Roy Morgan’s effort to pull the rug from under Newspoll on Tuesday, as noted in the update to the previous post, has deprived me of my usual Friday poll thread. It us thus left to Seat of the Week to fly the flag on its lonesome. The latest instalment looks at the NSW Central Coast seat of Robertson, held for Labor by what on present indications looks to be an undefendable margin of 1.0%.

One of the happier aspects of the 2010 election for Labor was an apparent tactical win in New South Wales, where a statewide swing of 4.8% yielded the Coalition a notional gain of only four seats – half of what would have been achieved on a uniform swing. Remarkably, the four marginals Labor retained against the trend – all of which were outside Sydney – were the only four in the state which swung in Labor’s favour: Eden-Monaro (2.0% swing), Page (1.8%), Dobell (1.1%) and, most fortuitiously, Robertson, where a winning margin of just 0.1% from 2007 became 1.0% in 2010. This was despite the unceremonious departure of Labor’s accident-prone sitting member, Belinda Neal.

Robertson covers the coast about 60 kilometres north of Sydney, with the Hawkesbury River marking its southern boundary with Berowra. All but a small share of its voters live at its coastal end, which includes Labor-leaning Woy Woy, Liberal-leaning Terrigal and marginal Gosford. The remainder of the electorate covers Popran National Park, McPherson State Forest and the Mangrove Creek dam. Although technically a federation seat, it was a different beast when it was created, covering the inland rural areas of Mudgee, Singleton and Scone.

As Robertson was drawn over time into the increasingly urbanised coast, the conservatives’ hold weakened to the point where Barry Cohen was able to gain it for Labor in 1969, and to withstand the party’s disasters of 1975 and 1977. The seat drifted back slightly in the Liberals’ favour thereafter, and was held by them throughout the Howard years by Jim Lloyd, who unseated Labor’s Frank Walker with a 9.2% swing in 1996.

Robertson returned to the Labor fold in 2007 when a 7.0% swing delivered a 184-vote winning margin to their candidate Belinda Neal, wife of Right faction powerbroker and then senior state minister John Della Bosca. Neal had earlier served in the Senate from 1994 until 1998, when she quit to make a first unsuccessful run in Robertson. Once elected Neal soon made a name for herself with a peculiar parliamentary attack on a pregnant Sophie Mirabella, and an episode in which she allegedly abused staff at Gosford restaurant-nightclub Iguana Joe’s. In 2009 her husband, who had been present during the Iguana Joe’s fracas, resigned as state Health Minister after it was revealed he was having an affair with a 26-year-old woman.

Suggestions that Neal’s preselection might be in danger emerged soon after the Iguana Joe’s incident. A challenger emerged in the shape of Deborah O’Neill, an education teacher at the University of Newcastle and narrowly unsuccessful state candidate for Gosford in 2003. O’Neill won the favour of local branches and, so Peter van Onselen of The Australian reported, “NSW Labor Right powerbrokers”. The national executive allowed the decision to be determined by a normal rank-and-file ballot, in which O’Neill defeated Neal 98 votes to 67. O’Neill went on to prevail at the election against Liberal candidate Darren Jameson, a local police sergeant.

The preselected Liberal candidate for the next election is Lucy Wicks, who has contentiously been imposed on the local branches by the fiat of the party’s state executive. Barclay Crawford of the Daily Telegraph reports this occurred at the insistence of Tony Abbott, who lacked confidence in the local party organisation owing to its poor performance at the 2010 election and the recent preselection of a problematic candidate in Dobell.

The solution was to impose candidates on both electorates; to choose women for reasons of broader electoral strategy; and to share the spoils between the warring Alex Hawke “centre Right” and David Clarke “hard Right” factions (local potentate Chris Hartcher being aligned with the latter). Robertson went to soft Right in the person of Lucy Wicks, who according to the Telegraph was a particularly galling choice for members due to her tenuous local credentials and membership of the very state executive which imposed her as candidate.

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