brought within 771 votes of defeat by a 0.4% swing that went slightly against the trend of a 1.0% statewide swing to Labor. Cheeseman went on to receive substantial publicity in February 2012 when he declared Labor would be “decimated” if Julia Gillard led it to the election, which set the ball rolling on Kevin Rudd’s unsuccessful leadership challenge a week later.
Sarah Henderson will again represent the Liberals at the next election after winning a fiercely contested struggle for Liberal preselection against Rod Nockles, an internet security expert and former Peter Costello staffer who also sought preselection in 2010. Henderson’s backers reportedly included Tony Abbott and Michael Kroger, with Nockles having support from Peter Costello, Andrew Robb, Senators Arthur Sinodinos and Scott Ryan and Higgins MP Kelly O’Dwyer. In the event, Henderson won a surprisingly easy victory with an absolute majority on the first round.