It’s easy to understand the fascination that a close election holds, but an interesting election does not always have to be a cliffhanger.

Landslides are interesting too: instead of being fought over the same old territory in the marginal seats, they take the contest deep into the heartland of one side, bringing electoral attention to places that rarely see it.

This is what will make next week’s New South Wales election worth watching. The result is not in doubt, but the electoral map will change in dramatic ways — just as Victoria’s, for example, did in the Labor landslide of 2002.

My survey of seats to watch will therefore concentrate mostly on the Labor-held seats that currently have margins of between about 8% and 18% (see Antony Green) for the pendulum); anything less than that is not seriously in doubt. Today we’ll look at the Newcastle region, historically a Labor stronghold.

(The NSW electoral commission has a useful set of maps.)

Metropolitan Newcastle, with a population of almost half a million, sprawls across the lower valley of the Hunter River and the shores of Lake Macquarie, covering eight state electorates: Cessnock, Charlestown, Lake Macquarie, Maitland, Newcastle, Port Stephens, Swansea and Wallsend. (The southern end of the region shades into the Central Coast in the seat of Wyong, which with a margin of 6.9% can be written off as a certain Liberal gain.)

At the 1999 and 2003 elections, Labor held all eight seats — Maitland was still marginal in 1999 (it had previously been a Liberal seat under different boundaries), but in 2003 none of them were even close. In 2007, however, there was a major shift away from the ALP, producing four close contests.

Port Stephens was won, very narrowly, by the Liberals (the only seat they gained from Labor); now with a margin of 0.1% it will be comfortably held. Labor also lost Lake Macquarie to an independent, and only narrowly held Newcastle and Maitland, also against independents — in Maitland, the independent was the former Liberal MP.

This time it’s expected that the independents will hold Lake Macquarie and win Newcastle — John Tate, lord mayor of Newcastle, is again contesting. In Maitland the battle will be against new Liberal candidate Robyn Parker, transferring from the legislative council, which should not give her great difficulty — the notional ALP versus Liberal margin is 9.7%, although last time against the independent it was only 2.0%.

The other four seats were safer Labor territory in 2007: the three suburban seats of Swansea (10.8%), Charlestown (14.6%) and Wallsend (15.8%), and the slightly more rural Cessnock (12.4%). But in this climate margins like that cannot be called safe.

Of those, Cessnock, where sitting member Kerry Hickey is retiring, is probably the Liberals’ best bet, but Charlestown — which includes most of the middle-class suburbs — is also one to watch: independent Barry Johnston is regarded as an outside chance, after another independent got within 7% last time. Swansea, with a nominally smaller margin, is less swinging territory (I notice Antony Green doesn’t even have it on his list of key seats), but it and Wallsend will still go if the swing reaches the scale that some of the polls have been tipping.

Since the region as a whole experienced above-average swings in 2007, one might expect that the drop in Labor’s vote will be less than the state average this time. But at this stage that looks like very small consolation for the government.

Peter Fray

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