An Unlikely Victory


Kevin Rudd has selected his champion for Bennelong, Maxine McKew, and sent the pundits speculating and the spinners spinning. She can give John Howard a run for his money, they say, but it’s an unlikely victory.

Conventional wisdom says it would take a powerful, national wave of sentiment against the Government to swing victory to McKew. However, could a close race in Bennelong be the quake that causes that electoral tidal wave? In focusing on whether victory is possible for McKew in Bennelong, the experts may have overlooked the impact of a close race in Bennelong on the election as a whole.

McKew’s prospective campaign against Howard has been variously called a ‘distraction’ and an ‘annoyance’ for the Prime Minister. Suppose, however, that Rudd and McKew are doing more than playing with Howard’s head. Suppose that McKew is not a mere distraction, but Labor’s way to dismantle Howard and demolish the Coalition.

Even if it’s unlikely that McKew will pick up the 4 per cent swing she needs to defeat Howard in the seat he’s held since 1974, what is more within her grasp is to pick up a few points and generate Bennelong polls that paint a portrait of a close contest.

What will this accomplish?

Picture the following. It’s the eve of the 2007 election and it’s close between Rudd and Howard. Voters in marginal seats across the country are making up their minds. In the papers, on the airwaves and at the water cooler they are seeing, hearing and talking about one thing Howard could lose in Bennelong.

Those voters will walk into the polling booths on election day not knowing for certain who will be the Prime Minister if they vote for the Coalition. If they vote Labor, however, they know they’ll get Kevin Rudd. This turns the advantage of a sitting government on its head and could spell political death for the Liberals and Howard.

Regardless of Bennelong, of course, Labor can remind the public that Howard is likely to step down in the next term and his successor is unknown. However, there is a large difference between that kind of vague critique and the specific and immediate concern of voting for the Coalition on Saturday and waking up on Sunday without a Prime Minister. It’s the difference between an orderly, managed transition and an abrupt, chaotic one.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

While the media will certainly touch on the likely transfer of power in the Coalition’s next term, it will be a relatively minor story (one question, late in the interview, say). Whereas, the possibility of Howard losing in Bennelong would be constant front-page news in the final weeks and days of the election without Labor even needing to make an effort. It is the type of election oddity and an opportunity for playful speculation that journalists and newspapers relish especially if it means dissecting every new Bennelong opinion poll.

There are things that the Liberals can do to mitigate this potential nightmare scenario, but the cures may be worse than the disease. Does the Coalition replace Howard with Peter Costello before the election? In such a quick-change scenario, Costello seems the only candidate capable of carrying the crucial mantle of economic management and can one imagine Costello staying on as Treasurer, if he is again passed over for the leadership?

But Costello has neither Howard’s image of strength and stability, nor Rudd’s dynamism and momentum. After Costello’s failed and half-hearted challenge to Howard, he may have suffered Kim Beazley’s fate and lost the public’s attention.

Perhaps the Coalition could turn to bright light Malcolm Turnbull in hope of a Hawke-like ascendancy. Yet this strips the Coalition of one of its most appealing features experienced leadership.

No matter whom the potential replacement, Howard is not likely to go quickly or quietly. He is too ensconced in power, both within the Party and in his own mind. So, by the time any new leader takes the helm, the ship will already be half sunk and there will be precious little time to bail out the water.

That only leaves a halfway approach of anointing a backup leader in the event of an overall Coalition victory and a Howard defeat in Bennelong. But that is probably the least viable option, as it shows weakness and amplifies rather than dispels confusion. If the last Queensland election proved anything, it is that getting cute about the leadership is electoral poison.

This leaves the Coalition faced with taking the least worse of two poor options: Howard under a cloud; or Costello with too little time.

The analysts, and perhaps the Liberal Party, have not quite realised how important this North Shore race has become. McKew may not directly provide the swing needed in Bennelong, but she may generate a wave of uncertainty which destabilises the Coalition and carries Labor into power and herself into office.

If so, it won’t be a victory born of distraction, but by full force demolition.

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