Maxine Mckew’s decision to challenge Prime Minister John Howard in his NSW seat of Bennelong has set up a fascinating array of political possibilities for this year's federal election. Howard could lose the election as well as his seat, the first time such a scenario has eventuated since Stanley Melbourne Bruce lost his Victorian seat of Flinders as prime minister at the 1929 federal election an election, incidentally, fought on industrial relations.
More tantalising still for the commentariat is that the Coalition Government could win the election but Howard lose his seat. If that were to happen, the electors of Bennelong would have achieved what Treasurer Peter Costello and his team of supporters have been unable to - a leadership transition. Maybe moderate Liberal electors in Bennelong will vote against their conservative local MP?
Under such a scenario, Costello would be sworn in as prime minister and Howard would be left with a humbling end to his 33-year parliamentary career. That is unless one of his loyal servants inside the parliamentary Liberal Party were to give up their seat, forcing an immediate by-election to get Howard back into the Parliament. Were that to happen, the prime candidate would be the almost invisible Alan Cadman in the neighbouring seat of Mitchell. His margin is a well-insulated 20 per cent.
Of course, the most likely scenario is that Howard will win his seat whether his Government is returned or not. The Australian Electoral Commission classifies seats as "marginal" if the swing required to lose the seat is 5 per cent or less. John Howard holds Bennelong by less than 4 per cent. However, the tight margin has already built in a 3.4 per cent swing against Howard at the last election on the back of a strong campaign to unseat him.
Former Liberal Party president John Valder teamed up with well-known left-wing journalist Margo Kingston to run the "Not Happy John" campaign in 2004. And unhappy they certainly were, throwing their support behind former Office of National Assessment analyst and Iraq war critic Andrew Wilkie. His preferences helped prop up Labor's two-party vote in the seat.
Since the last election Bennelong has been made more marginal by a redistribution which has taken in parts of the Labor-held seat of Parramatta. So yes, the PM has a fight on his hands, but the main game for Labor is to force Howard to spend more time campaigning in his electorate a real distraction from the pressing need that Howard be here, there and everywhere else on the campaign trail.
The next election is going to be close, and the appearance of the Prime Minister in key marginal seats will be important if the Coalition is to recover some of the ground it has lost to Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd during his honeymoon period. A distracted Howard will require senior ministers to take up the slack in marginal seat campaigning; yet none of them draw the same popularity or fund-raising clout that Howard does.
The decision for McKew to contest Bennelong squarely fits into Rudd's plan to "mess with Howard's mind", a proclamation he made the other week. McKew has had a successful career at the ABC and is well respected by journalists and politicians alike. The speculation was that she would be parachuted into a safe Labor seat in order to present her as one of the key faces in a Rudd alternative government.
If she wins Bennelong she will be a Labor Party hero, and probably a hero to Costello and his supporters. Her future in the Parliament would be relatively secure it is a fair assumption that the electorate of Bennelong will further swing to Labor at future elections once Howard's personal following is taken out of the equation.
If McKew, whose partner is former Labor federal secretary Bob Hogg, loses she probably has a deal sorted out for an alternative career path inside the party. Whatever her political smarts, with his backroom know-how he would not let her be used and thrown away by Labor the way Cheryl Kernot was.
High-profile candidates cause a media storm and McKew has certainly done that. However, once the storm dies down and the numbers are crunched in Bennelong, she is unlikely to win the seat. But it will be close, as well as a distraction for the Government.
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