In sheep farming, the bellwether is the leading sheep of a flock often with a bell attached to its neck. In political elections, bellwethers are the leading indicators of trends, and the bellwether seats are the seats that are usually won by the party that wins government.
So it is perfectly proper that in the land of the merino that the most consistent bellwether seat, the only one to pick the winning team in each of the 23 elections since it was created in 1949, should be named for the founder of Australia’s wool industry - John Macarthur.
With the Federal Election imminent, the political parties will be increasing their attention on the bellwether seats. And the astute electors who live in them, for decades having enjoyed the bounty that marginal seat status brings, will - to use another term to cross over from farming to politics - be watching the rollout of the pork barrel that politicians hope will save their bacon.
Since 1984 when the Parliament was expanded to its current size, eight seats have perfect bellwether election-winner picking records - Macarthur (NSW), Herbert (Qld), Leichhardt (Qld), Eden-Monaro (NSW), Hughes (NSW), Lindsay (NSW) Robertson (NSW) and Makin (SA).
A further seven have picked 7 of the last 8 elections - Canning (WA), Forde (Qld), Petrie (Qld), McEwan (Vic), Dunkley (Vic), Kalgoorlie (WA) and Parramatta (NSW). Another eight seats picked the winner in 6 out of 8 elections: Bowman (Qld), Deakin (Vic), Hinkler (Qld), Kingston (SA), Moreton (Qld), Deakin (Vic), Dobell (NSW), and Page (NSW).
These are the 23 bellwether seats. Going into this election, Mr Howard and Mr Rudd both know that who leads the bellwethers will end up the leader of the pack.
Redistributions have moved some of the bellwethers into safer territory, increasing the notional Coalition margin on Macarthur (located on Sydney’s southern outskirts) from 9.5 per cent to 11.1 per cent. The Coalition margin also improved in the Queensland bellwethers of Dickson (8.9 per cent) and Hinkler (8.2 per cent), but not necessarily out of the political “danger zone”. The other classic Queensland bellwethers of Leichhardt (10.4 per cent) and Forde (11.6 per cent) would seem too safe to be bellwethers, but retirements of popular local members and demographic change put both into play.
The seat of Phillip in eastern Sydney, abolished in 1993, was another classic bellwether - held by the Government of the day for all but two of the years from 1955 to 1993. Most of what was Phillip is now in the marginal Government seat of Wentworth - possibly a new bellwether will be born?
History buffs, political pundits and trivia buffs might find it interesting to look at the record of the bellwethers over history.
Going back to 1949 when the Parliament was doubled in size, only Macarthur has a perfect winner-picking record. Eden-Monaro has a perfect record since 1972 (13 elections) and Leichhardt and Herbert perfect records since 1975 (11 elections). All three elected Labor members during the Menzies years, pulling their averages down to just 15 wins out of 23 polls since 1949. The other stand-out performers are:
- Latrobe (Vic), picked the Government candidate in 21 out of 23 races, contrarily electing a Liberal from 1990 to 1996;
- Canning (WA): 20 out of 23, preferring Liberals during Whitlam (1972-5) and Labor during the highpoint of local Kim Beazley’s leadership (1998-01);
- Bowman (Qld) and Petrie (Qld): 19 out of 23;
- Deakin (Vic), Moore (WA), Moreton (Qld) and Parramatta (NSW): 18 out of 23; and
- McMillan (Vic), Denison (Tas), Swan (WA), Lilley (Qld) and Calare (NSW): 17 out of 23 (although the latter four have been non-government since 1998).
Since 1901, the seats most often on the winning side over 41 elections were:
- Parramatta (NSW) and Corio (Vic) (32 out of 41 elections). Interestingly, Parramatta was in conservative hands for all but two of the years 1901-1977, while Corio, which picked the winner in 25 of 26 elections up to 1967, has been solidly Labor ever since; - Eden-Monaro (NSW), Indi (Vic) and Riverina (NSW) (31 out of 41). Indi has been solidly conservative since 1931, but picked the winner in 15 of 16 elections up to 1943. Riverina has been solidly conservative since 1980;
- Swan (WA) (30 out of 41). Swan has been held by Labor by a narrow margin in all but one election since 1980;
- Moreton (Qld), Lilley (Qld) and Denison (Tas) (29 out of 40). Lilley and Denison have become safe Labor seats since the 1980s; and
- Robertson (NSW) and Calare (NSW) (28 out of 41).
The “bellwether seats” saved John Howard in 1998 despite Labor winning 52 per cent of the total two-party preferred vote, with Coalition winning majorities of less than 1.5 per cent recorded in Eden-Monaro, Herbert, Hinkler, Latrobe, Lindsay, McEwan, Makin, Moreton, Parramatta and Petrie, and more comfortable majorities in Macarthur (5.1 per cent), Page (2.4 per cent) and Robertson (2.1 per cent).
John Howard and Kevin Rudd will both be hoping that the bellwethers will lead a flock of seats safely home on election night. It will be a long and sleepless night for the would-be shepherds, for counting the bellwethers is not like counting normal sheep.