Margin: Labor 7.2%
Region: Mining & Pastoral
Outgoing member: Tom Stephens (Labor)
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JULIE CHRISTINE MATHESON
Electorate analysis: Pilbara has emerged as one of the most intriguing contests of the coming election following the risky decision of Nationals leader Brendon Grylls to contest the Labor-held seat. The seat first came on the Nationals’ radar amid their breakthrough performance at the 2008 election, at which they polled 22.9% in Pilbara after neglecting to field a candidate in 2005. This put them ahead of the Liberal candidate and brought them within 3.6% of victory after preferences in a seat that had previously had a double-digit Labor-versus-Liberal margin. The Nationals’ hopes have further been bolstered with the retirement of Labor’s sitting member, Tom Stephens.
The scene for this contest is an electorate rendered demographically remarkable by the mining boom on a number of fronts, having surpassed Nedlands and Cottesloe as the seat with the highest median family income while being, by some margin, the state’s most male-dominated electorate (61.9% against 58.9% for neighbouring North West, with daylight third). It covers the coastal population centres of Port Hedland in the east together with Shire of Roebourne towns of Roebourne, Karratha and Dampier in the west, as well as the interior mining towns of Newman and Marble Bar and remote territory as far as the Northern Territory border. The latest redistribution has effected substantial change through transfers with North West Central (previously called North West), from which it gains 8000 voters (nearly half its current enrolment) in Labor-leaning Dampier, Karratha and Roebourne, while losing the 2500 voters in the Shire of Ashburton, includes the mining centres of Tom Price and Pannawonica. The Labor margin has accordingly doubled to 7.2%.
Pilbara has existed as an electorate in one form or another since 1894, although it was renamed Central Kimberley-Pilbara for a single term after the 2005 election. In common with other remote and interior electorates, it emerged relatively unscathed from the one-vote one-value redistribution before the 2008 election because the “large district allowance” provided for smaller enrolment in electorates of more than 100,000 square kilometres. In Pilbara’s case this has resulted in enrolment at the end of 2012 of 17,086 against a statewide average of 23,756. The seat is also characterised by low turnout, a rate of 69.2% in 2008 resulting in just 7517 formal votes being cast.
Pilbara has only been in conservative hands since 1939 for the three terms of the Court/O’Connor government from 1974 to 1983, when Brian Sodeman held it on narrow margins for the Liberals. Pam Buchanan easily recovered the seat for Labor when Sodeman retired at the 1983 election, bequeathing it to Larry Graham when she moved to the new seat of Ashburton in 1989. Graham successfully ran as an independent in 2001 after losing preselection to AMWU-backed Jackie Ormsby before bowing out at the 2005 election. The seat was renamed Central Kimberley-Pilbara at this time, and was contested successfully for Labor by Gallop government minister Tom Stephens. Stephens had represented the region in the upper house since 1982, but looked set to be frozen out by party’s affirmative action rules. He instead accepted a deal in which he would bow out to contest Kalgoorlie at the 2004 federal election and take Central Kimberley-Pilbara as a fall-back option if he was unsuccessful, as it proved.
Stephens did not recover his position on the front bench after the 2005 election, and announced in May 2011 that he would bow out at the coming election. The previous January he had sent an email to his colleagues gauging support for a spill against Eric Ripper’s leadership, prompting Ripper to brand him “incompetent and ineffective”. His successor as Labor candidate is Kelly Howlett, who is mayor of Port Hedland, an environmental scientist and was formerly a member of the Greens. Brendon Grylls meanwhile announced his intention to run for the seat in early 2012, earning him a rebuke from Colin Barnett who described the venture as “risky”. Grylls’ existing seat of Central Wheatbelt, which together with its predecessor seat of Merredin he has held since entering parliament in 2001, will be contested for the Nationals by Mia Davies, presently a member for the upper house Agricultural region. The Liberal candidate is George Levissianos, owner of Retravision store in Karratha.
Another of Pilbara’s demographic peculiarities is that it has the highest proportion of renters of any seat in the state. This has assumed crucial importance with median weekly rent increasing three-fold over five years to $1600 as of June 2012 – the most expensive in the country. Presiding over much of this as Lands Minister has been Brendon Grylls, who has raised eyebrows with the recent frequency of ministerial press releases announcing land releases in the electorate he has chosen to personally target. Labor has sought to capitalise on the issue by promising the establishment of a Pilbara Development Commission with statutory power to address development bottlenecks.