Electorate analysis: Shellharbour replaced the abolished seat of Illawarra in the redistribution prior to the 2007 election, maintaining 26,500 of its voters around Lake Illawarra at Mount Warrigal in the south and Dapto in the west. To the south, it assumed Shellharbour itself from Kiama, accounting for 14,500 voters, with a further 3600 voters on the western shore of Lake Illawarra gained from Wollongong. Illawarra had existed without interruption since 1927 (barring one term from 1968 when it was renamed Corrimal), and was held throughout by Labor except from 1987 to 1988, when sitting member George Petersen quit to form the “Illawarra Workers Party”. Marianne Saliba held the seat from 1999 until her retirement in 2007.
Saliba’s successor as Labor member was Lylea McMahon, a senior industrial relations officer for BlueScope Steel. The imposition of a candidate of such background by the party’s national executive went down badly with blue-collar unions such as the Australian Workers Union, which threatened to campaign for an independent or Greens candidate, as it had done at the federal Cunningham by-election of 2002 in which Labor’s candidate was defeated by Michael Organ of the Greens. The issue of preselection had also been fraught at preveious elections, with Saliba relying on head office-mandated “N40” ballots for her 1999 and 2003 preselections to the chagrin of Left-dominated local branches.
Going into the current election McMahon faced suggestions from within the party that it was already time for her to make way for new blood, possibly to accommodate upper house MP and post-election leadership aspirant John Robertson. Preselection challengers eventually emerged in the shape of Anna Watson, an organiser with the United Services Union, and John Rumble, Wollongong Hospital nurse and son of former state MP Terry Rumble. Then followed McMahon’s surprise withdrawal the day before the December 11 ballot, saying she wished to spend more time with her family. Figures in the Australian Workers Union were quoted in the media claiming credit for her departure, although both preselection contestants were in fact associated with the Right faction. Rumble scored 54 votes to Watson’s 51 in the preselection ballot, but the affirmative action loading put Watson in front. Watson launched an appeal against the result and was reportedly considering legal action. The Liberals have endorsed Larissa Mallinson, a 26-year-old case manager in the building sector.
On March 4, the Illawarra Mercury published an IRIS poll of 400 respondents in the electorate with a margin of error of about 4 per cent, which indicated Shellharbour was the one electorate in the region where Labor was entirely safe. The poll had Watson with 42 per cent of the primary vote to 34 per cent for Mallinson, and a lead of 61-39 on two-party preferred.
Analysis written by William Bowe. Please direct corrections or comments to pollbludger-AT-crikey.com.au. Read William’s blog, The Poll Bludger.