It doesn’t take much. Far from being a calm and confident one might even say, relaxed and comfortable leader, John Howard is often rattled by those who challenge him.
At a Federal campaign event in 1993, when he was John Hewson’s industrial relations spokesman, I watched Howard’s face turn beetroot red as I quizzed him about his anti-employee policies. I suggested he unveil the draft of the Bill that he and Hewson were planning to introduce should they win the election that year.
‘Why should I!?’ he protested in that strangled voice of his. ‘Why should I!?’ Perhaps because he was promising the biggest shake-up of employees’ rights in Australia since the Harvester Judgement of 1907, and the voters were entitled to know his plans. All he could do was bleat back at me, ‘C’mon, have a go, yeah, have a go.’
The man sure rises to the bait.
So don’t believe the Prime Minister when he claims to be unperturbed by the announcement that Maxine McKew will challenge him for his marginal NSW electorate of Bennelong as a Labor candidate at this year’s Federal election. He is shaking in his taxpayer-funded gilded cage about the prospect of the articulate former ABC journalist robbing him of the perks of office in harbour-side Kirribilli and condemning him to an (even more) ignominious place in history.
Even Karl Stefanovic a practitioner of the vanilla essence school of journalism on the reliably pro-Howard Nine network suggested to the Prime Minister that he was sounding cranky during their interview on Monday’s Today show.
Howard also appears offended that anyone should run hard against him. (This, incidentally, seems to be the rather bizarre thinking of ex-Labor hack and Canberra booze merchant Richard Farmer and the Crikey crowd, who wrote of ‘dar[ing]to tackle a prime minister in his own seat.’ Hear, hear, the sheer effrontery of it!)
Howard has survived a shrinking electoral margin in elections past, but Labor has never before mounted a serious challenge. This Prime Minister has never been forced to retreat to his own electorate during a national campaign. The more time he will spend in Bennelong fending off McKew, the less time he will have to defend his other marginal seats, such as Hasluck in Western Australia (2 per cent), Wakefield (0.67 per cent) and Makin (0.93 per cent) in South Australia, and Bonner (1 per cent) in Queensland.
The demographics of Bennelong, in Sydney’s inner north-western suburbs, are also shifting beneath him. It is more multicultural almost 25 per cent Asian and more tertiary educated. George Megalogenis argues in The Australian that Howard has managed to retain Chinese support in Bennelong, despite his chequered history on racial issues, such as his 1988 claims of too much Asian immigration and his two decades of opposition to the international anti-apartheid campaign. But Labor leader Kevin Rudd is a fluent Mandarin speaker who has been courting the Chinese community for years. This will be important, as Labor and McKew fight to shift around 3500 votes their way.
Thanks to Fiona Katauskas
McKew’s doubters (the self-styled experts of Crikey, Poll Bludger, Mumble and On Line Opinion) seem to be arguing that even when Howard’s constituents vote against him as they have done significantly in 1993, 1998 and 2004 they really want him to be re-elected, and would therefore return to his fold if he were under siege.
I’m not sure of their logic. But have they ever stopped to consider that Howard, after 11 years in power and with his star hitched to a failed war in Iraq, might be becoming just a tad unpopular. Unpopularity in politics tends to lead to defeat, not sympathy.
Other critics have suggested that McKew is too easily characterised as an ‘elite.’ This seems to be based entirely on the fact that she worked for the ABC, which, I confidently suspect, is watched widely in the homes of Eastwood, Epping, Gladesville and Putney, heartland suburbs of Bennelong. McKew strikes me as well-matched to a middle-class electorate peopled by white-collar workers, in precisely the same way that NSW Labor MP and Deputy Premier John Watkins, a former school teacher and qualified lawyer, is a perfect match for his State electorate of Ryde, which sits within Bennelong’s boundaries.
As for Federal Health Minister Tony Abbott’s accusation that McKew, who currently lives in a neighbouring electorate, is a ‘blow-in’ didn’t Abbott leapfrog two electorates from his then-home in West Pymble to secure pre-selection for Warringah back in 1994? Glass houses, Tony.
Maxine McKew’s candidacy represents the first serious assault on John Howard’s electorate in more than 20 years. It offers Bennelong’s voters a serious choice. And it has snookered Howard politically. Any attempt to flee to the haven of a neighbouring safe Liberal electorate would look like cowardice and cost the Coalition not only Bennelong, but the general election.
This is psychological warfare at its best. What did Kevin Rudd call it recently: ‘Playing with the Prime Minister’s mind?’
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