Let me be the first pundit to predict that the Liberal Party will lose this year’s general election as a whole, and Bennelong in particular. If John Howard is foolish enough to contest this election the only way he can save Bennelong is by promising something he will not promise — that, if elected, he will serve out his entire term. Any failure to do that could lead to a repeat of the Jeff Kennett/Burwood fiasco of 1999. Jeff Kennett lost office in October 1999. He then immediately resigned his seat of Burwood. The by-election in December 1999 saw Labor take the seat. Labor then retained Burwood in November 2002 and again in November 2006. The defeat of the Kennett Government was unexpected. That is why he retained Burwood at the September 1999 general election.

Contrast that with our upcoming federal election. The defeat of the Howard government will be generally predicted. In that circumstance what are Bennelong electors to do? They could say to themselves: “Let us return Howard in Bennelong to show our gratitude to him. Of course, we know he will, upon the defeat of his government, immediately resign his seat and cause a by-election which Labor will win.”  Alternatively, they could (more sensibly) say to themselves: “We know the Howard Government will be defeated. Why do we not kick Howard out of Bennelong also? That would save the cost of a by-election. Let us save that cost and save the Liberal Party the embarrassment of that by-election loss”. If Howard had any sense he would have resigned the office of Prime Minister last year – as I advised him to do. He could then have retired from his seat this year, following the example of John Anderson.  Instead, he seems determined to follow Kennett’s example. But there will be a difference. Burwood electors did not know they were creating a by-election by returning Kennett in his own seat at the general election. Bennelong electors will know that. It will become conventional for commentators to say that the Howard defeat in Bennelong in 2007 followed the precedent of the defeat of Stanley Melbourne Bruce in 1929. However, there will be a major difference. In 1929 there was a snap election, the earliest federal election ever. The defeat of Bruce in Flinders was the big shock of the night.  By contrast, by election day in 2007 almost every pundit will be predicting that the Howard Government will be defeated and that Howard will also be defeated in Bennelong.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey