The inner suburban seat of Watson is on the long list of Sydney seats where Labor is considered in danger of a once unthinkable defeat – potentially cutting short the career of one of the government’s senior figures.
Watson covers inner suburban territory roughly 15 kilometres south-west of central Sydney, from Strathfield and Burwood Heights at the city end to Greenacre and Lakemba further afield. The electorate was called St George from its creation in 1949 until 1993, reflecting the unofficial name of the Hurstville, Rockdale and Kogarah area of Sydney which it formerly encompassed. Watson was drawn further away from its traditional base when the redistribution before the 2010 election abolished its northern neighbour Lowe, from which it absorbed southern Strathfield and Burwood Heights. It also gained Greenacre, Mount Lewis and part of Punchbowl to the west, which were formerly in Banks, while in the south it lost Earlwood and Kingsgrove to Barton and Hurstville to Banks. This left only the voters in the City of Canterbury, accounting for barely half the total, to carry over to the newly redrawn seat. The affected areas were a mixed bag electorally, the changes serving to reduce the Labor margin by 1.9%.
The electorate of St George was for much of its history a classically marginal middle suburban seat, frequently changing hands until Whitlam government minister Bill Morrison recovered it for Labor in 1980 after being unseated in 1975 (the unsuccessful candidate in the intervening 1977 election was Whitlam’s son Antony, who had served in the previous term as member for Grayndler). Morrison was succeeded in 1984 by Stephen Dubois, who retired when Watson was created in 1993 as part of a rearrangement that abolished St George and the Bondi-area electorate of Phillip. Labor accommodated Phillip MP Jeannette McHugh in Grayndler, while Right faction heavyweight Leo McLeay moved from Grayndler to Watson. Meanwhile, Labor’s grip tightened thanks to demographic change which has left Watson with the highest proportion of non-English speakers (72.8%) of any electorate in the country, most notably through the concentration of Lebanese at Lakemba and Chinese and Koreans at Campsie. However, the trend to Labor sharply reversed amid a Sydney-wide backlash at the 2010 election, which reduced Labor’s 18.2% margin by exactly half.
Watson has been held since McLeay’s retirement in 2004 by Tony Burke, who had entered politics the previous year as a member of the state upper house. McLeay had long hoped that his son Paul would assume the seat upon his retirement, but the strength of support for Burke within the Right compelled him to abandon the idea. Paul McLeay was instead accommodated in the state seat of Heathcote, which he held from 2003 until he joined the Labor casualty list at the 2011 state election. Burke meanwhile won swift promotion to the shadow ministry in 2005, going on to serve in cabinet as Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister in the Rudd-Gillard government’s first term and as Sustainability, Environment, Water, Populations and Communities Minister (further gaining arts in March 2013) in its second. Burke has been a resolute supporter of Julia Gillard’s leadership, and spoke publicly of the “chaos” of Kevin Rudd’s prime ministership when he launched his unsuccessful challenged in February 2012.
The Liberals have preselected Ron Delezio, a businessman who came to national attention after his daughter Sophie received horrific injuries in separate accidents in 2003 and 2006. Delezio ran in Banks at the 2010 election, picking up an 8.9% swing against Labor’s Daryl Melham, and unsuccessfully sought preselection there again for the coming election.