Bennelong follies

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 “Swing Lowe, sweet chariot”). 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.

Author: William Bowe

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, has existed in one form or another since 2004, and is one of the most heavily trafficked websites on Australian politics.

91 comments on “Bennelong follies”

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  1. i think you’re all being frightfully horrid to malcolm mackerras. he’s a real darling with so much to say, and he looks gorgeous in grey knitted cardigans also. if he says that that ghastly little man will lose his seat then i’m sure that’s perfectly correct. in fact, i may even start an eminem fan club: “Malcolm in the Muddle”. i’ll let you know…

  2. Will the ALP seek a high profile candidate to go up against Turnball in Wentworth? George Newhouse is one name being mentioned.
    The Howard government, Howard himself and Malcolm Turnball all defeated on one night: surely just a fantasy of one deluded ALP supporter?

  3. One thing Mckew does is increase the perception of Howard’s vunerability. The continuous good polling Rudd is getting is already eating away at perceptions of Howard as the governments “pillar of strength”, and the fact that alot of “experts” are now predicting that he might not even be an MP by the end of the year only erodes that perception further.

    Don’t forget, there’s a siginificant proportion of people out there that simply vote for who they think will win.

    A strong ALP candidate in Bennelong further highlights a growing perception that this government will come crashing down later this year, by chopping away at it’s core … and I think you’d be suprised how many votes in the last few weeks of the election campaign that would swing.

  4. Scenarios:
    A. Howard wins + Coalition wins
    B. Howard wins + Coalition looses
    C. Howard looses + Coalition wins
    D. Howard looses + Coalition looses.

    Anyone like to assign probabilities to each option?

    Given the location of Bennalong on the pendulum, the more likely scenarios are A or D where the fate of Bennalong follows that of the Coalition.

    Of the remaining two options I assess B to be more probable.

    What does this mean for McKew?
    C or D she takes the seat at the election.

    B the seat is hers (or any ALP candidates) at the ensuing by-election. Clearly Howard won’t remain on an opposition bench. Given the retirement of their high profile incumbent and the assertion that by-elections favour a newly installed Government in their honeymoon period, the people of Bennalong will install an ALP member reinforcing the trend of this electorate to the left.

    So adding the probabilities A+B+C gives the probability of McKew being the member for Bennalong within a year.

    This leaves scenario A, which will install Howard in the ranks of the immortal. However, even in this scenario, surely there would have to be a retirement during this term and thereby deliver the seat to Labor. Peter will be hoping that the coalition doesn’t form government with a working majority of one. This will mean that Howard will have to stay to fight yet another election!!

  5. Re would McKew lose a subsequent by-election for Bennelong?: you raise an interesting point, Adam. I hadn’t known about the 1983 results; and at that time everything Hawke touched turned to gold. I certainly take your point that it would be presumptuous to call an ALP by-election victory in Bennelong a certainty.

    Having used your electoral archive for the research, a few comments on the significance of 1983:
    1. Only Bruce and Wannon occurred within a few months. Moreton was the next-earliest at November 1983, which is long enough for other issues to kick in beyond that post-election glow. Even though Howard is a hardy old bugger, it’s hard to see him doing anything other than retiring as an MP immediately if the Libs go down.
    2. Wannon (Fraser’s seat) is the most immediately relevant. The ALP candidate (Genardini) had only secured a 1.5% swing against Fraser in a Hawke-slide, so even though she ran again, starting from a margin of 9.7% down she was never going to win (and indeed went backwards by 1.1%). Unless the ALP ran hard against Fraser personally in the Fed election and then ran dead in the by-election, this result doesn’t say much for the theory that a leader has a substantial personal following… or maybe it was only Fraser who didn’t have one!
    3. Bruce (Billy Snedden’s seat), at a mere 0.7% Lib margin, really should have been snapped up on the ‘afterglow’ theory. Again, the same Labor candidate rocked up at the by-election. I guess one theory is that it was a safe Lib seat that had swung 5.6% to the ALP in 1980 and another 4.7% to the ALP at the 1983 general election, so all possible juice had already been squeezed from the lemon. The remaining Lib support was staunch, and once the drover’s dog enthusiasm of March 1983 subsided, they even clawed back 3.8% at the by-election. Or maybe Billy Snedden just had an anti-personal following (!?).

    Of course, when trying to extrapolate from results in individual seats, the quality of the candidate and campaign are paramount, and except for those who were there on the ground, it’s hard to comment on that.

  6. “If Labor wins without her winning Bennelong she will emerge as the boss of the Labor media apparatus” No. IMHO, if Labor wins government, they win Bennelong due to the large overall swing needed. If Labor did win but lost Bennelong, then McKew would just hang around for a few weeks until the by-election to replace Howard was held; McKew would most likely win the by-election. Simple really.

