I appear to be out on a limb here, but the plan for Maxine McKew to run for Labor in Bennelong (apparently confirmed in the Sydney Morning Herald) strikes me as being Kevin Rudd’s first serious misstep. Last week the Prime Minister homed in on what his finely tuned political antennae told him might be Rudd’s Achilles heel: that the smooth-talking former diplomat was a "bit full of himself". Rudd’s apparent focus on rubbing salt into wounds he hasn’t yet inflicted suggests that Howard might have been on to something.
It is indeed probable that McKew’s candidacy will increase the possibility that John Howard will follow Stanley Bruce (defeated in Flinders in 1929) in becoming only the second serving Prime Minister to lose his seat. However, this must be weighed up against the equal or greater likelihood that she will fail. Psephos curator Adam Carr noted the precedent of Billy McMahon (whose Sydney seat of Lowe is now held by Labor) in comments on this site a few weeks ago:
In 1972, 1974 and 1980 he was widely predicted to be facing defeat. His margins at those elections were 4.9%, 3.0% and 6.3%. Each time he hung on, despite the predictions of Mungo McCallum (who wrote a column called â€œSwing Lowe, sweet chariotâ€). High-profile sitting members DO have a personal vote, and can also get a sympathy vote if their constituents think they are being hounded in the press.
The national media attention Maxine McKew’s campaign will attract could well have precisely that effect. If Labor wins the election, this might not be such a disaster: in all likelihood, Howard would quit parliament and McKew would win the seat at the ensuing by-election. But if they lose, they will face their next term of opposition with one fewer member of front-bench star quality in the lower house.
Much of the approving comment in the blogosphere is typified by Tim Dunlop‘s observation: "at last a high-profile recruit takes on something other than a safe seat". I’m sure Dunlop’s memory isn’t so short that he has already forgotten Cheryl Kernot, although he would no doubt argue that her self-destruction was a special case. However, there are also similarities between the two that should not be overlooked. Both have been lured to major party politics by the power and influence associated with high ministerial office. McKew seems little more likely than Kernot to thrive on the unglamorous grunt work involved with tending to a marginal seat. If she is going to be fast-tracked to the front bench, she would be better served without such distractions.
The notion that high-profile candidates should use their capital to secure the seats needed to win government is better suited to local community figures and sports stars (Steve Waugh, perhaps) than to those selected for leadership potential. Those who would invoke the largely unhappy experience of Mary Delahunty in the safe Victorian seat of Northcote should remember the counter-example of yet another ABC television presenter: Alan Carpenter, who was poached by Labor in 1996 and accommodated in the plum seat of Willagee.
Another point worth making is that the Labor hierarchy should be using every opportunity available to it to clear the forest of dead wood that is the New South Wales chapter of the federal parliamentary party. The Poll Bludger is too kind to name names, but a scan through safe Labor seats on the state’s election pendulum should make my point for me.
UPDATE: The opening sentence was based on the initial frenzy of comment from excited anti-Howard bloggers. Those with sober words and wiser counsel were holding back until the morning. Graham Young at On Line Opinion has rounded on the idea in terms similar to my own. Richard Farmer at Crikey and Peter Brent at Mumble go so far as to say McKew would be less likely to defeat Howard than an unknown. Farmer had this to say:
She and the Party are talking as if this is a serious challenge to John Howard in his own seat. They are armed with the good news of the recent Crikey-Morgan poll and the knowledge that changes to the Bennelong boundaries have brought the electorate into the theoretically winnable category for Labor if the kind of swing which would deliver government is actually on. This is really bravado – the real purpose of the McKew candidacy is to irritate and annoy the Prime Minister to help Labor beat his government throughout Australia rather than to actually defeat him in his own seat. A high profile opponent probably increases the chances of Howard being returned whatever happens nationally. There’s unlikely to be a protest vote against a man who has led the country for a decade in a successful and popular way when the voters realize that there is a real chance of him being defeated. The Labor vote in Bennelong would probably be maximized if Howard was facing an unknown candidate with no apparent chance of victory. Should McKew perform the unlikely and emerge the winner she would naturally become a Labor heroine and be assured a glittering ministerial future. More likely she and her boss Kevin Rudd see this as a training run for the future. How she fares will determine her role in any future Labor administration. If Howard is returned McKew will become the key adviser in opposition for the next three years. If Labor wins without her winning Bennelong she will emerge as the boss of the Labor media apparatus. Any future as a member of parliament will depend on how she handles the rough and tumble of her first campaign.
UPDATE 2 (1/3/07): Missed this outstanding analysis of Bennelong demographics from George Megalogenis in The Australian.