House of Representatives By-Elections

  BENNELONG: December 16, 2017


Margin: Liberal 9.7%
State: New South Wales
Region: Northern Sydney



The second of the by-elections arising from the Section 44 fiasco will be held in the inner northern Sydney seat of Bennelong, which was famously lost by John Howard when his government was defeated in 2007. The Liberal member, John Alexander, announced his resignation on November 11 after receiving confirmation of his status as a dual British citizen. As in New England, the government is expected to move promptly in having the by-election held as quickly as possible, with an anticipated date of December 19. However, whereas Barnaby Joyce is generally presumed to be safe in his Nationals stronghold seat, the 2007 precedent suggests Bennelong is loseable for the government, despite the solid margin built up by three successive swings to the Liberals on Alexander's watch.


Bennelong covers the northern shore of Sydney’s Parramatta River from Gladesville west to Ermington, and extends 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 helped keep the seat in Liberal hands for all but one term since its creation in 1949. The seat has been transformed over the past few decades by the arrival of migrants from China, Hong Kong and South Korea, gave 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. Labor research reportedly indicated that the electorate's Asian voters leaned slightly to the Liberals, but the Anglo voters they were replacing had tended to do so by a ratio of two to one.

John Howard became the member in 1974 in succession to Sir John Cramer, the seat's inaugural member from its creation in 1949. In holding the line against the electorate's demographic change 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. The vulnerability of his position was established when his margin was pared back from 7.8% to 4.3% amid an otherwise strong result for the Coalition in 2004, aided in part by a strong showing for Greens candidate Andrew Wilkie, former Office of National Assessments whistleblower and now the independent member for Denison. 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.

Labor's win was achieved from a 5.5% swing to its candidate, 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 was influenced by the calculations of McKew’s partner of 17 years, former Labor national secretary Bob Hogg. McKew was immediately elevated to parliamentary secretary after her election, 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.

McKew's aspirations were dashed by the anti-Labor backlash across Sydney at the 2010 election, with a 4.5% swing easily enough to account for her 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. Rudd's return at the 2013 election notably failed to improve Labor's position, with the 4.6% swing to Alexander comparing with a statewide result of 3.2%. Alexander did even better to pick up a 2.0% swing in the face of a 3.8% statewide swing to Labor in 2016.


John Alexander was a professional tennis player from the late 1960s, achieving his highest world ranking of number eight in 1975, and became a tennis commentator for Channel Seven after his retirement in 1985. He won preselection for Bennelong 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. Alexander entered the Section 44 frame a week after the High Court's ruling in October 2017 that five members were ineligible to sit in parliament due to their dual citizenships. He initially asserted that he believed his British-born father had renounced his citizenship prior to his birth in 1951, but inquiries with the British government established that this was not the case.