Bennelong Time


Five years ago, at a press conference just before the 2001 election, I felt game enough to ask the Prime Minister about his precarious position in his own seat of Bennelong, which then looked decidedly marginal. John Howard gave one of those chuckles that always seems nervous, even if he isn’t and he probably wasn’t. ‘You’ve been trying to see me off in my seat for 10 years,’ he said. ‘But I’m still here.’

He survived, of course it was, after all, the ‘race’ election in which the Tampa refugees played a critical role the swing to him in Bennelong mirroring roughly the swing to the Government of about 2 per cent.

The 2004 election was a different story, though, when Howard defied the nationwide trend towards his Government of 1.8 per cent to register a 3.4 per cent swing against him. His margin of just over 4 percent is now the slimmest it has been since 1993, when he was taken to the wire by a 24-year-old Labor candidate, Monique Rotik, who came within about 3 per cent of victory.

In 2007, however, the situation could be even more complicated, especially if the Australian Electoral Commission adopts one of the proposals before it. Under the ALP plan, Bennelong would become a marginal Labor seat, pushed further to the west and into several housing commission estates. Unless a new seat could be found for Howard, he would probably be grounded in his own electorate for much of the campaign, fighting for his survival. The further weakening of Howard’s seat is one of the factors that may contribute to his decision to retire before this term is complete.

Of course, as others have pointed out, it would be a brave and extremely independent Australian Electoral Commission that alters the Prime Minister’s own seat so decisively, although Kim Beazley, as Deputy Prime Minister, was forced to change seats before the 1996 election because his seat of Swan had become unwinnable under new boundaries.

But even retaining the current Bennelong boundaries, there is another unspoken factor that may budge Howard the possibility of an extremely strong Labor candidate in the form of NSW Deputy Premier John Watkins. Watkins holds the State seat of Ryde which sits squarely within Bennelong and covers some traditional Liberal territory, such as Denistone by a whopping margin of a 17 per cent.

Over three elections, he has despatched two sitting Liberals, first Ivan Petch in 1995, when the seat was called Gladesville, and then Michael Photios in 1999, when Gladesville was abolished. Although from the Left, Watkins a Mass-going father of five and former English teacher at St Joseph’s College is seen as the quintessential Mr Middle Australia: the perfect antidote to Howard.

Now, before Labor optimists raise their excitement to stratospheric levels, they need to understand this scenario is, at most, a 50 per cent chance. First, Watkins, as Deputy Premier, is almost certain to recontest Ryde next March, with the reassurance that he will serve his constituents for a full four years. Second, despite the almost certain swing against the NSW Government, he will not lose Ryde. His margin is too wide, his electorate work too assiduous.

But there are several other variables at play. What if Watkins were to survive in Ryde but the NSW Labor Government lost? If he were to shed his (token) membership of the Left, he might even be able to fashion himself as a candidate for State Leader but Leader of the Opposition, a wretched prospect.

Then again, there is a distinct possibility that the Iemma Government may survive but Watkins lose his position as Deputy.

Watkins’ moderate sub-faction of the Left looks like losing its majority within the Left after the next election. Several of its MPs are either retiring or at risk of defeat. The Left’s favoured candidate for the deputy leadership would be Education Minister Carmel Tebbutt, who after the resignation of Deputy Premier Andrew Refshauge in July last year declared she had the support of the full Labor caucus to succeed him but declined to run, she claimed, in the interests of factional and Party unity.

But back in power, with another four years to dampen the factional fallout from toppling Watkins, she and her urgers might not be so reluctant.

In those circumstances, with 12 years of parliamentary service and a Deputy Premier’s retirement benefits behind him (Watkins is covered by the old, generous system of parliamentary superannuation), Watkins might find himself liberated to explore new challenges.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson.


Kooyong Liberal MP Petro Georgiou has become an almost sainted figure, including among many New Matilda correspondents, for his efforts to liberalise the Federal Government’s harsh policies against asylum seekers. His convincing victory last week in a pre-selection was hailed as small-l liberal revival. But the benchmark by which small-l liberalism is now measured nothing more than a willingness to observe basic international standards on human rights shows how far the Party of Menzies and Fraser, the two dominant Liberals of their time, has shifted to the hard Right.

Certainly, in Fraser’s Government, which welcomed tens of thousands of Vietnamese refugees, Georgiou’s position would have been utterly unremarkable. What remains of the Liberal ‘wets’ now focus exclusively on social policy detention, same sex marriage, the RU486 abortion drug while surrendering the economic debate to the free-market Right.

That Peter Costello, who in 1990 was an anti-union lawyer and integral part of a Right-wing purge of Victorian ‘wets,’ is considered the leader of today’s ‘moderates’ surely indicates the death of small-l liberalism.

Once upon a time, before the term was corrupted by Pauline Hanson, such people were known as ‘One Nation Tories.’ In both Britain and Australia, leaders such as Harold McMillan and Malcolm Fraser, supported a socio-economic compact that embraced progressive taxation, support for national industries and a place for trade unions in the nation’s workplaces. Georgiou may have worked with Fraser, but he also worked with former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett, whose Government privatised publicly owned assets, such as transport, and imposed uniform taxes on each household regardless of income. Nor has Georgiou dissented from any of the Howard Government’s signature Right-wing issues, namely the new Industrial Relations laws, the introduction of a goods and services tax, and the sale of government-owned assets.

His seat of Kooyong in the establishment heart of Melbourne’s eastern suburbs has also been trending towards Labor since 1998 and his margin is now slightly under 10 per cent, slimmer than the margins of outer suburban seats such as Aston. Perhaps it is a coincidence that his liberalism on asylum seekers coincides with the liberalism of his affluent but socially progressive constituents.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.