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‘Have I lost?’: The battle for Australia’s most marginal electorate

Most federal seats are decided on election night, but not Macquarie. The last race for the electorate on Sydney’s western fringe was so tight the winner wasn’t known for 16 days.

When Labor member for Macquarie, Susan Templeman, gathered with supporters at the Royal Hotel in Springwood after polls closed on election day in 2019 it became clear the result would not be known that night.

The battle for Macquarie: Liberal candidate Sarah Richards and sitting Labor MP Susan Templeman.Credit:Rhett Wyman, James Brickwood

“I remember saying to someone: ‘Have I lost?’ and the response was ‘No, not yet’,” she said. “It was quite a surreal feeling because all the people who have helped you for weeks [are] desperate for a celebration, and the best I was able to do was say to them: ‘It’s not over yet’.”

Templeman’s Liberal opponent, Sarah Richards, was ahead in the count for 10 days. She remembers it as an “anxious time.”

“Every day, like most of the residents in our community, I was watching the tally room and seeing what was happening,” says Richards. “After a few days I tried not to look at it again and have a firm belief in what will be, will be.”

Templeman devoted herself to gardening during the long wait for a result. “I spent 16 days doing heavy lifting,” she said. “I found out I had won while I was on my way to buy some plants. I didn’t believe it until [ABC election analyst] Antony Green tweeted it, when I was in the queue to pay with my husband.”

Labor’s Susan Templeman campaigning in Springwood on Thursday.Credit:Rhett Wyman

Once all the absentee votes were tallied Labor prevailed by just 371 votes making Macquarie the most marginal electorate in the nation.

Now Templeman and Richards are again going head-to-head for the seat and another high stakes contest is expected. Prime Minister Scott Morrison and other senior ministers visited the electorate last week underscoring its importance.

Macquarie is dominated by two regional populations with contrasting political leanings.

The Blue Mountains townships along the Great Western Highway strongly favour Labor. At the last election the ALP won more than 70 per cent of the two-party preferred vote at several polling places in the area including Blackheath and Katoomba. But that was offset by strong Liberal Party majorities across the growing suburbs near Windsor and Richmond in the Hawkesbury.

Liberal candidate for Macquarie, Sarah Richards (second from left), campaigning with Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Foreign Minister Marise Payne on Tuesday.Credit:James Brickwood

“There’s no doubt the Hawkesbury and Blue Mountains are two distinct communities in one federal electorate: a very Liberal Hawkesbury and a very Labor or Greens Blue Mountains,” says Richards. “I think it’s inevitable that when you mesh these two together, you’re going to have a marginal seat.”

Richards said those traditional voting preferences – which were consistent in local government and state elections – had been that way “for generations”.

“I’m not sure what that’s about, it’s just the way it is… What I’ve been trying to promote is for the focus to stop being on what is different, what is divisive, and on the fact we do have a lot in common between the two areas.”

Richards, who is a Hawkesbury City councillor, says both communities want investment in infrastructure, better cost of living, and more local job opportunities.

Census data shows Macquarie has a relatively high share of households with a mortgage (40 per cent in 2016 vs 32 per cent statewide) and a relatively low share were renters (21 per cent vs 32 per cent statewide). There’s a high rate of multiple car ownership and over 70 per cent of commuters travelled to work by car. Almost 80 per cent of Macquarie’s population was born in Australia, well above the national average of 67 per cent.

Property prices have risen sharply within the electorate since the last election and Templeman says there is growing concern about housing affordability. Domain Group data shows three suburbs within Macquarie’s boundaries – Glenbrook, Pitt Town and Leura – now have a median house price of more than $1 million and several more are closing in on that threshold.

Locals navigate flooding on the Hawkesbury River in March 2022. The electorate of Macquarie has been hit by multiple natural disasters since the last electionCredit:Dean Sewell

The pandemic trend for families (and therefore new voters) to relocate to larger housing in lifestyle destinations such as the Blue Mountains and the Hawkesbury may influence this year’s result.

“More and more people are discovering the Hawkesbury and Blue Mountains, especially during COVID we saw our population shift, with more people wanting to come and live in our areas,” says Templeman.

“They wanted to come because of the incredible lifestyle the region offers…whether it’s the semi-rural or more rugged natural beauty, I think people have come to value both those things even more, particularly as they’ve seen them be threatened by bushfire.”

Recent natural disasters linked to climate change within the Macquarie electorate have introduced another electoral wildcard.

In black summer bushfires tore through parts of the electorate in 2019 and that devastation was followed by multiple Hawkesbury River floods.

RFS members at Bilpin fighting the Gospers Mountain fire which tore through parts of the Macquarie electorate in 2019.Credit:Nick Moir

Templeman says fire, flood and storm have left many in the community feeling besieged and uncertain.

“It does actually feel, in the last couple of years – when you put COVID on top of it all – that our whole region has really battled to survive,” she said.

Richards agreed that natural disasters had worn down the region since the last election. “There’s no doubt it’s been a significant three years,” she said. “The only words to describe the community are exhausted and tired. There’s been so much that has happened. If you start from the bushfires, that was quite significant. We’ve had four floods in two years.”

But Richards does not believe the Coalition’s climate policy record will deter voters.

“I think that the federal government has committed to net zero 2050 policy. They also believe they’ll get there earlier. Having that on the table is extremely important getting into the election. Labor has a different policy and commitment: will they be able to achieve it?”

Macquarie has changed hands three times in the past 15 years; Templeman won the seat narrowly at her third attempt in 2016. But she sees an upside to Macquarie’s highly marginal status.

“One of the real consequences of it being close – I think the people of Macquarie realise how vital their democratic vote is; it can not only change a seat but change a government,” she says. “That’s a really powerful and positive message. In a lot of ways the close vote has been a real boost for democracy in this part of the world.”

Jacqueline Maley cuts through the noise of the federal election campaign with news, views and expert analysis. Sign up to our Australia Votes 2022 newsletter here.

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