  7. My view (based on no inside knowledge, I stress), is that if If Labor wins the election but McKew doesn’t win Bennelong, she will not run in Bennelong again, but will spend Rudd’s first term running his media show, then will be given a safe seat in 2010.

  8. John Howard still won around 50% of the primary vote in 2004. I think that unusually strong preference flows against him makes this seat look more marginal than it really is. There is no particular reason why Maxine McKew would be more popular than a local candidate such as in 2004 in this seat or John Howard who has represented the seat for 33 years. I feel that John Howard will retain this seat, unless Labor wins in a landslide similar to recent NSW election results (there isn’t really any historical precedent for an opposition to win government with such a large swing). Maybe a second term Labor government could win this seat.

    I do feel, however, that John Watkins could probably win this seat if he switched to federal politics.

  9. I tend to agree with Adam, though I think she will be able to beat Howard.
    The ‘Not Happy John’ Campaign is preparing to run twice as hard this time, and I think it will help get her just over the line.

  10. What Stephen L said (26th, at 2:32 pm).

    “Maxine is easily fit-up-able as chardonnay etc etc. If she’s high profile during the campaign that is likely to be a net negative for Labor.” Peter Brent

    Can’t see that being true. Although she will have to do a lot of low-profile leg work and door knocking to gain personal-level familiarity around the electorate.

    “However it is paying a compliment to the voters of Benelong by saying that we give you a serious alternative to Howard.” Rod B: 26th, at 11:12 pm

    I agree with that, and think many pundits have missed this factor.

    An important issue is what happens to the large Green primary vote from the last election. If most of that swings to McKew, Howard might be in real trouble.

  11. The only way a high Green primary vote could hurt Labor`s chances is if it overtook Labor (unfortunatley unlikely).

    Don`t Labor preferences flow more tightly to the Greens than the Greens going to Labor.

  12. Green prefs usually go about 80% to Labor, depending on ballot paper order. In the unlikely event of Labor coming 3rd in a Reps seat, and assuming the Labor HTV directed prefs to the Greens, I would expect about the same precentage.

  13. It’ll be Howard in Bennelong in a tight one, even if there is a national swing against Liberal. It’ll all go down to preferences.

  14. Above I rated scenario B higher than C. I was basing that on the PMs encumbant advantage.

    On reflection maybe the scenario C rates higher. Wouldn’t that be a hoot! I base that reconsideration on the data from 2004. In NSW there was a 2.4% swing to the coalition, and yet a 3.4% swing to Labor in Benelong. For some reason (and I can speculate a few) the voters wanted to punish Howard more than the local coalition colleagues.

    If that is repeated, and with McKew and “Not Happy John” campaining vigourously, it could well be so that even a small swing to Labor could be reinforced to cost Howard his seat.

    I would rate the probability of Howard and the Coalition being in power (Scenario A) as not greater than 40%.

  15. Another thing worth considering is that the margin may only be four percent yet the PM still gets around 49% of the primary vote.

    The only explanation for the small 2PP is the melbourne cup size field and that they all preference against him.

    Also when John Valder, former party president is openly campaigning against you, its never a good look.

    Who knows, perhaps its howard who keeps the margin down, and when hes gone the seat will return to safe status (unlikely I know due to the NESB proportion)

  16. Re: Green primary vote in Bennelong 2004

    I would have expected that the Green primary vote was helped along by the high-profile Andrew Wilkie as a candidate. The Greens were pretty active in campaigning – as soon as the election was called, posters with Wilkie’s face on them sprouted all over the place!

    Preferencing was overwhelmingly to Labor – 21.7% of total vote was non-ALP/Lib, of which 80% preferenced to ALP and 20% to Lib.

    At the local council level in Ryde, the Greens won 10-20% of the primary vote in wards where they contested last time. This translated to 2 councillors out of 12. While the council issues are going to be different to federal issues (are usually about restricting overdevelopment and council services), many Bennelong voters could be seen as sympathetic to the Greens.

  17. As I’ve said elsewhere, McKew is clearly a spoiler. If Labor were serious about winning the seat they’d have chosen John Watkins.

    First, it isn’t clear she has the common touch as Howard does/did/can fake it. Second, as George Megalogenis pointed out in yesterday’s Oz, she needs the standing to convince NESB voters that they can vote against the PM without the entire system of government, economy and education system collapsing. Third, she needs to be able to pull media stunts to keep Howard from travelling too far afield – and Bennelong people will get bored with someone who’s all about one media stunt after another.

