The NSW state electorate of Balmain has had almost as colourful a history as the suburb. Once deeply working class based around the shipyards and docks, and now inner-urban cosmopolitan and affluent, Balmain was always a Labor seat until won by swimming legend and Balmain girl, Dawn Fraser, as an independent in 1988. Fraser held the seat until 1991when a boundary redistribution saw it abolished and included in the new seat of Port Jackson. Balmain was reinstated as an electorate in a further redistribution in 2007 and is held by current Education Minister, Verity Firth.
The major challenge to Labor’s hold on Balmain comes from the Greens. Balmain’s demographic data shows a large proportion of young-middle aged (ie. 25-54) professional couples without children. This is Greens heartland: people with progressive social views and a high level of concern about the environment. The local government area is Leichhardt, where six Greens councillors currently sit on an 11-member council and include the Mayor and Deputy Mayor.
In the 2007 election, Leichhardt Deputy Mayor, Rochelle Porteous, won 30% of the vote against Labor’s 39%. In the previous election, 2003, Leichhardt Mayor, Jamie Parker, contested the seat of Port Jackson (which included Balmain) winning 29% against the 42% of Labor’s Minister for Small Business, Tourism and Women, Sandra Nori.
There is some interesting background to the 2003 result. In the dying days of the campaign and with the Greens rated a strong chance to take the seat of Port Jackson from the unpopular Nori, the Sunday Telegraph ran a front-page story, which ran over the next two pages as well, claiming that the Greens’ drugs policy was ‘hidden’ and that it included legalising the sale of such drugs as speed and ecstasy and supported heroin ‘hand-outs’ to addicts. None of this was true and the Greens drugs policy, far from being hidden, was publicly available on their website. With the Greens campaigning and polling strongly in Port Jackson, the Sunday Tele also ran a photo of Parker on the front page, juxtaposed with their sensationalist headline. One of Parker’s opponents, the Unity Party’s Polly Chan, then mailed an individually-addressed letter to all voters in the electorate repeating the claims and urging them not to vote for the Greens.
Fast forward to 2011. In the Green corner is Jamie Parker, a Leichhardt councillor since 1999 and Mayor since 2008. In the red corner: Verity Firth, Minister for Education and Training and member for Balmain since its reinstatement as an electorate in 2007. This time, by one of those ironic twists of fate, it is Firth who is up against drug-related allegations. On the night of 28 January, Firth’s husband was arrested and charged with possession of what is described as a ‘minor’ drug. Firth also represents a deeply unpopular government while Parker is a long-serving councillor and high-profile mayor.
According to the ABC’s election guru, Antony Green, Labor’s margin over the Greens is a slim 3.7%, but on the 2-party preferred against the Liberals, is 17.8%. In an indication of how seriously Labor regards the Greens challenge, they have already approached the Liberals for a preference deal in Balmain, as well as neighbouring Marrickville. In the last election, the Liberals won only 24% of the vote, well behind the Greens’ 30%. Given the demographic make-up and electoral history of the electorate, it is more likely that deserting Labor voters will vote Green than Liberal, and likely that liberal Liberal voters will preference the Greens. In what could be one of the more interesting seats to watch on March 24, I’m tipping the Greens’ Jamie Parker to pick up Balmain by a narrow margin.