A Distraction for Labor


The announcement of Maxine McKew as the Labor candidate to challenge John Howard in the Federal seat of Bennelong has generated much debate, not least in New Matilda. Much of this debate has assumed McKew’s candidacy as a significant factor in the upcoming election.

I take a different view.

In Issue 131 of New Matilda, Andrew West argued that the Prime Minister would at the very least be worried by the prospect of having to stand against McKew, and furthermore that Labor had a realistic chance of winning the seat. Judging by the online responses, it would appear that many New Matilda readers share West’s views. This is borne out by that week’s New Matilda poll on the issue of Bennelong, which logged overwhelming support for the two propositions implying that McKew would be a threat to Howard in the seat.

The responses to the New Matilda poll and to West’s article are indicative of a general trend evident on the Left in recent years.

It seems that in the lead up to every Federal election since 1996, Labor’s ‘true believers’ convince themselves that their Party has found the secret to oust the Howard Government. They appear to think that most other Australians share their hatred of Howard and all that is required is the right image, slogan or leader to convert that hatred into an election victory.

Although history keeps proving them wrong, the self-kiddery continues.

The truth is, despite the wishful thinking of Howard’s opponents, it would take an extraordinary and unprecedented series of events for McKew to unseat the Prime Minister.

Let’s review the evidence.

Despite its classification as a marginal seat, Bennelong is Liberal heartland. In the 2004 election, even with a swing against him, Howard still polled 49.8 per cent of the primary vote. That means he only needed another 0.2 percent in preferences about 170 votes to be elected. Sure, there’s been a re-distribution since then and Bennelong mightn’t be blue ribbon any longer, but it still remains Liberal through and through.

The other thing forgotten by McKew enthusiasts is that the swing against Howard in Bennelong last election was primarily due to the presence of high profile whistle-blower Andrew Wilkie as the local Greens candidate. Wilkie polled about 16 per cent of the vote a massive increase for the Greens.

Both Labor and the Liberals lost votes in Bennelong in 2004. Much of this went to Wilkie. For McKew to deliver the seat to Labor this year would require all of the people who voted against Howard to do so again, and for several thousand others to desert the Liberals and back McKew. On top of this, Labor would need virtually everyone to preference McKew ahead of Howard.

The problem for Labor is that, without Wilkie, the Greens’ success in Bennelong is unlikely to be repeated. While the Greens should still poll well as they did in 2004 in neighbouring seats with similar demographics the absence of such a high profile candidate will probably lower their vote.

Thanks to Scratch

It is true that Labor might be able to capture some of these one-time Wilkie voters. But for many, the thought of deserting the Liberals to vote for Wilkie was much more palatable than voting for Labor. So some are likely to return to the Liberal fold.

Even with the support of former Liberal Party National President John Valder’s ‘Not Happy John’ campaign, McKew will need an extraordinary series of events to get elected in Bennelong.

The exaggeration of McKew’s impact is also evident among some of those who downplay her chances of winning the seat. Mark Connelly, for example, who admits, in last week’s New Matilda, the unlikelihood of a McKew victory in Bennelong still overstates the significance of her candidacy. He argues that the mere perception that Howard might lose in Bennelong could create enough uncertainty to push swinging voters to support Labor, as a Liberal victory nationally (with a Howard loss in Bennelong) would then leave the country without a clear candidate for Prime Minister.

Yet, this grants to swinging voters a sophisticated understanding of Australian political processes that is simply not borne out by any evidence. Furthermore, it ignores the fact that speculation about the possibility of Howard losing Bennelong was rife in the media prior to the 2004 Federal election yet there was a national swing in favour of the Coalition.

This may be unwelcome news for the true believers. The point, however, is that high-profile candidates have never been enough for Labor to win elections.

Historically, Federal Labor has been electorally successful when it presents a clear vision for Australia’s future. It is successful when it reconciles its inner contradictions between its Left and Right factions, and between the competing demands of economic management and its trade union base. Whatever their shortcomings, once in office, successful Labor leaders such as Whitlam and Hawke were able to unite much of the nation behind just such a platform.

Kevin Rudd has shown promise. He is currently ahead in the preferred Prime Minister opinion polls. Yet he trails Howard in public confidence on the crucial issues of economic management and national security. Howard will no doubt be doing everything in his power to make the election about these issues.

If Labor is to win the Federal election it will have nothing to do with the seat of Bennelong and everything to do with Labor’s willingness to confront the hard policy issues and its own inner demons.

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