Seat du jour: Bennelong

Bennelong gained the distinction of being one of only two seats to have ousted a sitting Prime Minister with John Howard’s defeat in 2007, but it shortly returned to its Liberal-leaning ways

Held by John Howard throughout a parliamentary career that ended with his loss of the seat in 2007, the electorate of Bennelong covers the northern shore of Sydney’s Parramatta River from Gladesville west to Ermington, and extends north through Denistone and Ryde to Epping. It has not been affected by the latest redistribution. While the Ryde area has leaned to Labor in the post-war era, riverside suburbs to the south and east have helped keep the seat in Liberal hands for all but one term since its creation in 1949. John Howard came to the seat in 1974 in succession to its inaugural member, Sir John Cramer. His defeat in 2007 made him only the second serving Prime Minister to lose his seat, the first being Stanley Melbourne Bruce’s defeat in the Victorian seat of Flinders when Jim Scullin led Labor to power in 1929. However, Labor member Maxine McKew’s hold on the seat would prove to be short-lived, and the seat has been held for the Liberals since 2010 by former tennis player and commentator John Alexander.

John Howard’s defeat marked the culmination of a long-term demographic trend in the electorate over the course of his 33 years as member, with an influx of immigrants from China, Hong Kong and Korea giving it a stronger east Asian identity than any seat other than Watson. The Asian communities are most heavily concentrated around Epping, Marsfield and Eastwood, the latter being a focal point of the Korean community. In holding the line for as long as he did, Howard had become the only Liberal MP to hold a seat that ranked in the top 20 for most non-English speakers. Labor research reportedly indicated that the electorate’s Asian voters in fact leaned slightly to the Liberals, but the Anglo voters they were replacing had tended to do so by a ratio of two to one.

Talk of a Howard defeat in Bennelong 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. They were aided in this endeavour by former Office of National Assessments whistleblower Andrew Wilkie, who ran against Howard as the Greens candidate, and would eventually go on to win election in the Hobart seat of Denison as an independent in 2010. Amid an otherwise triumphant election result for Howard, the margin in his own seat was pared back from 7.8% and 4.3%, and then cut a further 0.3% by the subsequent redistribution.

The coup de grace at the 2007 election took the form of a 5.5% swing to Labor’s Maxine McKew, a veteran ABC political journalist who had first been mentioned as a potential Labor MP when party heavyweights proposed accommodating her in the safe western Sydney seat of Fowler. The bombshell announcement that she would run in Bennelong came in February 2007, a decision influenced by the calculations of McKew’s partner of 17 years, former Labor national secretary Bob Hogg. McKew was promptly promoted to parliamentary secretary in the newly elected government, and emerged throughout her term in parliament as a steadfast ally of Kevin Rudd. She developed a correspondingly frosty relationship with Julia Gillard, of whom she was highly critical in a book published in 2012.

The electoral threat posed to McKew in 2010 by Labor’s unpopularity throughout New South Wales inspired an attempt to shore her up through $2.1 billion of promised funding for a rail link between Parramatta and Epping, but the state Labor government’s failure to deliver on similar commitments in the past caused this to be received with great skepticism. McKew went on to suffer a swing of 4.5% swing, easily enough to account for 1.4% margin. Despite talk that Kevin Rudd’s popularity among Asian voters powered both the swing to Labor in 2007 and the backlash in 2010, the swings on both occasions were evenly distributed throughout the electorate, and well in line with the broader Sydney pattern. Nor was Labor availed by Rudd’s return at the 2013 election, when the seat swung 4.6% to the Liberals, compared with a statewide result of 3.2%.

The Liberal member since 2010 has been John Alexander, a former Davis Cup player and Channel Seven tennis commentator. Alexander won preselection with the support of factional moderates, and was reckoned to have been in the Malcolm Turnbull camp when he toppled Tony Abbott in September 2015. Despite this, there was talk that Alexander might fall victim to the moderates’ empire building during the round of preselections in early 2016, although nothing ended up becoming of it. Alexander’s Labor opponent is Lyndal Howison, marketing manager of JDRF Australia, which raises money for diabetes research.

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.

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