Labor has preselected a human rights lawyer with deep roots in the party to run against Liberal moderate Trent Zimmerman in North Sydney, in what promises to become a fascinating three corner race for the federal seat.
On Tuesday, Labor will announce that Catherine Renshaw, a professor of law at the University of Western Sydney specialising in human rights, will run for the lower north shore seat.
The seat is currently held by Zimmerman, one of the Liberal party’s leading moderates, by a margin of 9.3%, making it one of the Liberals’ safest.
Labor has never held North Sydney, but it was represented by independent Ted Mack in the 1990s for six years and a community endorsed independent, Kylea Tink, is running this year.
The presence of a third strong candidate in the seat is likely to make for a lively contest where local community forums will play an important role.
Renshaw went to school in North Sydney and lives in Northbridge. She joined the Labor party 25 years ago and is married to John Renshaw, whose father, Jack Renshaw, was a Labor premier of New South Wales.
Renshaw said she was motivated to run because of the lack of action on important issues – climate change, the Covid response and education.
The party is buoyed by its strong showing in the local government elections in North Sydney council and Lane Cove council, which have a large crossover with the federal seat.
Renshaw believed she had “a real shot,” and that people wanted to see a genuine contest.
“As an academic I have studied and worked in countries where accountability and the rule of law do not exist – like Myanmar – and I do not take for granted what we are lucky enough to have here in Australia,” she said.
“North Sydney is a community that values justice and that values truth, and there are people here proud to stand up for those ideals. I want to use this election to show the Liberal party that there is a growing home for progressive values in our electorate.”
Meanwhile the sitting MP, Zimmerman, is facing preselection challenges from the Liberal party’s right and centre right factions. Barrister Hamish Stitt is backed by the right faction, while Jessica Collins has backing from the centre right.
Insiders say the challenges are unlikely to be successful, but indicate the factional manoeuvring within the NSW Liberal party. Factional plays have held up NSW Liberal nominations for nine months, leaving a raft of key seats without candidates.
Local Labor strategists argue that North Sydney is a blue ribbon Liberal seat because Labor has failed to make it a contest in the past and the seat is home to many progressive voters.
The fact that Labor is putting up a fight is also likely to help Tink, though she needs to come at least second on primary votes to stand any chance of winning the seat. Labor has not yet decided on preferences, but is almost certain to preference Tink ahead of the Liberals.
Labor adopted a similar strategy in Wentworth in the 2018 byelection and in the 2019 general election, running high profile local Tim Murray as its candidate. Murray ran a strong campaign on a low budget, often making his mark at local debates.
Although Murray lost primary votes to the independent, Kerryn Phelps, his preferences helped her win in 2018. Phelps failed to be re-elected in 2019 when the Liberals’ Dave Sharma won by a narrow margin, but Murray’s preferences again flowed strongly to Phelps.
Murray is expected to be Labor’s candidate for Wentworth again in 2022. This time Sharma is facing a challenge from a community-backed independent, Allegra Spender.
On the lower north shore, Labor has had something of a resurgence, at least at the local government level. Lane Cove council is expected to elect a Labor mayor this week for the first time ever, and Labor’s representation on council has gone from one councillor in 2012 to three in 2021.
Labor also secured two councillors in North Sydney where the Liberals have two, and there are a number of independents.