This, the first of a series of reports on New England's federal electorates, examines Cowper.
Once a Clarence Valley electorate centered on Grafton and held by Earle Page for 42 years, progressive boundary changes have moved the electorate's focus south. Today the seat covers 7,911 sq.km between the Macleay and Clarence Rivers.
In the north, the seat covers a relatively small proportion of the Clarence Valley on the south side of the river including Maclean. Moving south, the first main centres are the coastal resorts of Woolgoolga and then Coffs Harbour, the biggest centre in the electorate with a population of over 60,000.
This is followed by a number of river valleys: the Bellinger (Urunga, Bellingen), the Nambucca (Nambucca Heads, Macksville) and the majority of the Macleay (Kempsey, South West Rocks). At the Bellinger, the electorate bulges inland to include the Tablelands around Dorrigo, once part of the New England electorate.
Economic and Demographic Change
Cowper is the poorest electorate in Australia.
According to the 2006 Census, Cowper has the nation's lowest median family income ($799), the highest proportion earning less than $650 per week (36.9%) and the lowest proportion earning more than $2,000 per week (7.0%). On official measures, unemployment is over 10 per cent. Real unemployment is significantly higher.
The raw economic data reflects an electorate undergoing fundamental change. The traditional rural industries of timber and dairying have declined in importance, being replaced by lower income generating activities of tourism and retirement. Attracted by the area's beauty, pockets of counter culture and alternative life style, especially Bellingen and Dorrigo, sit side by side with traditional activities.
At 5 per cent, Cowper has the twelfth highest indigenous proportion of the population of all Australian electorates. The indigenous proportion is especially high in Kempsey and the Macleay Valley, also areas of limited employment opportunities, especially for the unskilled.
By way of background to the following, there are 150 Federal electorates in all.
129,465 people live in Cowper, nearly half now in Coffs Harbour. While I have not checked the demographics in detail, I would expect this dominance to increase both through tourism and because of the location of Government activities in Coffs.
This is an ageing electorate.
Nationally, it is the 12th oldest in the 65+ age bracket, with 18.2% of the population aged 65 or over. The proportion of those under 5 (5.5%) is the 23rd lowest, the proportion (50.5%) in the key working 25 to 64 years group is the 20th lowest. Only in the 5-14 year group (14.6%) does Cowper score better, coming in at 96th.
On another measure, at 30.2%, Cowper has the tenth lowest proportion in the country of couples with dependent children. On the other hand, at 14.7% it has the 5th highest proportion of one parent families with dependant children in the country.
Overall, Cowper's median age of 43 makes it the third oldest electorate in the country.
Turning to other indicators.
At 9.9%, Cowper has the 26th lowest proportion of overseas born, the 17th lowest (just 2.6%) born in non-English speaking countries. With a Christian proportion of 68.7%, it is the 42nd most Christian electorate in the country.
Compared to the national average, Cowper kids are more likely to be attending a Government school (72.5 per cent, 28th highest in the country), while the population as a whole has significantly less formal education: the proportion of the population completing year 10 or below is 55.8%, the eighth highest proportion in the country.
Cowper people are also less likely to have an Iiternet connection; 53% of households have some form of internet connection, the 22nd lowest proportion in the country. Only 27.5% have broadband.
On the other hand, Cowper residents are far more likely to won their own home outright than the national average, with 41.1% of all dwellings fully owned the 12th highest proportion in the country.
Those buying in the process of buying their own home face lower repayments: the median monthly housing loan repayment in Cowper was $1,031, the 32nd lowest figure in the country. At $168, median weekly rents are lower, with Cowper coming in at 41.
Past Voting Patterns
This has been traditional Country or National Party territory for many years, although there has been some erosive effect because of economic and demographic change.
On the seat's new boundaries, the primary vote at the last election was Nationals 50.5%, ALP 31.7% and Greens 8.9%. The higher than average Green vote is a measure of the presence of alternative counter culture views.
The sitting National member, Luke Hartsuyker, is contesting the seat again. This should make the seat a safe National seat. However, the seat is still one to watch.
A sign of this was Labor's decision in September to dump its originally chosen candidate John Fitzroy for Paul Sekfy. According to Antony Green, the reported reason in newspaper stories was that Labor internal polling indicated that Cowper could fall, and Labor wanted a more experienced and better known candidate in the seat.
Paul Nelson, Electoral division rankings: Census 2006 first release (2006 electoral boundaries), Parliamentary Library, Canberra October 2007.