Margin: Labor 0.1%
Location: Central Coast, New South Wales
Outgoing member: Belinda Neal (Labor)
In a nutshell: Robertson has been the scene for a memorable political soap opera over the past three years, which culminated in the preselection defeat of Labor’s narrowly successful candidate at the 2007 election, Belinda Neal. University teacher Deborah O’Neill now has the tough task of retaining the seat for Labor against the challenge of local police sergeant Darren Jameson.
Two-party vote map
Swing % map
Electorate analysis: Covering the coast about 60 kilometres north of central Sydney, Robertson was one of seven New South Wales seats gained by Labor in 2007. The Hawkesbury River marks its boundary with Berowra in the south, and it takes most of its voters from the area north of the river’s mouth. This includes Labor-leaning Woy Woy along with more conservative Terrigal and Gosford. From here it extends inland to lightly populated territory including Popran National Park, McPherson State Forest and the Mangrove Creek dam. The redistribution has added the undeveloped area around the dam from the electorate’s northern neighbour Dobell.
Although technically a federation seat, Robertson was a very different beast at the time of its creation, when it covered the inland rural areas of Mudgee, Singleton and Scone. As it was drawn over time into the increasingly urbanised coast, the conservatives’ hold weakened: Barry Cohen gained the seat for Labor in 1969, and proved able to withstand the twin disasters of 1975 and 1977. The seat drifted back towards the Liberals thereafter, a process which was shoved along when Jim Lloyd defeat incumbent Frank Walker with a 9.2 per cent swing in 1996.
Robertson was won for Labor in 2007 by Belinda Neal, wife of Right faction powerbroker and then senior state minister John Della Bosca, who had served in the Senate from 1994 until she quit in 1998 for a first unsuccessful run in Robertson. Neal prevailed over Lloyd by just 184 votes, shading an existing 6.9 per cent margin with a 7.0 per cent swing. The second leg of her parliamentary career has proved to be both highly eventful and extremely brief. In June 2008 she made headlines after allegedly abusing staff at Gosford restaurant-nightclub Iguana Joe’s. This came shortly after an incident in parliament where she appeared to offer a heavily pregnant Sophie Mirabella that “evil thoughts” would make her child “a demon”, for which she apologised (while claiming the quote ascribed to her was “not completely accurate”). In August 2009 her husband, who had been present during the Iguana Joe’s fracas, resigned as state Health Minister after it was revealed he was having an affair with a 26-year-old woman.
Neal went on to defeat in a preselection vote at the hands of Deborah O’Neill, an education teacher at the University of Newcastle and narrowly unsuccessful state candidate for Gosford in 2003. The Liberals have nominated Darren Jameson, a local police sergeant.
If it was clear after the Iguana Joe’s incident that Belinda Neal’s preselection was in danger, it was equally clear that neither she or her husband would take such a result lying down. When rumours emerged that Della Bosca planned to challenge then-Premier Nathan Rees for the leadership, there was talk he was merely doing so as a “bargaining chip” to help protect his wife. When news of Della Bosca’s infidelity emerged it appeared public sympathy might restore her standing, but this was undermined by a Sydney Morning Herald report that a Labor internal poll of 650 voters had her facing a 20 per cent swing. A challenger emerged in the shape of Deborah O’Neill, who was said by Peter van Onselen in The Australian to have “the tacit approval of NSW Labor Right powerbrokers”. Members of the party’s Ourimbah branch passed a motion calling on Neal to bow out, but she retorted with a claim the branch had “approximately six members”. The national executive allowed the decision to be determined by a normal rank-and-file ballot, which delivered victory to O’Neill by a margin of 98 to 67.
Only when nominations closed at the end of the second week of the campaign did it become clear that Belinda Neal would not run an independent, contrary to widespread earlier speculation. AAP referred to “reports Ms Neal was angling for a spot in the NSW parliament”, assuming there are any left for Labor after the voters are done with them.
A week out from the election it emerged a complaint had been made to police accusing Jameson of manhandling two boys he believed to have thrown eggs at his car. The complaint was drawn a few days later, amid claims from Jameson Labor had been behind its leaking to the media. Imre Salusinszky of The Australian argued that if it was indeed a Labor plot to besmirch Jameson in the eyes of local voters, it hadn’t worked.
Half way through the campaign, Phillip Coorey of the Sydney Morning Herald included Robertson among five New South Wales seats where internal polling had the Liberals feeling confident, and there were similar noises from Patricia Karvelas of The Australian a week later. The electorate was one of six New South Wales marginals covered by a Newspoll survey conducted through the second last week of the campaign, targeting 200 respondents per electorate, which collectively showed a swing against Labor of 1.3 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, showed a lineball result.
Analysis written by William Bowe. Read Bowe’s blog, The Poll Bludger.