The federal electorate of Bendigo has been trending to Labor since Steve Gibbons gained it for them in 1998, but it is reportedly back on the Liberals’ radar with his impending retirement.
Created at federation, the electorate of Bendigo currently extends from the city itself south to Castlemaine and the Macedon Ranges around Woodend, also taking in smaller rural centres to the west and north. The redistribution to take effect at the next election has added the Macedon Ranges area from McEwen in the electorate’s south-east, and transferred Maryborough and its surrounds to Wannon in the west. The changes respectively affect about 7000 and 10,000 voters but have only a negligible impact on the Labor margin, which goes from 9.5% to 9.4%.
Bendigo was first won by Labor in 1913, having earlier been in Protectionist and Liberal hands. Billy Hughes contested the seat as the Nationalist Prime Minister in the wake of the Labor split of 1917, having recognised he would be unable to retain his existing safe Labor seat of West Sydney, and succeeded in unseating Labor incumbent Alfred Hampson with a 12.5% swing. Hughes would remain member for five years before moving to North Sydney. Bendigo was in conservative hands thereafter until 1949, except when Richard Keane held it for a term after Labor came to office in 1929. George Rankin gained the seat for the Country Party when United Australia Party incumbent Eric Harrison retired in 1937.
Bendigo emerged with the curious of distinction of being gained by Labor when it lost office in 1949, and next lost by them when they finally returned to power in 1972. The win in 1949 resulted from the redistribution giving effect to the enlargement of parliament, which accommodated the state’s northern rural reaches in the new seat of Murray and transferred Castlemaine and Maryborough to Bendigo. John Bourchier won the seat for the Liberals against the trend of a substantial pro-Labor swing in Victoria in 1972, which was variously put down to the entry of a popular Country Party candidate and attacks on Labor member David Kennedy over state aid and his liberal position on abortion. Bourchier would in turn hold the seat until the Fraser government’s defeat in 1983.
Bendigo was then held for Labor by future Victorian Premier John Brumby, who served for three terms before joining Victorian Labor’s extensive casualty list at the 1990 election. Bruce Reid served for three terms as Liberal member until his retirement in 1998, when Labor’s Steve Gibbons, a former Liquor Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union official and electorate officer to Brumby, gained the seat with a swing of 4.4%. Gibbons came within 1.0% of defeat at the 2004 election before enjoying consecutive swings of 5.2% and 3.4% in 2007 and 2010. After announcing in September 2011 he would not seek another term, Gibbons became less disciplined in his public pronouncements, proclaiming on Twitter that Kevin Rudd was a “psychopath”, Tony Abbott a “douchebag”, Julie Bishop a “narcissistic bimbo”, and Australia Day an “Invasion Day” celebrated by “throwing bits of dead animals on a cooking fire just like the people we dispossessed”.
Labor’s new candidate is Lisa Chesters, a Kyneton-based official with the same Socialist Left union that once employed Gibbons, which has lately been rebadged as United Voice. Earlier speculation that the seat might be used to accommodate electorally endangered Senator David Feeney or even a return to federal politics for John Brumby was quickly scotched. Greg Westbrook, director of legal firm Petersen Westbrook Cameron, was an early nominee, but in the event Chesters was preselected without opposition. The Liberal candidate is Greg Bickley, owner of a local transport business. Other reported nominees for Liberal preselection were Jack Lyons, owner of construction business Lyons Constructions, and Peter Wiseman, a teacher and owner of a website design business.