As talk firms of a September 7 election, we review another two seats which might form part of a hypothetical Labor majority, being conservative marginals in the relatively promising states of Western Australia and Queensland.

Swan (Liberal 2.5%)

The perennially tight marginal seat of Swan covers areas of inner Perth bounded to the north by the Swan River and the west and south by the Canning River. It extends from South Perth and Como north-eastwards through Victoria Park to Belmont, and south-eastwards through Bentley to Cannington. There is a division in the electorate between the affluent and Liberal-voting west and lower-income Labor-voting east, reflected in the corresponding state seats of South Perth and Victoria Park which are respectively safe for Liberal and Labor. The combination of the two areas has left the federal electorate finely poised, being decided by margins of 164 votes in 2007, 104 votes in 2004 and 294 votes in 1993.

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Swan in its present form is unrecognisable as the seat that was created at federation, which covered the state’s non-metropolitan south-west. The seat’s inaugural member was John Forrest, explorer, colonial Premier, federation founding father and senior minister in early non-Labor governnments. The electorate was drawn into the metropolitan area when parliament was enlarged in 1949, at which point it continued to cover the eastern suburbs as far north as Midland. Labor only intermittently held the seat until 1969 when it was won by Adrian Bennett, who retained it until his defeat in 1975 by John Martyr.

Swan returned to the Labor fold in 1980 with the election of 32-year-old Kim Beazley Jr, future party leader and son of the Whitlam government Education Minister and long-serving Fremantle MP Kim Beazley Sr. Beazley strengthened his hold on the seat with consecutive swings of 8.1% and 8.6% in 1980 and 1983, but the expansion of parliament in 1984 cut his margin by 4.1% by transferring inner eastern suburbs around Bassendean to Perth. A sharp swing at the 1990 election further pared back Beazley’s margin, and he began to cast around for a safer seat after surviving the 1993 election by 294 votes. A safety hatch opened when Wendy Fatin retired in the somewhat safer seat of Brand along Perth’s coastal southern suburbs at the 1996 election, which Beazley was nonetheless able to retain by just 387 votes.

Swan meanwhile fell to Liberal candidate Don Randall, who was tipped out by a 6.4% swing in 1998 before returning at the 2001 election in his present capacity as member for Canning. The new Labor member for Swan was former farmer and prison officer Kim Wilkie, who barely survived a poor performance by Labor in Perth at the 2004 election despite a disastrous campaign for his Liberal opponent Andrew Murfin. A correction after the Liberals’ under-performance in 2004 presumably explains the seat bucking the trend of the 2007 election, at which the seat was one of only two in the country to fall to the Liberals, the other being the northern Perth seat of Cowan.

The seat has since been held for the Liberals by Steve Irons, a former WA league footballer and proprietor of an air-conditioning business. Irons’ tiny margin was erased by a 0.4% redistribution shift ahead of the 2010 election, but he retained the seat with a 2.8% swing that was closely in line with the statewide result. Labor’s candidate is John Bissett, deputy mayor of the Town of Victoria Park.

Dawson (Liberal National 2.4%)

Extending along the central Queensland coast from Mackay northwards through the Whitsunday Islands, Bowen and Ayr to southern Townsville, Dawson has had a wild ride after the past two elections, firstly falling to Labor with an epic swing of 13.2% in 2007 before returning to the conservative fold in 2010. The swing on the latter occasion was 5.0%, approximately in line with the statewide result, which rose to double figures in the Whitsunday region booths around Airlie Beach and Proserpine. The seat was created with the expansion of parliament in 1949, and has consistently been centred on the sugar capital of Mackay. While Mackay has consistently been an area of strength for Labor, the surrounding rural territory has tended to keep the seat in the conservative fold. The only Labor member prior to 2007 was Whitlam government minister Rex Patterson, who won the seat at a by-election in February 1967 and kept a tenuous hold until his defeat in 1975.

The Nationals retained the seat throughout the Hawke-Keating years, despite close calls in 1983 (1.2%) and 1990 (0.1%, or 181 votes). De-Anne Kelly succeeded Ray Braithwaite as the party’s member in 1996, become the first woman ever to represent the party in the House of Representatives. The swing that unseated Kelly in 2007 was one of three double-digit swings to Labor in Queensland at that election, and the only one to strike a sitting member. Labor’s unxpected victor was James Bidgood, a former Mackay councillor noted for linking the global financial crisis to biblical prophecy. Bidgood bowed out after a single term citing health problems, and was succeeded as Labor’s candidate by Whitsunday mayor Mike Brunker. Brunker however proved unable to hold back a statewide tide at the 2010 election which almost entirely undid the party’s gains of 2007.

Dawson has since been held by George Christensen, a former Mackay councillor and local newspaper publisher who sits in parliament with the Nationals. Christensen suffered an embarrassment during the 2010 campaign with the emergence of newsletters he had written as a university student containing what Tony Abbott conceded were “colourful” views on Jews, gays and women. He has more recently been noted for his hostility to Islamic radicalism, having been the only federal MP to attend rallies held in Australia by controversial Dutch politician Geert Wilders. His Labor opponent for the coming election is Bronwyn Taha, a former Proserpine restaurant owner and electorate officer to state Whitsunday MP Jan Jarratt.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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