The central coast New South Wales seat of Dobell has mostly been in Labor's hands since its creation in 1984, but the travails of sitting member Craig Thomson have presumably raised the bar on their chances of retaining it again this time.
Held by troubled Labor-turned-independent MP Craig Thomson, Dobell covers the urban areas around Tuggerah Lake just beyond the northern coastal reaches of Sydney, including the coastal retirement haven of The Entrance, lower income Wyong on the interior side, the tourist area from Bateau Bay south through Wamberal to Terrigal, the demographically unremarkable northern Gosford suburbs of Lisarow and Wyoming, and state forest further inland. Terrigal and its immediate surrounds are strong for the Liberals, forming the basis of a fairly safe seat at state level, while the Gosford area and the electorate’s central and northern regions have traditionally been finely balanced.
Dobell was created with the enlargement of parliament in 1984 and held from then until 2001 by Michael Lee, who served in cabinet through the final term of the Keating government. Lee survived a 6.7% swing amid Labor’s 1996 election defeat to hold on by 117 votes, but a 1.8% redistribution shift in favour of the Liberals would prove decisive at the 2001 election, when Liberal candidate Ken Ticehurst picked up a 1.9% swing to prevail by 560 votes. Ticehurst substantially consolidated his hold with a 5.5% swing at the 2004 election, but even this proved insufficient to stave off an 8.7% swing to Labor in 2007.
The seat has since been held by Thomson, who had previously been national secretary of the Health Services Union. The first intimation of the trouble that awaited Thomson came with allegations his union credit card had been used to misappropriate around $100,000 for purposes including payment to a Sydney brothel, which he claimed had been fabricated amid a backdrop of internal warfare within the union’s Victorian branch. After surviving a preselection challenge by local union official David Mehan, Thomson became one of only four New South Wales Labor MPs to pick up a swing at the 2010 election, his margin increasing from 3.9% to 5.1%. However, his political career began to unravel the following June after he withdrew a defamation against The Age over its reporting of the credit card allegations. A lengthy Fair Work Australia investigation into the union ended with civil proceedings being launched against Thomson in October 2012, with fraud and theft charges following in early 2013.
Thomson’s membership of the ALP was suspended in April 2012, and in May he announced he had resigned from the party to stand as an independent. After delaying preselection proceedings until this time, Labor finally endorsed Trevor Drake, a former deputy mayor of Gosford who had been a Liberal Party member between 2004 and 2008. Drake emerged as the only candidate when nominations closed, with earlier named contenders having included Wyong Hospital executive Emma McBride (whose father Grant McBride is a former state member for The Entrance), former state Wyong MP David Harris, Wyong Shire councillor Lisa Matthews and the aforementioned candidate from 2010, David Mehan.
An initial Liberal Party preselection in December 2011 was won by Gary Whitaker, former Hornsby Shire councillor and managing director of a local educational services company. Whitaker prevailed over WorkCover public servant Karen McNamara, in what was reported as a defeat for the Right faction forces associated with state upper house MP David Clarke and the locally powerful member for Terrigal, Chris Hartcher. However, Whitaker soon faced trouble over allegations he had lived for several years without council permission in an “ensuite shed” on his Wyong Creek property while awaiting approval to build a house there. The following April, the party’s state executive voted to dump Whitaker as candidate and install McNamara in his place.
William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, is one of the most heavily trafficked forums for online discussion of Australian politics, and joined the Crikey stable in 2008.