The Poll Bludger
Margin: Liberal 3.3%
Region: Central Coast, New South Wales
In a nutshell: Robertson was a surprise Labor retain when New South Wales turned away from Labor in 2010, before joining the party’s lengthy statewide casualty list in 2013.
Candidates in ballot paper order
Robertson is a hotly contested marginal seat about 60 kilometres north of Sydney, where Labor had a crucial victory after picking up a swing against the trend of the 2010 election, before being swept out on the tide in 2013. Labor’s victory on the earlier occasion was predictably remarkable given the unceremonious departure of Labor’s accident-prone sitting member, Belinda Neal. It was then held for a term by Deborah O’Neill, who would return to parliament following her defeat in Robertson by filling Bob Carr’s Senate vacancy in November 2013, and is now held for the Liberals by Luck Wicks. The electorate encompasses the populous area around Brisbane Water, including Labor-leaning Woy Woy to its south, marginal Gosford to its north and Liberal-leaning Terrigal on the coast, along with lightly populated territory further inland. It has only been slightly altered by the redistribution, which adds 3000 voters in southern Wamberal at the northern coastal end from Dobell. The change is to the advantage of the Liberal Party, whose margin increases from 3.0% to 3.3%.
Although technically a federation seat, Robertson was a different beast when it was created, covering the inland rural areas of Mudgee, Singleton and Scone. The area covered by the electorate today was added in 1913, but only with post-war urbanisation and the redistribution of 1969 would this area come to dominate it. Labor had only previously won the seat in 1910, 1943 and 1946, but has since held it outside the period of the Howard government from 1996 to 2007, and since Lucy Wicks’s win in 2013. Barry Cohen gained the seat for Labor with a 9.7% swing in 1969 and consolidated with a further swing of 6.9% in 1972, giving him an enough fat to survive the great reversal of 1975. Frank Walker succeeded Cohen as Labor member in 1990, before being unseated by a 9.2% swing to Liberal candidate Jim Lloyd with the John Howard landslide of 1996. Lloyd’s 3.6% margin swelled to 7.0% in 2001 and 6.8% in 2004, but he was defeated by 184 votes after a 7.1% swing to Labor when Kevin Rudd came to power in 2007.
The seat was held then held for Labor for a term by 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. Her public standing suffered a blow in June 2008 after she allegedly abused staff at Gosford restaurant-nightclub Iguana Joe’s, and there was further unwelcome publicity when her husband resigned as state Health Minister in 2009 after it was revealed he was having an affair with a 26-year-old woman. Neal attempted to retain her preselection going into the 2010 election in the face of a challenge from Deborah O’Neill, an education teacher at the University of Newcastle, but O’Neill prevailed in a local rank-and-file ballot by 98 votes to 67. O’Neill went on to retain the seat for Labor with a surprise swing in her favour of 0.9%, before being tipped out by a Liberal swing of 4.0% in 2013.
The successful Liberal candidate was Lucy Wicks, who was contentiously imposed as the party’s candidate by the fiat of the party’s state executive despite her tenuous local credentials. This reportedly occurred on the insistence of Tony Abbott, who lacked confidence in the local party organisation after the poor result in 2010, and the recent preselection of a problematic candidate in neighbouring Dobell. Factors in the selection of Wicks were the need to choose women in both seats for reasons of broader electoral strategy, and to share the spoils between the warring centre Right and hard Right factions, of which Wicks was aligned with the former. Wicks was among the Liberal members believed by Tony Abbott backers to have supported Malcolm Turnbull in the September 2015 election due to a failure by Scott Morrison to mobilise his own loyalists in favour of Abbott.
Labor’s candidate at the election will be Anne Charlton, a former chief-of-staff to Deborah O’Neill who has gained media attention for her admission that she was addicted to heroin at the age of 16. Charlton won a local preselection vote against a persistent Belinda Neal by a margin of 98 to 72.
Analysis by William Bowe. Read William’s blog, The Poll Bludger.