  18. The hype has now dies down, so perhaps we can start to get a more realistic idea of McKew’s chances. It seems a bit of a long shot, but not out of the question, and much will depend on how she (and Howard) conduct themselves around the electorate over the next six months or so. Maxine has a great opportunity to fly under the radar, with doorknocking, visits to local shopping centres etc, the sort of stuff that Howard won’t have the time (and after 33 years, perhaps the inclination) to do. Howard will have a reasonable personal vote, but if the government goes down, then Howard probably will too, celebrity candidate or no.

    This election year just keeps getting more interesting.

  19. UPDATE.

    With the whole Rudd-Burke situation and the Campbell confession, plus all the Labor policy annoucements over the last two weeks, it is scarily beginning to look like 1983 or 1996.

    From a non-bias point of view, I’m buggered to think how Howard and Rudd will go this week in the polls.

    My prediction for him: If his numbers haven’t gone up or they’ve gotten worse by the end of May of beginning of June, he is in severe trouble. Rudd could well end up an accidental Prime Minister.

  20. C-Woo as much as I want to see the end of this Federal government I think having Campbell fall on his sword is a very good tactical move. It puts Rudd in a difficult position. Of course it could be argued that Costello cost Campbell his job, not Burke but the Liberals have reclaimed the moral high ground anfd I’m not sure how Labor can counteract it. Boy, they play it hard.

  21. All I know is that I am sacking Peter Costello as my trash-talker. When you look at it. the conservatives on the net and elsewhere are acting ridiculous.

  22. Gary

    The Campbell move could backfire. It looks like political opportunism at its worse, Howard sacrifices an underperforming member to embaress Rudd.
    The interesting angle is the retrospectivity bit and the new found political morality of Howard.
    Campbell has been punished for meeting Burke in at a function where 30 others were present. It was not a punishable offence ot even hinted at as being one.
    A bit like Hicks and the Taliban, it was not an offence to associate with them at the time.

  23. I must confess to being a bit mystified by all the broo-ha-ha surrounding the Burke issue. I certainly can’t quite get why, when a government smear campaign backfires and the government loses one of their own ministers, how this can be a crisis for Kevin Rudd.

    This whole issue smacks of Canberra navel-gazing. I find it very hard to believe that anyone out there in voter-land knows or cares about this issue.

  24. How about starting up another thread on Federal politics? You currently have FOUR (count ’em) strands relating to the NSW State election (an event which is hardly setting the State on fire, as important as it is). Meanwhile we have what might be the end of the Honeymoon for Rudd, the dying throes of the Howard government, death threats to Maxine – it’s clearly going off in Canberra, yet we are on this normally excellent site reduced to discussions of Peter Debnam’s budgie smugglers.

  25. Sorry Hugo, but if the NSW campaign is boring you, you’re coming to the wrong place. Covering election campaigns is this site’s raison d’etre – running forums on federal politics is a sideline I acquired recently, and I’m not entirely convinced it was a good idea. There are plenty of other suppliers in that particular market, including this new one.

  26. The Burke-Rudd affair is obviously a crucial event.

    EITHER it will turn out to be the 2007 equivalent of Latham’s March 2004 “troops out by Xmas” interview and his subsequent barefaced lies – the point at which the bubble bursts and the polls start to go south – OR it will turn out to be the proof that the government is in real trouble and that Rudd is headed for victory.

    The proof will be in the next couple of Newspolls. No doubt there will be a bit of a dip for Labor in the next one. But if Rudd recovers and is still well in front at the end of March, the government will know it is in serious trouble. If on the other hand the polls turn bad for Rudd and stay bad, that may be the end of the fairytale.

  27. Six hundred jobs to go at the General Motors-Holden plant at Elizabeth, smack in the middle of the very marginal Liberal seat of Wakefield. What are the implications of that?

  28. William I think the forums coupled with all the info/ reports stories etc are a great idea. Im up reading everything all night. Thats not so good considering i get up at 330 am.

  29. Newspoll released tonight: ALP UP 3 points! 57-43.

    Rudd’s losses on preferred PM could have been much worse. Down 2 points to 45%. Howard is up 1 point to 38%.

    I haven’t seen Rudd’s approval rating – you’d think that’d be the worst-hit figure of the three by the Burke smear campaign, but nevertheless that 2PP result is a dream.

  30. This poll was taken when? Friday? Saturday? I think it’s too early for the impact of Rudd’s less-than-stellar performance on this to have sunk in yet. Wait for the next one. If he rides that out, he may be said to have escaped with his testicles intact.

  31. The 1961 Election was a statistical tie, both Parties held 62 seats each. Labor, however, was in the misfortune of holding the two non-voting seats allotted to the territories. Needless to say, if the territory MHRs had voting rights in 1961, the Menzies Government would have been a minority Government.

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