Margin: Liberal 7.0%*
Location: Outer Western Melbourne, Victoria
* Liberal 10.2% versus Greens at 5/12/2009 by-election
In a nutshell: A prestige Liberal seat held by John Gorton during his prime ministership and by Peter Costello from 1990 until late 2009, when he ended two years of speculation by bowing out of politics. The ensuing by-election was won by a former staffer to Costello, Kelly O’Dwyer.
Electorate analysis: Covering the affluent Melbourne suburbs of Toorak, Prahran and Malvern, Higgins has been held by the Liberals since its creation in 1949. The inaugural member was Harold Holt, who had previously been member for Fawkner since 1935. Holt remained in the seat until his disappearance in December 1967, at which point it was used to parachute Senator John Gorton into the the House to assume the prime ministership. Gorton stayed on for two elections after being deposed as Prime Minister in March 1971, before indulging in a quixotic bid to win one of the Australian Capital Territory’s newly acquired Senate seats as an independent in 1975. Roger Shipton subsequently held the seat until 1990, becoming famous only in 1988 when he stood firm against maverick businessman John Elliott’s designs on his seat. Shipton stared down Elliott only to lose preselection to Peter Costello, who was at no stage troubled in Higgins through his 11 frustrating years as Treasurer and Liberal deputy.
On the morning after the federal election defeat Costello made the shock announcement that he would not assume the leadership, as had been universally assumed. Speculation that he might seek a return lingered for the following year, but in September 2008 he reiterated he would not seek the leadership and said he would leave parliament at a time of his choosing. Another year later he resigned, initiating the Higgins by-election of 5 December 2009. The Liberals had by that time already preselected as candidate former Costello Kelly O’Dwyer, who won a preselection vote against Toorak businessman Andrew Abercrombie 222 votes to 112. Candidates who earlier fell by the wayside included a director and executive director of the Institute of Public Affairs, Tim Wilson and John Roskam (the latter reportedly having suffered from an article he wrote for The Punch which put Peter Costello’s nose out of joint).
Labor declined to field a candidate, but there were a few imprudent suggestions the seat might fall to the Greens. Their candidate was Clive Hamilton, director of the Australia Institute think tank, a choice which met resistance from some quarters due to his enthusiasm for internet filtering. In the event O’Dwyer went entirely untroubled, polling 54.6 per cent to Hamilton’s 32.4 per cent and emerging with a two-candidate margin of 10.2 per cent.
Analysis written by William Bowe. Read Bowe’s blog, The Poll Bludger.