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Seat of the week: Parramatta

The electorate of Parramatta has existed without interruption since federation, shrinking over time from Sydney’s broad north-western outskirts into the immediate area of the town its

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The electorate of Parramatta has existed without interruption since federation, shrinking over time from Sydney’s broad north-western outskirts into the immediate area of the town itself. It presently extends from the Parramatta town centre southwards to Granville, westwards to Wentworthville, northwards to Carlingford and eastwards to Rydalmere. This area is distinguished by a high level of ethnic diversity, being home to particularly large Chinese, Indian and Lebanese communities.

Parramatta was once a conservative stronghold, having only been won for Labor prior to 1977 with the election of Jim Scullin’s government in 1929. Notable members included Joseph Cook, who held the seat for its first 20 years and served as Liberal prime minister from June 1913 to September 1914; Sir Garfield Barwick, member from 1958 to 1964, who served as External Affairs Minister and Attorney-General in the Menzies government before going on to an immensely controversial tenure as Chief Justice of the High Court; and Philip Ruddock, who began his parliamentary career after winning the seat at a by-election in September 1973, adding 7.0% to what had been an extremely narrow margin in 1972.

The watershed in the seat’s history came with a redistribution in 1977 that effectively changed the existing seat’s name to Dundas, of which Philip Ruddock became the inaugural member, while creating a new seat of Parramatta that extended deep into Sydney’s Labor-voting west. The newly safe Labor seat was won by John Brown, the Hawke government Tourism Minister remembered for his dislike of koalas and inappropriate use of his ministerial desk. Brown resigned as minister in 1987 after admitting (which he would later retract) that he had misled parliament, and he was succeeded in Parramatta by Paul Elliott in 1990.

Redistributions in 1984 and 1993 returned the seat to the marginal column by pulling it back to the east, reducing the margin to 1.0% ahead of the 1993 election. Elliott was able to increase his margin on that occasion, but he was unseated by a 7.1% swing in 1996. Incoming Liberal member Ross Cameron held out against a relatively mild swing of 1.1% in 1998, and further survived a highly unfavourable redistribution that pushed the electorate southwards in 2001 by picking up a swing of 3.6%. Shortly before the 2004 election he felt compelled to tell Fairfax’s Good Weekend magazine that he had committed numerous infidelities throughout his married life, and he emerged from the election as one of only three Coalition members to have lost their seat.

Labor’s new member was Julie Owens, classically trained pianist, former chief executive of the Association of Independent Record Labels and member of the Left faction. Owens faced an early challenge when another substantial distribution ahead of the 2007 election pushed the seat back to the north, but she easily accounted for the notional Liberal margin of 0.8% with a 7.7% swing consistent with the western Sydney trend. The redistribution pendulum swung heavily the other way when the seat absorbed the northern half of its abolished southern neighbour Reid ahead of the 2010 election, boosting the margin to 9.5%. There were suggestions this might result in Owens contesting Greenway, which took over the western end of the old Parramatta around Pendle Hill and Kings Langley, with Parramatta going to Owens’ factional mentor, Reid MP Laurie Ferguson. However, Ferguson was instead accommodated in Werriwa and Owens stayed put, surviving a 5.5% swing that reduced her margin to 4.4%.

The Liberals have preselected Martin Zaiter, a 29-year-old partner in a local accountancy firm, who was chosen ahead of a field that included the unsuccessful candidate from 2010, engineer Charles Camenzuli. There has been ongoing speculation over the years that Ross Cameron might seek a return to politics, but invariably in relation to other seats.

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