The Poll Bludger
Margin: Labor 5.2%*
Region: Southern Sydney, New South Wales
* Liberal-held seat made notionally Labor by redistribution
In a nutshell: After achieving a rare victory for the Liberals in Barton at the 2013 election, Nick Varvaris got poleaxed by the redistribution and now faces a popular Labor opponent seeking to make a move from state politics.
Candidates in ballot paper order
The inner southern Sydney seat of Barton was lost to Labor for the first time in three decades in 2013, but now appears well poised to win it back after a highly favourable turn in the redistribution. The party has preselected a high-profile candidate in Linda Burney, the party’s deputy leader in the state parliament. The Liberal member, Nicholas Varvaris, initially indicated he might not recontest the seat, but eventually agreed to do so shortly after the election was called. On its new boundaries, the electorate encompasses the Botany Bay shore at Brighton-le-Sands, Earlwood in the north, Bexley and northern Kogarah in the south, and Hursville in the west. Earlwood and Hurstville are respectively noted as centres of the Greek and Chinese communities, and there is a concentration of Arabic speakers around Arncliffe. The gain of Hurstville in the redistribution has promoted the seat from sixth to fourth on the statewide ranking of seats by proportion of non-English speakers.
Barton was created in 1922 and had, until now, been anchored by the Sans Souci peninsula. The most distinguished of its past members is Herbert “Doc” Evatt, who gained it for Labor in 1940 and held it through most of a tumultuous career up to 1958, when he sought refuge in the safer seat of Hunter. Evatt survived by margins of 243 in 1951, when his Liberal opponent was World War II hero Nancy Wake, and 226 votes in 1955. The seat would eventually tip over the line for the Liberals in the 1966 landslide, and again through Malcolm Fraser’s three victories from 1975 to 1980. Gary Punch held the seat on modest margins through the 1980s, before successive swings in his favour in 1990 and 1993 added enough fat that Labor was able to retain the seat in the face of the anti-Keating backlash when he retired at the 1996 election.
The seat was then held for Labor by Robert McClelland, who emerged as one of Kevin Rudd’s key backers from the time of his challenge against Kim Beazley in December 2006. McClelland served as Attorney-General after the 2007 election victory, but he was demoted in December 2011 and then dropped from the ministry altogether after supporting Rudd’s failed leadership bid in February 2012. There were suggestions McClelland might face a preselection stoush if he sought another term, and rumours the seat might be of interest to former Premier Morris Iemma, who responded that he would not be interested if it involved “backstabbing friends”. Iemma did not emerge as a contender after McClelland announced his retirement, and the preselection was won by former Hurstville mayor Steve McMahon.
Barton was won for the Liberals in 2013 by Nick Varvaris, an accountant and the mayor of Kogarah, who made it over the line by 0.3% after a swing of 7.2%, the third highest in the state. Varvaris’s chances of maintaining his tenuous grip on the seat were poleaxed when the draft electorate boundaries were published in October 2015. For the first time in the electorate’s history, Sans Souci and southern Kogarah were to be transferred out of the electorate, sending 22,000 voters to Cook, which had hitherto been bound in the north by the bay and the river. It was proposed that this loss be counter-balanced by pushing the electorate deep into the inner-city centre of Marrickville at the northern end, transforming the Liberal margin of 0.3% into a notional Labor margin of 7.5%.
The new circumstances were sufficient to prompt Anthony Albanese to voice interest in moving from Grayndler to Barton, ostensibly because Marrickville had always been his base, but also to escape the lingering threat he faced in Grayndler from the Greens. However, the proposed new boundaries met a strong backlash, including a large number of identically worded submissions to the redistribution committee from Varvaris’s supporters in the Greek community. The boundaries were indeed revisited in the final redetermination, although without returning the Sans Souci peninsula to the seat. The proposed gain around Marrickville of 20,000 voters was cut in half, which was counter-balanced by the gain of Hurstville. The redistribution has also resulted in the loss of 5500 voters around north-western Kingsgrove to Watson, and 2000 in Carlton to Banks. This left the seat with a slightly more modest notional Labor margin of 5.2%, and prompted Albanese to stay put in Grayndler.
Linda Burney announced her intention to run on March 1, and her preselection was promptly confirmed by the party’s national executive. Burney became the first indigenous person ever elected to the state parliament in 2003, and has since that time held the seat of Canterbury, which encompasses Earlwood. She was promoted to cabinet after the 2007 election, and to the deputy leadership after the landslide defeat in 2011, having emerged largely unblemished from the protracted crises of the government’s final term. Cross-factional backing for her preselection in Barton was gained through a deal in which the Right, which might otherwise have felt aggrieved that McClelland’s old seat was going to the Left-aligned Burney, won backing for Joel Fitzgibbon to retain his seat of Hunter in the rearrangement that followed the abolition of the Hunter region seat of Charlton. Among the hopefuls frozen out by the imposition of Burney were Rockdale mayor Shane O’Brien, Electrical Trades Union organiser Mark Buttigieg and Hurstville councillor Brent Thomas (reports Morris Iemma might be a starter had once again come to nothing).
After much prevarication, Nick Varvaris finally announced he would recontest the seat early in the first week of the campaign. This came three months after the formal deadline for nominations was due to close, which the party repeatedly delayed to give him more time to consider, prompting what James Robertson of Fairfax described as “puzzled and angry chatter within the party”.
Analysis by William Bowe. Read William’s blog, The Poll Bludger.