John Howard takes to battlefield Bennelong later this year. After 58 years in Liberal hands, 33 of them with Howard, it’s a seat that could be set for a change.

But while the Crikey Morgan poll suggests the PM “would be defeated if an election were held today”, local residents don’t seem overly bothered by the news.

If ever the words “relaxed” and “comfortable” could be applied to a group of suburbs, it’s those within Bennelong. This is a suburban seat, a hilly and green encampment on the northern banks of the Parramatta River in which many residents choose to go without front fences.

Despite its proximity to the heart of Sydney, it’s not a ritzy area. In fact, like its federal member, Bennelong has a sort of respectable plainness that neither offends nor inspires. Beneath that streetscape however, the demographics are changing.

Bennelong is the non-Labour seat with the highest population of people from a non-English speaking background – Bennelong 28.9%, nationally 13.3%. Based on census data from 2001 and the 2003 electoral boundaries, there are only 13 electorates out of 150 with more residents who were born overseas. All bar two are held by Labor. Bennelong is likely to climb that list when the 2006 census figures are factored in.

One Bennelong resident told Crikey that when her children went to primary school in the area, the ratio of Anglo kids to those of Asian descent was 65/35. Now she says “that’s been reversed. There’s far more immigrants than there were even ten years ago and that’s changing the concerns of the community.”

As for Bennelong, the man not the electorate, his was the story of an unlikely statesman, an Aboriginal man who 220 years ago bridged two cultures, if only momentarily. You could even say he rose above his station.

His is also a story that ends unhappily, a fact which mirrors the terminal moments in the careers of many politicians. Howard’s place in Australian history is also assured, but now it’s all about how the good people of Bennelong decide to send him on his way.

Want to know what Bennelong residents really think? Click here for comments on a range of issues gathered by Crikey around the electorate last Friday.

Peter Fray

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