Margin: Labor 1.0%*
Location: Outer Northern Brisbane, Queensland
* Liberal seat made notionally Labor by redistribution
In a nutshell: This knife-edge marginal will provide a test case for how voters react to a candidate who would prefer to be somewhere else, Liberal front-bencher Peter Dutton having been rebuffed in his bid for a safer berth in McPherson on the Gold Coast. Labor candidate Fiona McNamara is hoping for second time lucky, a redistribution having boosted her chances after she narrowly missed out in 2007.
Two-party vote map
Swing % map
Electorate analysis: Dickson was created when Queensland’s relentless population growth demanded a new seat in 1993, taking its place in Brisbane’s expanding northern outskirts. It presently covers the western edge of the city’s northern corridor: from south to north, this includes the marginal hills district suburbs of Ferny Hills, Arana Hills and Everton Hills; an area of Liberal strength around Pine River including Albany Creek and Eatons Hill; and Labor-leaning suburbs along Gympie Road and the Caboolture rail line including Strathpine, Bray Park, Lawnton and Petrie (confusingly, the latter is not located in the electorate bearing its name). It also extends westwards beyond the metropolitan area to Lake Samsonvale and the interior edge of the D’Aguilar Range, including the townships of Dayboro and Samsonvale. The redistribution has shifted the seat from the Liberal column to Labor by transferring its areas beyond the mountain range in the upper Brisbane River valley to Blair and adding suburban territory at Murrumba Downs from Longman, which even before the election has had significant consequences.
Dickson was won for Labor on its creation by Michael Lavarch, previously member for Fisher. Lavarch went on to serve as Attorney-General in the second term of the Keating government, and became one of its highest profile casualties of the 1996 election. The winning Liberal candidate was Tony Smith (not to be confused with the current member for Casey in Melbourne), whose career imploded when police questioned him after he left a building that housed a brothel. Smith forestalled preselection defeat by quitting the Liberal Party and declaring his intention to run as an independent.
By this time it had emerged that the Labor candidate for the 1998 election would be defecting Democrats leader Cheryl Kernot, who had announced her determination to win a marginal seat for Labor. It appeared on election night that her bid had failed, prompting a television interview in which she lashed out at a party network that had deprived her campaign of resources. She would go on to win by 276 votes but proved to be a disaster area in her one and only term as a Labor MP, which was ended by a 6.1 per cent swing in 200.
The new Liberal member was Peter Dutton, who had worked for the National Crime Authority, the Queensland Police sex offender squad and corrective services and later owned a child care centre in Brisbane. Dutton consolidated his hold on Dickson with a 1.8 per cent swing in 2004 and was subsequently admitted to the outer ministry in the workforce participation portfolio, winning a minor promotion to Revenue Minister and Assistant Treasurer in January 2006. After surviving the Queensland backlash against the Coalition at the 2007 election by just 217 votes (0.13 per cent), Dutton’s star has continued to rise in opposition. He entered shadow cabinet first in the finance, competition policy and deregulation portfolios, and then in health and ageing after he backed Malcolm Turbull’s successful leadership bid against Brendan Nelson in September 2008. When the redistribution commissioners made life still more difficult for him in July 2009 by proposing that Dickson be stripped of its rural territories in the west, he cast around for a new opportunity to keep his promising career afloat.
Shortly after, Margaret May announced she would not seek to extend her long and generally uneventful career in the safe Liberal Gold Coast seat of McPherson beyond the next election, and Dutton surprised nobody by throwing his hat into the ring. However, well-organised locals had long had their eyes on the succession and were not of a mind to accommodate his ambitions, being readily able to draw on the argument that Dutton would better serve his party by standing and fighting for his crucial marginal seat. Dutton unwisely sought to raise the stakes by declaring he would not fall back on Dickson if thwarted in McPherson, evidently hoping preselectors would baulk at the prospect of depriving the party of his services. Despite backing for Dutton from Malcolm Turnbull and John Howard, this proved to be a miscalculation: the local preselection vote was won by local favourite Karen Andrews, with Dutton reportedly meeting opposition from the erstwhile Nationals component of the Liberal National Party branches. Fearing a local rebellion, the party’s state executive declined to exercise the nuclear option of refusing the ratify the result.
Dutton’s defeat led to speculation he might instead be accommodated by a retirement announcement from Fisher MP Peter Slipper or Fairfax MP Alex Somlyay, but neither proved willing to move. Another theoretical possibility, the new Gold Coast hinterland seat of Wright, was of no use as the party merger arrangement had reserved it for the Nationals. Shortly after, the redistribution commission decided to slightly limit the scope of the changes proposed for Dickson in its draft report: as the Liberal National Party submission requested, the electorate recovered the northern rural area along Dayboro Road and Woodford Road that it was set to lose to Longman. However, only a small concession was made to the LNP’s request that the troublesome Kallangur area be kept out of the electorate, and the electoral impact was an accordingly slight clipping of the notional Labor margin from 1.3 per cent to 1.0 per cent. Dutton was nonetheless sufficiently encouraged that he went back on his original determination not to contest the seat, despite the obvious risk that he had blotted his copybook in the eyes of local voters.
Labor has again nominated its candidate from 2007, Fiona McNamara, who is the Brisbane north organiser of the Queensland Teachers Union – a position which made life complicated for her as the union wrestled with the government over the My School website.
Dickson was targeted by two composite marginal seat polls just over a week before polling day: a Newspoll survey of 1600 respondents in eight Queensland marginals, which had the swing against Labor at 3.4 per cent, and a similar Galaxy survey of 800 in four seats, which had it at 5.4 per cent. The JWS Research-Telereach poll conducted during the final weekend of the campaign, covering 400 respondents in the electorate with a margin of error of about 5 per cent, had the LNP leading 59-41. Reports late in the final week confirmed the LNP believed they had the seat in the bag.
Analysis written by William Bowe. Read Bowe’s blog, The Poll Bludger.