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Poll Bludger’s seat of the week: Labor stronghold of Werriwa

Famously held by Gough Whitlam throughout a parliamentary career lasting from 1952 to 1978, the south-western Sydney seat of Werriwa has been in Labor hands since 1931. However, it is now considered endangered for the first time in living memory after the margin was cut from 15.1% to 6.8% in 2010, followed by the devastating example of the state election the following March.

The electorate in its current form covers suburbs clustered around the South Western Freeway and the Campbelltown rail line, from Macquarie Fields south to Ingleburn and Minto and north to Hoxton Park and Liverpool South, together with Liberal-voting semi-rural territory further to the west. The seat has been fundamentally altered a number of times since its creation at federation, at which time it covered Goulburn 200 kilometres to the south-west of Sydney.

It was shifted eastwards to the Illawarra in 1934, when it commenced its life as a safe Labor seat, then moved northwards as far as the Sutherland Shire in 1949, and finally adopted its south-western Sydney orientation in 1955, when it covered Cabramatta and Liverpool. In remaining at Sydney’s outer edge since, it has tended to be pushed further south-westerwards over subsequent redistributions.

Labor’s Hubert Lazzarini followed his shifting electorate from 1919 until his death in 1952, except for a term after the 1931 election when it fell to the Country Party. Lazzarini was succeeded by Gough Whitlam, whose tale does not need reiterating here. John Kerin became member in 1978 when Whitlam quit in the wake of the 1977 election disaster, going on to serve a forgettable stint as Treasurer after the failure of Paul Keating’s first leadership challenge in June 1991.

Kerin was followed in 1994 by the seat’s second Labor leader, Mark Latham. Although Labor’s hold on the seat was never endangered, Latham went through a wild ride in his time here in more ways than one: the seat swung 9.3% to the Liberals in 1996, 6.5% to Labor in 1998, and 4.8% to the Liberals in 2001.

Latham was also disrupted when his strongest party branches were removed from the electorate in the redistribution before the 2001 election. His factional enemies, who were apparently not in short supply, argued he should instead be made to try his luck in marginal Macarthur.

Latham quit politics in January 2005 and was succeeded at a byelection by Chris Hayes, an official of the Right faction Australian Workers Union, who easily retained the seat in the absence of a Liberal candidate. Another round of Labor upheaval followed when the redistribution before the 2010 election effectively abolished the safe Labor inner Sydney seat of Reid (which survived in name but was effectively merged with neighbouring Lowe).

Labor’s member for Reid was Laurie Ferguson, brother of Martin Ferguson, with whom he formed the base of a Left sub-faction that had counted Julia Gillard among its number. Ferguson was at first determined to be accommodated in Fowler, to be vacated at the election by Julia Irwin, but a deal was in force reserving the seat for the locally dominant Right. He instead settled for Werriwa under a deal Gillard was able to reach against opposition of Anthony Albanese and the Left, in which Hayes would take Fowler instead.

That in turn froze out Ed Husic, national president of the Communications Electrical and Plumbing Union, for whom Fowler had been earmarked, but he was accommodated in Chifley following Roger Price’s decision to retire. The Liberal candidate for the coming election is Kent Johns, the Liberal mayor of Sutherland Shire, who was once a Labor mayor of Rockdale before becoming an independent.

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