Labor lost its grip on the electorate covering the south of the national capital amid the wreckage of the Whitlam and Keating governments, but there have been few suggestions it will go that way again this time.
The electorate of Canberra covers the southern half of the national capital together with the bulk of the Australian Capital Territory’s thinly populated remainder, with northern Canberra accommodated by the seat of Fraser. Both seats were created when the territory was first divided into two electorates in 1974. The Australian Capital Territory had been a single electorate since the expansion of parliament in 1949, but its member only obtained full voting rights in 1968. A third electorate of Namadgi was created for the 1996 election, accommodating Tuggeranong and its surrounds in Canberra’s far south and pushing the Canberra electorate north of the lake to include the city’s centre and inner north. However, the previous order was reinstated when the seat entitlement to slipped back to two at the 1998 election, in large part due to Howard government cutbacks to the federal public service. The two ACT electorates presently have enrolment of around 130,000 voters each, compared with a national average of around 96,000.
The Australian Capital Territory electorate was won by an independent at its first election in 1949, but was held by Labor after 1951. Kep Enderby came to the seat at a 1970 by-election and carried over to Canberra in 1974, serving as Lionel Murphy’s successor as Attorney-General in 1975. He was then dumped by a 10.4% swing to the Liberals at the December 1975 election, and for the next two terms the seat was held for the Liberals by John Haslem. The seat’s natural Labor inclination finally reasserted itself in 1980 with the election of Ros Kelly, who served in the Hawke-Keating ministries from 1987 until she fell victim to the still notorious “sports rorts” affair in 1994. Kelly’s indulgent departure from parliament a year later was followed by a disastrous by-election result for Labor, with Liberal candidate Brendan Smyth gaining the seat off a 16.2% swing.
Smyth unsuccessfully contested the new seat of Namadgi at the 1996 election, and Canberra was won easily for Labor by Bob McMullan, who had served the ACT as a Senator since 1988. The reassertion of the old boundaries in 1998 caused McMullan to move to Fraser, the Labor margin in the redrawn Canberra being 5.1% lower than the one he secured in 1996. Canberra went to Annette Ellis, who had entered parliament as the member for Namadgi in 1996, while Fraser MP Steve Darvagel agreed to go quietly after a brief parliamentary career which began when he succeeded John Langmore at a by-election in February 1997. Ellis added 7.2% to an existing 2.3% margin at the 1998 election, and held the seat safely thereafter.
In February 2010, both Ellis and McMullan announced they would not contest the election due later that year. Large fields of preselection contestants emerged for both seats, with the front-runner in Canberra initially thought to be Michael Cooney, chief-of-staff to ACT Education Minister Andrew Barr and a former adviser to opposition leaders Mark Latham and Kim Beazley. However, Cooney shortly withdrew amid suggestions Kevin Rudd was ready to use national executive intervention to block him. The eventual winner was Gai Brodtmann, a former DFAT public servant who had established a local communications consultancy with her husband, senior ABC reporter Chris Uhlmann. Together with Andrew Leigh’s win in Fraser, Brodtmann’s win was seen as a rebuff to local factional powerbrokers who had pursued a deal in which the Left would support Mary Wood, adviser to Housing Minister Tanya Plibersek and member of the Centre Coalition (Right), and the Right would back the Nick Martin, the party’s assistant national secretary and a member of the Left, in Fraser. However, Brodtmann was able to build a cross-factional support base of sufficient breadth to prevail over Wood by 123 votes to 109.
The Liberal candidate for the coming election is Tom Sefton, a Commonwealth public servant who has served in Afghanistan as a commando officer. Sefton polled a respectable 4.2% as a candidate for Molonglo at the October 2012 Australian Capital Territory election.