Electorate: La Trobe
Margin: Liberal 0.5%
Location: Outer Eastern Melbourne, Victoria
In a nutshell: Located in Melbourne’s once-crucial eastern suburbs, La Trobe recorded a strong swing to Labor in line with the regional trend in 2007, but it wasn’t quite enough. Liberal member Jason Wood will again have his work cut out for him defending a slender margin against a threatened Victorian Labor resurgence.
Electorate analysis: La Trobe has covered Melbourne’s eastern fringe since it was created with the enlargement of parliament in 1949, drifting south-eastwards over time from its starting point of Dandenong and Croydon. It now consists of two outer Melbourne areas separated by the Dandenong Ranges – Boronia and Ferntree Gully in the north, and the Berwick area in the south – and extends east through Belgrave to Emerald, Cockatoo and Gembrook. Labor’s strength around Belgrave is countered by Liberal dominance in rapidly growing Berwick and Narre Warren North. Along with other seats in Melbourne’s outer suburban “sandbelt”, La Trobe played a decisive role in the election of the Whitlam government in 1972, falling to Labor for the first time with a 10.2 per cent swing. It swung almost as heavily the other way in 1975, but returned to the Labor fold in 1980 when Peter Milton defeated Liberal member Marshall Baillieu (part of the clan that includes state party leader Ted). An unfavourable redistribution in 1990 combined with the statewide anti-Labor tsunami at that year’s election to deliver a 1.4 per cent victory to Liberal candidate Bob Charles. The seat had a remarkably stable time of it on Charles’s watch, staying with the Liberals by 2.4 per cent in 1993, 1.4 per cent in 1996, 1.0 per cent in 1998 and 3.7 per cent in 2001.
With Charles’s retirement at the 2004 election, the seat emerged as a contest between Liberal candidate Jason Wood, a police officer who had worked in counter-terrorism and organised crime units, and Labor’s Susan Davies, who held the since-abolished state seat of Gippsland West as an independent from 1997 to 2002. The result was an easy win for Wood, who defied the loss of Charles’s personal vote to pick up a 2.1 per cent swing that was concentrated in the heavily mortgaged suburbs nearer the city. Wood had won preselection with the backing of the Kennett faction after cutting his teeth as candidate for Holt in 2001. It was noted at the time he had “been a member of Greenpeace for longer than he has been a member of the Liberal Party”, and he went on to embarrass his party ahead of the 2007 election by issuing a brochure that failed to sing from its song sheet on nuclear power.
Wood went into the 2007 election with a 5.8 per cent margin, of which only 0.5 per cent was left after a swing that was most conspicuous in the areas that had moved to the Liberals in 2004. The defeated Labor candidate was Rodney Cocks, a decorated United Nations security adviser who had been on the scene in the aftermath of the Bali bombings. During the campaign Michael Bachelard of The Age reported being contacted by a “Liberal campaign source” who sought to smear Cocks with, among other things, claims he had exaggerated his exploits in Bali – an assertion powerfully rebutted by a testimonial from a survivor which Labor distributed around the electorate.
Jason Wood was promoted to parliamentary secretary for justice and public security when Malcolm Turnbull assumed the Liberal leadership in September 2008, despite the embarrassment he had recently suffered after stammering his way through a parliamentary speech on genetically modified organisms (which repeatedly came out as “orgasms”). Labor’s new candidate Holding Redlich lawyer Laura Smyth, whom Andrew Landeryou at VexNews links to the “Andrew Giles/Alan Griffin sub-faction of the Socialist Left”.
Labor has promised $55 million to widen a dangerous stretch of Clyde Road, which the Liberals trumped in the third week of the campaign with an $85 million promise of a railway underpass.
La Trobe was covered by two composite marginal seat polls in the second last week of the campaign. Newspoll’s survey of 600 voters across three Victorian marginals produced a striking swing to Labor of 6.2 per cent at least 3 per cent higher than the statewide trend while Galaxy’s survey of 800 respondents in four seats had it at a far more modest 1.6 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 Labor leading 51.2-48.8.
Analysis written by William Bowe. Read Bowe’s blog, The Poll Bludger.