Joanna Gash is taking her personal vote into retirement after 17 years, but Labor still has its work cut out in her Liberal-leaning south coast New South Wales seat.
Gilmore covers a stretch of southern coastal New South Wales, starting in the north with Shellharbour and Kiama at the southern tip of the Illawarra, and extending southwards through Nowra to Ulladulla. According to the 2011 census results, Gilmore has the equal second highest median age out of the 150 House of Representatives electorates, along with the fifteenth lowest median family income. Such is its combination of urban Labor and conservative rural areas that it is actually the wealthier areas where support for Labor is the strongest.
Labor has only won the seat once since its creation in 1984, and has trod water electorally despite very favourable redistributions in 1993 and 2010. Both involved the addition of territory in the Illawarra, most recently with a gain of 20,000 voters around Shellharbour to counter-balance the transfer of the Batemans Bay area to Eden-Monaro. That turned a Liberal margin from the 2007 election of 4.1% into a notional Labor margin of 0.4%, but the Liberals easily retained the seat on the back of a 5.7% swing. This was especially concentrated in the Illawarra booths, where margins that had been inflated by a working class backlash against WorkChoices in 2007 were slashed by around 10%.
Gilmore originally extended deep inland through Goulburn to Young and Cowra, and was held for the Nationals by John Sharp from 1984 to 1993. Sharp moved to Hume after the Nationals-voting interior areas were transferred to it in 1993. Gilmore absorbed Labor-voting Kiama in exchange, which made Labor competitive for the first time and further weakened the Nationals relative to the Liberals. A 1.1% swing to Labor at the 1993 election saw their candidate Peter Knott emerge a surprise winner, with the Nationals only able to poll 5.1%. The Nationals left the field clear for the Liberals at the 1996 election, at which Knott’s 0.5% margin was obliterated by a swing of 6.7%.
The incoming Liberal member was Joanna Gash, a Wingecarribee councillor who had been hand-picked by the party’s state executive to target what at the time was a key front-line seat. Despite retaining a fairly low profile nationally, Gash achieved strong electoral performances both in 1998, where a swing to Labor of 2.2% compared with a statewide result of 4.1%, and especially at the 2001 election, at which a swing in her favour of 10.1% was the biggest in the country. Labor’s candidate on that occasion was Peter Knott, attempting a comeback two elections after his defeat in 1996, who was reckoned to have aided the Liberal cause by asserting American foreign policy had “come back to bite them” in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks. Further evidence for the Knott effect was provided by the 4.6% correction in Labor’s favour in 2004. Labor picked up a further 5.3% swing in 2007, roughly in line with the state average, which reduced Gash’s margin to 4.1%.
In January 2012 Gash announced she would be scaling back her political career by running for mayor of Shoalhaven in the September local government election, at which she was duly succeeded with 63.2% of the vote, and bowing out of federal politics after serving out her term. Gash’s simultaneous performance of both roles in the interim had internal critics calling for the newly introduced regime excluding state parliamentarians from serving in local government to be extended to the federal sphere. George Williams, University of New South Wales law professor and unsuccessful Labor preselection candidate, further raised concerns that doing so might fall foul of the Constitution’s injunction that federal members must not hold an “office of profit under the Crown”.
The new Liberal candidate is Ann Sudmalis, a former Kiama councillor and staffer to Gash who won a fiercely contested April 2012 preselection with the backing of her old boss. Opposing Sudmalis was Andrew Guile, a Shoalhaven councillor and education administrator who was supported by Kiama MP and factional moderate Gareth Ward. Guile had also once been a staffer to Gash, but the two had since fallen out. Sudmalis prevailed at the preselection vote with the support of 16 delegates against 10 for Guile, along with four for Grant Schultz, Ulladulla resident and son of Hume MP Alby Schultz, and one for Catherine Shields, a marketing consultant from Meroo Meadow. Guile went on to run against Gash in the mayoral election but polled only 5.7%, while still retaining his ward seat.
Labor’s candidate for the third successive election will be local party activist Neil Reilly, who was preselected unopposed. Reilly was initially rebuffed by the party’s national executive before the 2010 election, which rejected his endorsement by local branches and installed former South Sydney rugby league player David Boyle. However, fierce local resistance to the move prompted Boyle to withdraw. The Nationals threatened to field a candidate as it positioned itself for coalition negotiations, with the highly visible former rock singer Gary “Angry” Anderson mentioned as a potential contender, but the arrangement eventually reached has left the seat vacant for the Liberals.