The parachute is on. The cargo bay door is open. Greg Combet is ready to leap from the ACTU into the federal seat of Charlton. But in resigning his role as ACTU Secretary at a crucial moment in the IR debate, is he selling the union movement and the Labor Party short?

The question hinges on where Combet’s energies, his profile and his politics will make the biggest impact at the ballot box later this year. 

Although nobody knows exactly how much traction the ACTU’s anti-WorkChoices campaign is getting, will this move undermine his efforts there? Will the minutiae of public life cost the labor movement its most prominent pugilist?

The answer perhaps lies in his proposed new home of Charlton, a 567 sq km seat that is, sorta kinda, nowhere, politically speaking – no disrespect intended. Geographically, it comprises an area from Cardiff, Warners Bay, Wallsend and Garden Suburb in the east, south to Wyee and north to Wallsend. Yet Newcastle looms large to the north and is the unofficial capital of the Hunter. It has the world’s biggest coal port. It’s a focal point for business. People outside the area have heard of it.

Neighbouring Charlton keeps a much lower profile, and from a parliamentarian’s point of view is much lower maintenance. Combined with a comfortable margin to Labor of 6.7% and a sitting member – Kelly Hoare – whose parliamentary impact has been modest, it’s an ideal seat for someone whose talents can be deployed elsewhere.

The ACTU has a national constituency of almost two million. Charlton has 85,547 voters, and according to the local electoral office their concerns could be characterised as, well, local. There are no water issues to speak of – the Hunter has no water restrictions. With Lake Macquarie defining the eastern boundary, locals care more about clean water for wake-boarding than drinking, and even that’s a state issue.

So what takes up Kelly Hoare’s time? Centrelink and child support issues, grievances people have with other government agencies. The proposed Awaba coal mine threatened land earmarked for population growth, but that was nixed with affirmative action by local residents.

Despite Charlton’s political peacefulness, the question remains — which role best suits Labor’s efforts in the IR fight? Combet the parliamentarian, or Combet the ACTU Secretary? We’ll know on poll night.

Peter Fray

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