Former Campbelltown mayor Russell Matheson has begun a preselection challenge against Pat Farmer, Liberal member for Macarthur, nominating for the party’s preselection, which will take place in the next few weeks.
Matheson has been a Campbelltown councillor since 1991, and in that time has served numerous terms as Mayor, generally through a power-sharing alliance with the Labor Party.
The ALP generally wins a large number of seats on Campbelltown council, but usually short of a majority. In recent times they have kept a lock on the Campbelltown mayoralty by forming an alliance with a small number of independents, including Matheson since at least the 1999 election.
Matheson’s ticket won a second seat on Council at the 2004 election, with Paul Lake joining him on the council. After the 2004 and 2008 elections Matheson struck a deal to share the mayoralty with the ALP with each party having the mayoralty for two years. Matheson was most recently Mayor in 2008-9.
First of all, I think it is very unlikely that Farmer will beat off Matheson for preselection. The local party in the area has little fondness for Farmer. Charlie Lynn MLC basically runs the local Liberal Party in Macarthur, and he has openly stated that Farmer would not regain preselection in 2010. Farmer’s move to Mosman in late 2007 additionally put him offside with a lot of locals.
Assuming Matheson wins preselection with the support of Lynn and his ally Campbelltown councillor Jai Rowell, he’s going to face an almighty challenge to hold onto the seat for the Liberal Party. The redistribution has made the seat notionally Labor, and current trends would suggest a swing towards the ALP can be expected.
In addition, while Farmer’s popularity has declined, there is surely a sizeable proportion of the electorate who continue to vote for him personally as a likeable local celebrity seemingly above day-to-day politics. While they may be willing to consider a new Liberal candidate, if Farmer is pushed out in a preselection coup, Matheson will suffer from that.
There also seems to be an assumption that Matheson’s status as former Campbelltown mayor will be of benefit to his federal candidacy, but the evidence doesn’t bear that out.
Matheson’s ticket only polled 10.6% at the last Campbelltown Council election. He polled highest in Raby (my own suburb) with 26.5%, with the next two best booths in nearby Eschol Park and Eagle Vale. None of these booths are in Macarthur on either 2007 or draft 2010 boundaries. On the other hand, the worst booths for Matheson are also in Werriwa, while his more average booths lie in Macarthur, so overall he polled about the same in Macarthur and Werriwa (10.8% in Macarthur, 10.6% in Werriwa). Campbelltown City is evenly divided between the two federal electorates.
So while Matheson has his own constituency, it has never been particularly large and his most loyal supporters are outside the electorate. It seems likely that Matheson will struggle to match the personal profile of Pat Farmer and will have little impact on the likely swing to the ALP which should give them the seat, even if Matheson’s profile is much higher than a Labor candidate such as Nick Bleasdale.
Update: Matheson insists he will remain an independent councillor before admitting that he will be closely aligned to the three Liberals. I don’t know how that’s supposed to work. It seems very likely this is a ploy by Liberal council leader Jai Rowell to gain a fourth vote on council by giving away a poisoned-chalice preselection.