At present, I have a unique distinction. I am the only pundit to predict both that the Howard Government will fail to get a fifth term and also that John Howard himself will be defeated in Bennelong in his attempt to get a 14th term in that seat.
On the first point, I stuck my neck out last December — as soon as Kevin Rudd replaced Kim Beazley as Labor leader. However, I have been joined by Philip Adams and, more recently, Richard Farmer in predicting the defeat of the Government.
Philip Adams thinks the idea of a Howard defeat in Bennelong is “too good to be true”. I do not see it that way. If the Howard Government is defeated it really makes no difference whether Howard wins Bennelong or not.
In 1996, Howard thrashed the Keating government but Paul Keating retained his seat. The sole reason for that was that Keating sat in a massively safe Labor seat which he then resigned immediately, giving Blaxland to the sitting Labor member, Michael Hatton. By contrast, Howard sits in the ultimate marginal seat. So marginal is it that it is actually the median seat on my current pendulum.
I predicted the defeat of Howard in Bennelong before it was known that Maxine McKew would be the Labor candidate. The question, therefore, is whether her candidature is good or bad for Labor.
In my opinion, it makes no real difference. Labor was able to get a good candidate because Labor analysts expect to win Bennelong — even though they dare not say so out loud. As one of them said to me: “You cannot say that because it sounds cocky.”
Mumble’s Peter Brent is a very good analyst and he has presented, in effect, the case for the view that the Howard Government will be defeated but that Howard will retain Bennelong. He has a point. The poll taken before McKew was known to be the candidate showed Howard defeated 55-45 by “any old Labor candidate”. However, the poll taken after McKew’s candidature was known showed the margin as only 52-48.
My reason for sticking to my original prediction is that I think Bennelong electors have not yet thought the matter through.
In my opinion, the Howard Government has been locked into defeat ever since Rudd took over. I expect every poll from now to election day will show that to be the case. Consequently, when Australians go to the polls, Bennelong electors will realise that they are not likely any more to be represented by the Prime Minister.
So why would they elect Howard? To see him resign the seat immediately, as Paul Keating did? (And so,too, Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke and Jeff Kennett). Or to see an unpopular Howard sitting in the seat on the backbench and, unwillingly, seeing out a full term solely because he does not want to create a byelection?
Unlike Keating in Blaxland, a resignation by Howard from Bennelong would be a simple act of betrayal of the party — handing his seat to Labor.
I believe Bennelong electors will come to understand all these things. Consequently they will say that, if it is time for Howard to go as PM, it is also time for him to go as the member for Bennelong. If they make such a wise and rational decision, they will be saving Howard from the dilemma of the decision he must make on Bennelong. They may also be saving the Liberal Party from the humiliation of being the first federal opposition since 1920 to lose a seat to the government at a byelection.