Electoral Form Guide: Canberra
Margin: Labor 11.2%
Location: Southern Canberra, Australian Capital Territory
Outgoing member: Annette Ellis (Labor)
In a nutshell: The electorate of Canberra delivered the Keating government a harbinger of its looming defeat when it fell to Liberal candidate Brendan Smyth at a by-election in 1995. The seat has otherwise been safe for Labor since it was created with the division of the Australian Capital Territory into two seats in 1974. Sitting member Annette Ellis is bowing out at the election, to be succeeded as Labor candidate by Gai Brodtmann.
Electorate analysis: Canberra covers the half of the national capital south of Molonglo River and Lake Burley Griffin. The south-of-the-water area around Barton and Kingston was formerly in Fraser to make up the numbers, but it has now been added to Canberra due to stronger population growth in the northern suburbs. The electorate of Canberra was created in 1974 when the existing single electorate of Australian Capital Territory was divided into two. Inaugural member Kep Enderby was buried in the 1975 landslide after serving as Attorney-General in the final year of the Whitlam government, but the seat’s natural Labor inclination reasserted itself with the election of Ros Kelly in 1980. Kelly made an indulgent departure from parliament in 1995 after losing her cabinet position over the “sports rorts” affair, and the resulting by-election produced a catastrophic 16.2 per cent swing and the election of current ACT Liberal MLA Brendan Smyth.
The ACT was divided into three electorates for one term after the 1996 election, and Smyth unsuccessfully contested the new seat of Namadji in the outer southern suburbs. Canberra was won for Labor by Bob McMullan, who had previously been in the Senate. Since the third seat was abolished in 1998, the ACT’s electorates have had around 110,000 enrolled voters compared with about 85,000 for mainland states and less than 50,000 for the Northern Territory. The reassertion of the existing boundaries (more or less) in 1998 shaved 5.1 per cent from the Labor margin, prompting McMullan to jump ship to Fraser. Canberra went to the former member for Namadji, Annette Ellis, while Fraser MP Steve Dargavel was squeezed out. Ellis secured the seat with a 7.7 per cent swing and remained untroubled thereafter.
In January 2010 she announced she would not contest the next election, amid suggestions from ousted ACT party secretary Bill Redpath that national secretary Karl Bitar’s refusal to allow an earlier preselection indicated she was pushed as much as jumped. Christian Kerr of The Australian reported Ellis agreed to go after Left and Right failed to finesse a deal in which the former would take Fraser at the election, and the latter would take Canberra when it became available. The Liberal candidate is Giulia Jones, a former party staffer who unsuccessfully ran in Molonglo at the 2008 Australian Capital Territory and sought Tasmanian Senate preselection for the 2007 federal election. Jones had been the only nominee at the time the party suspended the preselection process in late 2009 in the hopes of finding a higher profile, but it would appear none was forthcoming. There were rumblings that the acting director of the party, David Gazard, was putting too little effort into the process and was instead devoting his energies to winning preselection for Eden-Monaro.
The near-simultaneous retirement announcements by Labor’s two lower house ACT members, Annette Ellis in Canberra and Bob McMullan in Fraser, initiated two of the most hotly contested preselection bouts of recent times. In each case the final outcome was rated a surprise, and a rebuff to factional powerbrokers. Arrangements between the local Left and the Centre Coalition (Right) factions were expected to deliver Fraser to the Left’s Nick Martin, the party’s assistant national secretary, while Canberra would go to the Centre Coalition’s Mary Wood, an adviser to Housing Minister Tanya Plibersek. However, an attempt by the Left leadership to win the endorsement of its rank-and-file for the deal was defeated by one vote. According to a Canberra Times source, this resulted from concern it would unite all other factions against Martin, along with doubts the Centre Coalition would be able to retain a united front. A Left source told the Canberra Times there was a view the faction would be better off securing an arrangement with Brodtmann, who had stitched together a cross-factional support base in pursuit of her own bid for Canberra. Wood and Martin were nonetheless thought to be the front-runners, which was viewed by most without an immediate interest as a source of dismay, given the quality and diversity of the other aspirants. Instead the winners were Gai Brodtmann, who prevailed over Wood by 123 votes to 109 in the final count, and economist Andrew Leigh in Fraser.
Initial reports had suggested the front-runner would be Michael Cooney, former adviser to Mark Latham and Kim Beazley and current chief-of-staff to ACT Education Minister Andrew Barr, but he withdrew from the running in late March. Liberal member Vickie Dunne claimed to have been told by Labor front-bencher John Hargreaves, whose wife Jenny Hargreaves was another candidate for Canberra, that the Prime Minister was preparing to block Cooney’s ascenscion by having the national executive intervene, a story broadly corroborated by sources quoted in the Canberra Times. For whatever reason, Cooney withdrawing and threw his support behind Wood. Wood duly defeated Jenny Hargreaves in a vote to choose Cooney’s successor as the endorsed candidate of the Centre Coalition faction, prompting John Hargreaves to withdraw from the race as well (he would go on to break from the Centre Coalition and support Brodtmann over Wood). It was at this point that Wood began to be spoken of as the front-runner, such was the apparent strength of the Centre Coalition in ACT branches. Other contenders were Brendan Long, a former staffer to Joel Fitzgibbon, Mike Kinniburgh, chairman of Peak Property Group chairman, and John O’Keefe, a criminal lawyer. A further two candidates withdrew late in proceedings: David Garner, former staffer to Simon Crean and Joe Ludwig, and Louise Crossman, former official with the Left faction Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union.
Analysis written by William Bowe. Read Bowe’s blog, The Poll Bludger.