Liberal squabble aborted by ill health

30 August 2015

Few things might annoy politicians like electoral redistributions.  Necessary because of population change, these can leave politicians’ hitherto-safe seats suddenly more vulnerable to their rivals, or they can abolish seats altogether.  When these things happen, politicians sometimes play a game of musical chairs to find another seat, and sometimes they’re forced to retire prematurely.

In one redistribution of Federal electorates in the Australian Capital Territory during the 1990s, the Labor Party found itself in such trouble.  Population change in the ACT had led from the number of electorates there rising from two to three before a Federal election in 1996, at which Labor won all three electorates.  But with more change, the third electorate was subsequently abolished ahead of the next election, in 1998, and one Labor MP had to retire after being left stranded.

Another redistribution almost pitted two Liberal politicians against each other in a preselection battle ahead of a Federal election in 2001.  This came into my head when I heard about the recent death of Alby Schultz, who represented the Liberal Party in the New South Wales Parliament and then Federal Parliament.  But this particular redistribution almost made Schultz’s stint in Federal Parliament very brief.

What’s an electoral redistribution?  In political terms, it means a redrawing, or changing, of the boundaries of electorates within any given state, so as to given electorates as near as possible to an equal number of voters.  Redistributions often happen every 5-10 years.  Naturally, over time populations grow in some areas and shrink in others – right around Australia, it’s long been a case of city populations growing and rural populations shrinking.  Population change often leaves some electorates with thousands more voters than the rest, and some electorates with thousands less voters than the rest.  As a result, an electoral redistribution needs to be undertaken to correct the imbalances and ensure that all electorates have roughly the same number of voters, based not just on actual population change over time but also on predicted population change in the near future.

As an example, there was a redistribution of state electorates in New South Wales ahead of an election in March this year.  Major population growth in inner Sydney over a number of years resulted, more or less, in one urban electorate being divided into two – the existing electorate of Marrickville was abolished, and within its locality two new electorates were created, namely Newtown and Summer Hill.  On the other hand, population decline across rural NSW resulted in the three westernmost electorates in the state dropping from three to two.  The most westerly electorate, Murray-Darling, was abolished, as was neighbouring Murrumbidgee.  Another neighbouring electorate, Barwon, was enlarged to take in the northern half of the former Murray-Darling electorate, whose southern half was merged with much of the former Murrumbidgee electorate to create a new electorate named Murray.  The Nationals held all three of those former electorates, so one of them ended up running for a seat in the Upper House of Parliament at the next election, leaving the other two Nationals, both ministers, to contest Barwon and Murray.  This gives you an idea of what electoral redistributions can do to politicians.

Going back to Schultz, a redistribution almost saw him out of Federal Parliament soon after he got there.  He was first elected to State Parliament in NSW in 1988, winning the southern rural seat of Burrinjuck, and held it until 1998, when he resigned to run for Federal Parliament and won the seat of Hume, which he held until retiring in 2013.  But because of a redistribution after 1998, he was almost pitted in a fight for Liberal preselection with John Fahey.

Formerly Premier of NSW from 1992 to 1995 and in State Parliament since 1984, Fahey had left for Federal Parliament in 1996, winning the seat of Macarthur, and he became a senior minister in the Howard Government.  The redistribution after 1998 saw Macarthur lose much of its Liberal-leaning voter base to neighbouring Hume and take in many Labor-leaning areas, to the point of making it notionally a Labor-held seat. Indeed Fahey’s own home in the Southern Highlands was also moved into Hume.

So Fahey sought to leave Macarthur and run for Hume, which Schultz had won not long ago, leaving the Liberal Party with trouble over preselection.  In political terms, preselection means the choice of a person by a political party to represent it in a general election.  As a minister, Fahey had more seniority than Schultz, but Schultz wasn’t willing to make way, and he even considered leaving the Liberals.

In the end, ill health ended this preselection squabble.  Because of cancer, Fahey announced his retirement from politics in mid-2001, so the squabble with Schultz never eventuated.  With Fahey gone, Schultz went on to hold Hume for another fifteen years.

The passing of Schultz thus reminds political followers of this Liberal squabble brought about by an electoral redistribution, and only aborted by ill health.  How quaint the winds of fate must seem, as Fahey remains alive and well and doing other work away from politics.

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