Newcastle and Charlestown by-elections: October 25
A guide to the two Hunter region state by-elections in which the incumbent Liberals have waved the white flag before the starter’s whistle has even blown.
The by-elections to replace last week’s two ICAC casualties in the New South Wales state parliament will be held on October 25. The Liberals are spectacularly declining to field candidates in seats they currently hold, but the Palmer United Party is promising to provide some entertainment. More realistically, the by-elections offer fertile ground for any independents who might come forward, as I noted in my paywalled article for Crikey yesterday. Overviews of the two electorates concerned are detailed below, along with booth maps showing Liberal-versus-Labor two-party results from the 2011 election – redundant so far as a pointer to the by-elections go, but I had fun doing them.
The electorate of Newcastle extends from the town centre into surrounding suburbs west to Waratah and south to Merewether, also taking in the Stockton peninsula on the northern bank of the Hunter River. It has existed as an electorate since 1859 and been lost by Labor only twice since proportional representation was abolished in 1927 – with the Unsworth government’s defeat in 1988, when a revolt against Labor in its Hunter area stronghold delivered victory to independent George Keegan, and when the Liberal Party won the seat for the first time in the 2011 landslide.
The seat was held in the interim by Bryce Gaudry, who recovered it for Labor at the 1991 election, and then by Jodi McKay after the 2007 election. Gaudry, who was described by Damien Murphy of the Sydney Morning Herald as “a sincere plodder who made a nuisance of himself during the Carr era with a long-running critique of office-winning policies”, was dumped for preselection through the intervention of the party’s national executive at the behest of the Right, which hoped to replaced him with the then Lord Mayor of Newcastle, John Tate. This infuriated local Left-controlled branches which continued to back Gaudry, the charge sheet against Tate being that he was not part of the Labor grouping on council, had defeated the party’s incumbent Lord Mayor in 1999, and floated the possibility of running against Gaudry as an independent in 2003. Tate claimed Labor had approached him with the promise of a ministry and an assurance that Gaudry planned to retire, but rejected an offer to have the national executive intervene on his behalf when it transpired that the latter was not the case.
Rebuffed by Tate, Morris Iemma and the party’s then state secretary, Mark Arbib, surprised all concerned by having the national executive instead intervene in support of a new candidate, former television news reader and public relations consultant Jodi McKay. This the national executive agreed to do, splitting 13-7 in her favour on factional lines. Both Tate and Gaudry then took the field against McKay as independents, respectively polling 24.1% and 21.0% to McKay’s 31.2%, but McKay kept her nose in front after preferences to prevail over Tate by a margin of 1.2%. Following Morris Iemma’s ejection from the leadership in September 2008, McKay won promotion to cabinet as Minister for Tourism and the Hunter.
With Labor clearly headed for a defeat of historic proportions, the Liberals made a determined effort to topple them in Newcastle, fielding an apparently outstanding candidate in Tim Owen, a senior RAAF officer who had been deputy commander of Australia’s forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. The party also ran a well-oiled campaign locally – assisted, it has now emerged, through creative readings of campaign finance laws. Owen’s 35.6% of the primary vote compared with just 9.5% for the Liberal candidate in 2007, when the party was playing dead to aid the independents, and made him the first Liberal in Newcastle to exceed 30% of the vote since 1976. His winning margin over McKay at the final count was 2.6%, which in Liberal-versus-Labor terms amounted to a swing of 20.4%. John Tate had again taken the field as independent, but this time his vote was well down to 11.6%.
Owen’s troubles with the Independent Commission Against Corruption began in May, when his campaign director Hugh Thomson admitted in a private hearing that large cash donations had been unlawfully accepted from property developers and false invoices issued to pay for campaign staff. Owen was then summoned by ICAC to a private hearing and conceded that illegal donations may have funded his campaign, while denying having handled any money himself. This prompted Owen to announce that he would not seek another term at the next election. When ICAC heard in early August that Owen had been actively involved in efforts to chase down promised money from the company of property developer Nathan Tinkler, he stood aside from the Liberal Party. A week later, Owen admitted to ICAC that he had received a cash donation from Jeff McCloy, property developer and Newcastle lord mayor, but claimed that he had thought better of it after some deliberation and returned the money. However, when Thomson’s statement was tendered to the inquiry the following day, Owen conceded that this had been untrue. Later in the day, Owen announced his immediate resignation as member for Newcastle.
Labor’s candidate for Newcastle is Tim Crakanthorp, a local councillor who won preselection ahead of council colleague Nuatali Nelmes in May.
Located immediately to the south of the Newcastle electorate, Charlestown covers the city’s southern suburbs, from Kotara south to Bennetts Green and west to Lake Macquarie. Prior to the Liberals’ win in 2011, it was held by Labor without interruption from the time of its creation in 1971. The area had previously been accommodated by the electorate of Kahibah, which was likewise in Labor hands going back to the abolition of proportional representation in 1927, outside of the brief reign of an independent Labor member in the early 1950s.
Charlestown’s Labor member from 1972 to 2003 was Richard Face, who served as Gaming Minister for the first two terms of the Carr government and was convicted in December 2004 of making a false statement to the Independent Commission Against Corruption. His retirement announcement less than four months before the March 2003 election was used as the pretext for a ballot under the party’s contentious N40 rule, allowing the Right-controlled administrative committee equal say along with the local branches. Unusually for such a ballot, head office failed to get its way, the winner being the Left-backed Matthew Morris, the son and nephew of former local federal MPs Peter and Allan Morris, ahead of the favoured candidate of the Right, former Newcastle Knights player Mark Sargent.
Morris held the seat by margins of 14.7% in 2003 and 14.6% in 2007, before coming undone in 2011 by a swing of 24.4%, the ninth largest of the election. The victorious Liberal candidate was Andrew Cornwell, a local veterinarian. Cornwell secured the position of government whip in the new parliament, but his career began to unravel on August 7 when he conceded at the Independent Commission Against Corruption that he had received a $10,000 cash donation from property developer and Newcastle lord mayor Jeff McCloy, and paid a heavily inflated sum to another property developer for a painting and used the proceeds on a payroll tax bill. Cornwell at this stage stood aside from the Liberal Party and announced he would not contest the next election. The following week, he resigned from parliament after Newcastle MP Tim Owen revealed that Cornwell had told him he was concerned ICAC knew about the donation he had received from McCloy through overhearing a conversation he had with his wife.
Labor’s candidate at the by-election will be Lake Macquarie mayor Jodie Harrison, who won preselection for the seat in June without opposition.