A good journalist does not necessarily make a good politician, said Tony Abbott this morning as Maxine McKew was welcomed in to the world of electoral politics. As a former editorial writer for The Australian, the Health Minister should know. In recent memory Abbott has gone from being seen as a potential leader of his party to just another useful bully boy of a minister.

Which is a role Ms McKew is unlikely to ever play for her adopted Labor Party. She is much too refined and nice for that – perhaps too much so. Candidates who dare to tackle a Prime Minister in his own seat can expect the going to get tough and it’s yet to be seen how the dignified interviewer from ABC television adapts to a bit of rough and tumble. As the weeks go by Ms McKew will find obscure details of her past dredged up for public examination. It’s hard for even real hard heads to keep their composure under such scrutiny.

How the Bennelong challenger fares will determine her political future. She and the Party are talking as if this is a serious challenge to John Howard in his own seat. They are armed with the good news of the recent Crikey-Morgan poll and the knowledge that changes to the Bennelong boundaries have brought the electorate into the theoretically winnable category for Labor if the kind of swing which would deliver government is actually on.

This is really bravado – the real purpose of the McKew candidacy is to irritate and annoy the Prime Minister to help Labor beat his government throughout Australia rather than to actually defeat him in his own seat. A high profile opponent probably increases the chances of Howard being returned whatever happens nationally.

There’s unlikely to be a protest vote against a man who has led the country for a decade in a successful and popular way when the voters realize that there is a real chance of him being defeated. The Labor vote in Bennelong would probably be maximized if Howard was facing an unknown candidate with no apparent chance of victory.

Should McKew perform the unlikely and emerge the winner she would naturally become a Labor heroine and be assured a glittering ministerial future. More likely she and her boss Kevin Rudd see this as a training run for the future. How she fares will determine her role in any future Labor administration.

If Howard is returned McKew will become the key adviser in opposition for the next three years. If Labor wins without her winning Bennelong she will emerge as the boss of the Labor media apparatus. Any future as a member of parliament will depend on how she handles the rough and tumble of her first campaign.

Peter Fray

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