Seat du jour: Bennelong

The Prime Minister’s electorate of Bennelong covers the northern shore of the Parramatta River from Gladesville west to Ermington, extending north through Denistone and Ryde to Epping. While the Ryde area has leaned to Labor in the post-war era, riverside suburbs to the south and east have made Bennelong a fairly safe seat for the Liberals since its creation in 1949. In this time it has had two members, Sir John Cramer until 1974 and John Howard thereafter. The narrowest Liberal margins were 0.8 per cent at the 1961 election, 2.4 per cent in 1972, 4.5 per cent in 1974 (when Howard was elected) and 3.2 per cent in 1993. However, redistributions and demographic changes have steadily weakened the Liberals’ position. When John Howard became member, the electorate extended east through Lane Cove to Chatswood and the Howard family abode in Wollstonecraft. This area was progressively lost as the electorate was redrawn with the expansion of parliament in 1984, the abolition of Dundas to the west in 1993 and most recently with the loss of a New South Wales seat going into the current election. Bennelong has taken on its share of the burden by absorbing Labor-voting Ermington and Melrose Park, previously in Parramatta, along with a smaller Liberal-voting area in Beecroft from Mitchell to the north. The three redistributions respectively cut the Liberal margin by 2.9 per cent, 3.5 per cent and 0.3 per cent.

Bennelong two-party booth votes from 2004, with suburbs colour-coded to show the proportion of residents whose dwellings are being purchsed. The electorate-wide figure is 28.0 per cent compared with 32.2 per cent nationally.

The other major change in Bennelong has been an influx of immigrants from China, Hong Kong and Korea, with the electorate ranking second only to safe Labor Watson for number of persons born in China. In holding the line against this influx, John Howard has found himself the only Liberal MP holding a seat in the top 20 list for non-English speakers. As indicated on the map below, the Asian communities are most heavily concentrated around Epping, Eastwood and Marsfield in the electorate’s centre and north, where particularly big swings to Labor were recorded in 2004. In the wake of Kevin Rudd’s show-stopping performance at APEC, George Megalogenis of The Australian wrote of “an increasing confidence in Labor ranks, and a sense of dread within the Government, that many of Bennelong’s more recent Chinese arrivals are favourably disposed to Rudd”. Megalogenis had earlier written of Labor research detailing the seat’s complex ethnic mix: This decade Bennelong has seen a rapid influx of new, mostly Asian migrants with the suburb of Eastwood transformed into a vibrant Korean community. Chatswood – split between the divisions of Bradfield and North Sydney – is another suburb on the north shore where there has been a concentration of new migrants in recent years. In Chatswood these migrants are mostly Chinese and Japanese … It’s not the case that the resulting new electors are ALP voters – at the last federal election they broke slightly in favour of the Libs, but they have replaced generally WASPs, who tended to break two to one against the ALP.

More broadly, the electorate is highly sensitive to economic concerns, with George Megalogenis of The Australian placing it high on a list of seats beset by “the double whammy of higher interest rates and capital loss”.

Bennelong booth swings from 2004, with suburbs colour-coded to show the proportion of residents who speak Cantonese, Mandarin or Korean. The electorate-wide figure is 17.6 per cent compared with 2.6 per cent nationally.

Talk of a Howard defeat first emerged from the realms of idle speculation at the 2004 election, when anti-Iraq war activists made the electorate the focus of their “Not Happy John” campaign. Office of National Assessments whistleblower Andrew Wilkie ran against Howard as the candidate of the Greens, prompting talk that he might secure Howard’s defeat either directly or by feeding preferences to Labor’s Nicole Campbell. Wilkie ultimately finished well to the rear of Campbell with 16.4 per cent of the vote, with Howard going untroubled on 49.9 per cent. The two-party margin was nonetheless shaved from 7.8 per cent to an uncomfortable 4.3 per cent, a swing not unlike those in the Liberals’ other inner Sydney seats of North Sydney and Wentworth. This time the high-profile candidate comes from the Labor camp, in the person of veteran ABC political journalist Maxine McKew. Talk of McKew entering Labor politics first emerged in 2001, when party heavyweights proposed moving Julia Irwin to the state upper house so McKew could be accommodated in Fowler. Speculation reached a new pitch when McKew resigned from the ABC last December without announcing plans for her future. The bombshell announcement that she would run in Bennelong came in February, a decision influenced by the calculations of McKew’s partner of 17 years, former Labor national secretary Bob Hogg. Hogg was recenty quoted by Imre Salusinszky of The Australian saying the plan was preferable to taking a safe seat as it would leave McKew “not owing any group or sub-group or individual for the privilege of being the candidate”.

Two-party vote recorded in Bennelong booths at the March state election. Two-party figures were not available from the electorate of Epping, so estimates have been derived from upper house figures. Suburbs are colour-coded to indicate median family income, which is $1510 across the electorate compared with $1171 nationally.

Galaxy (4/11, 800) 52 48 47 46
Morgan (19/2, 394) 55 45 42.5 41.5
Galaxy (13/5, 800) 52 48 47 44
Galaxy (12/8, 800) 53 47 47 44
Morgan (17/9, 472) 53 47 45.5 42.5

Five Bennelong polls have been published since McKew’s announcement, which have pointed with remarkable consistency to a narrow victory for Labor. These are shown on the table to the left, with the number after the date showing the sample size. In the first week of the campaign, Imre Salusinszky wrote in The Australian that Liberal internal polling confirmed these results, showing McKew’s two-party vote in the low 50s. In August, Michelle Grattan wrote in The Age that “Liberal sources” considered Howard to be in greater danger than Malcolm Turnbull in Wentworth. As ever, Dennis Shanahan of The Australian offers a more encouraging view for the Coalition, reporting half way through the campaign that the seat “would appear to be safe, at least according to party sources on both sides”. Howard’s difficult position has had many noting the precedent of the only previous Prime Minister to have lost his seat, Stanley Melbourne Bruce, who lost Flinders in 1929 as part of an electoral debacle which resulted from disastrously unpopular industrial relations laws. A more hopeful precedent is the 1972 election, when many were tipping Billy McMahon would lose his seat of Lowe, then held by a margin of 4.9 per cent. McMahon was able to limit the swing to 1.9 per cent, half the statewide average. His government was nonetheless defeated.

NOTE: This item was previously published last week on my Crikey blog, which didn’t get past the experimental stage. The most recent plan was to junk their blog architecture and use WordPress instead, but even that might be too hard at this late stage. I will start investigating alternative hosting arrangements in light of today’s technical problems.

ANOTHER NOTE: I know this is a big ask, but please keep comments on this thread tangentially related to Bennelong. More general discussion should be directed to the other threads.

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.

210 comments on “Seat du jour: Bennelong”

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  1. Well, I’ve placed $100 on Maxine.

    There’s many reasons to think Maxine will win, but of course being a long-standing prime minister will mitigate these.

    It’s going to be cloudy in Sydney, with a few showers. While the link is by no means certain, there is evidence to suggest that weather affects voting — e.g.

    It certainly affects mood for many people, kind of important when someone has to get themselves to a booth to stand is a queue for the wonderful reward of … ticking some boxed and inserting them in a box.

    So many Chinese voters there now! — I really struggle to see why they wouldn’t prefer a guy who is fluent in Mandarin. I mean, really, this is kind of a plus.

    So right now, I think it’s looking rather promising for Maxine, enough so to place a reasonable bet. Maybe that will turn out to be a silly thing to do, we’ll see. Whatever the case, I very much doubt it’s going to be a pleasant day for Howard tomorrow … what a dreadful pity.

  2. There’s no doubt a lot of people despise Johnny and deface the Lib posters, but a significant numbers still think “he’s doing a good job”.

    Had a walk around Epping and vistited 2 polling places near the station. A lot of people carrying (only) the Liberal how-to-vote cards. Maxine’s gonna need every one of those Green preferences.

  3. I voted at West Ryde Primary School and stayed a while chatting with Maxine supporters. Howard and his minders turned up and he stayed the best part of an hour.

    He was not mobbed, in fact few people noticed him and fewer went over and shook his hand. If I had had a camera, I could have got plenty of shots of him standing on his own in the midst of the hubbub.

    The best one might have been when he was having a sausage sandwich. I would have captioned it:

    Bennelong voters decide that Howard has to eat his lunch all by himself.

    People were polite and acted with respect for the office, but there was no mobbing.

    Later I scrutineered for Maxine in a booth that has solidly returned Howard for years. Result: Maxine won on primaries.

    The party afterwards was triumphant. Now for the hard work of restoring social justice.

  4. Bennelong

    AEC site shows, as at: 28/11/2007 7:45:59 PM:

    16,732 envelopes issued
    3,278 envelopes recieved

    And a total of 3,938 counted from Pre-poll and Absent.

    Also, McKew’s swing is slightly down to 5.76%, (it was 5.9% yesterday, or thereabouts).

    So there appears to be 12,794 possible votes to count, 5,062 are postal, but only 163 have yet been recieved (according to the website!)

    5,387 Pre-poll, of which 2,889 have been counted.

  5. kay @ 206

    I did my small bit for Maxine in the last week, letterboxing in Ermington and Epping.

    It was funny latter that day, because one of the couples we met at a kids birthday party had been at your booth to vote, and the rodent and minders rolled up. Howard grabbed anyone’s hand (drowning man??), took the wife’s (they’ve never voted for him!), and the hubby’s next, who quickly shot off “enjoy your retirement”! The minders hissed at him, as one could have expected!

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