Was the Member for Paterson from 1996 to 1998, losing to Bob Horne for the ALP, but regaining the seat in 2001.
It's the only seat in the Hunter Region held by a Liberal Party MP. Issues in the electorate include concern about unemployment and the downturn in mining and ongoing problems with the NBN. The burning issue though is community concern over contamination of ground and surface water by firefighting foam used over several years at Williamtown RAAF Base, which has affected many properties and which has involved the Department of Defence facing allegations of a cover up and led to fishing restrictions in certain areas.
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Just north of Newcastle lies the electorate of Paterson, named after federation-era author and poet Banjo Paterson. It’s on the national radar in the 2016 contest because February’s federal electorate redistribution saw three Liberal seats across NSW – Paterson, Barton and Dobell – become notional Labor seats. But it’s right here in Paterson where the boundary changes are the most significant in terms of changes to notional margins.
Where Paterson once reached in to the lower North Coast, the redistribution means it is now a Hunter-based seat and the 9.8 per cent margin won by Bob Baldwin for the Liberals in the 2013 election has dissipated into a notional ALP majority of 0.3 per cent, making it the Hunter’s most marginal seat. Baldwin held the seat for 17 years after winning a first term in Paterson in 1996, losing to Labor’s Bob Horne in 1998, regaining it in 2001 and holding the seat until he announced his retirement in April.
The seat covers an area of 1,123 sq kms, stretching from the coast at Nelson Bay to as far west as Maitland. The main towns include Kurri Kurri, Maitland, Medowie, Neath, Nelson Bay, Raymond Terrace and Williamtown. It is bordered by the electorate of Newcastle in the south, Hunter to the west and Lyne to the north. Covering only one-sixth of its former area, Dungog, Forster, Tuncurry, Hawks Nest and Tea Gardens are now part of Lyne, while Maitland and Kurri Kurri move in from Hunter, and Tarro and Woodberry are reallocated from Newcastle.
Paterson is an interesting and varied mix of tourism; farming, including beef and dairy, mixed farming and maize; fishing and oyster farming; general engineering; transport; construction and recreational industries; and the Newcastle Airport. The electorate’s biggest employer is the Williamtown RAAF Base. The bulk of the $17.8billion troubled F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets are set to be housed at the base.
The Liberal Party has fielded former Baldwin staffer Karen Howard to stand against Labor’s Meryl Swanson. Howard is a strong media performer who has yet to win an election, despite having stood as an independent for a by-election in the state seat of Newcastle in 2014 and then again for the same seat less than 12 months later in the 2015 state election. Howard, who grew up in the seat, had Julie Bishop launch her campaign in May.
The ALP considers Paterson ready for change. They are targeting the seat with visits from high profile shadow ministers. Early in the campaign Bill Shorten’s visit to the electorate to announce road funding gained the national spotlight following a head-on collision as a car attempted to overtake the would-be PM’s motorcade. Swanson, once a staffer in the office of the member for Hunter Joel Fitzgibbon, enjoys a high community recognition factor as a former commercial and community radio presenter. Swanson has managed to secure a promise from the opposition that they will fund blood tests for people who may have been affected by the chemicals PFOS and PFOA chemicals found in fire-fighting foam used at the Williamtown RAAF base.
And that’s a highly contentious issue for the seat – perhaps the biggest issue in the whole of the Hunter as of late May. There has been contamination of approximately 650 properties in what is now known as the “red zone” around the Williamtown RAAF base. Local waterways have been closed to fishing since September 2015 and this has affected the livelihoods of many people who rely on the waterways for their income. Property prices have crashed and the locals have been told not to drink bore water or eat locally grown food. A group of residents is taking a class action lawsuit against the Department of Defence. A perceived failure to address the issue has seen local wags refer to the Williamtown contamination as ‘Paterson’s Curse’ – a thinly veiled reference to the chances of the Liberals being able to retain the seat. The Defence Minister has not been to Paterson since the contamination closed the waterways.
Shadow minister for Defence Stephen Conroy has committed a Labor Government to providing regular blood tests for affected residents and pledging a $21million dollar action plan, while the Liberals have made no promises. They are awaiting a report before committing to a course of action. But locals want action and are perplexed why both major parties have avoided addressing calls for compensation.
Other issues of importance to the voters of Paterson include a lack of health facilities for seniors, youth unemployment and penalty rates. The seaside towns in the electorate are continuing to prove attractive to retirees and around one-in-four people in Paterson are older than 65. With around an hour-and-half being required to attend the John Hunter or Mater hospitals in Newcastle, there will continue to be pressure for a hospital providing a wide range of services and a need for expansion of support services to help seniors remain in their homes as long as possible.