Yesterday was a pretty bad day for the Labor MP for Bennelong, Maxine McKew. Two new polls published in the major Sydney newspapers had her losing her seat on Saturday. In addition, her odds of winning shortened at Centrebet and Sportingbet, putting her either behind or neck-and-neck with Liberal candidate John Alexander.
The former broadcaster had one piece of good news, however; tomorrow morning Prime Minister Julia Gillard will come to the electorate to open the new Top Ryde shopping centre.
The gigantic shopping mall, the largest mixed-use development in the country, lies in the heart of Bennelong, which McKew holds with a 1.4% margin. The PM’s presence will guarantee the local member an avalanche of publicity on the day that matters.
But last night McKew was at the Ryde Ex-Services Club, where the Ryde Business Forum was holding a ‘Meet the Candidates’ night. Seven of them turned up last night to deliver a three-minute presentation to the audience of mainly small business owners.
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Like most candidates, Maxine now looks tired, and her voice is slightly croaky. This is nothing like the last campaign, where she rocketed along on a wave of energy and enthusiasm, even dancing in the street. Now it feels like the Battle of the Somme, pushing your way through the trenches, thigh deep in mud. For sentimental reasons — winning back John Howard’s old seat — the Liberals have thrown everything they have at this campaign, and both sides know that every vote is crucial.
The MP started by talking about the Top Ryde complex, saying that it probably wouldn’t have happened without the Federal Government stimulus package at the time of the GFC. She said that when global credit dried up in late 2008, she’d been contacted by Mitchell Corn from the developer Beville Group. After she put him in touch with Treasury officials, construction went ahead, saving 4000 jobs.
“There is 4% unemployment in this area because of the way the Labor government held its nerve,” she said.
Always sceptical of pollyspeak, I hunted down Mitch Corn to check the story. Corn, like most successful businessmen, is more focused on outcomes than processes, but he did give credit to the Federal Government for securing the project’s future.
At the time of the GFC, Beville’s project debt, worth “hundreds of millions of dollars” was owed to a consortium of overseas and local banks. Meeting with them every day, the developer became concerned about a credit freeze, and so contacted McKew for help, after which time he received a call from Treasury officials. Corn didn’t ask for the details, but says that after that, funding continued to flow and the project was saved.
McKew then promised the audience that the $2.6 billion Parramatta to Epping rail link would be built, triggering a chorus of groans. I’m not alone in thinking that announcing this policy during the campaign is problematic. Everyone assumes it’s an attempt to save five marginal seats, and it reminds voters of the broken promises of the NSW state government.
The conventional wisdom is that voters can separate state and federal issues, but this time that’s probably not the case. And announcing federal funding for a piece of state infrastructure is compounding that confusion.
Even rock star Angry Anderson has weighed in on the issue, saying in a Liberal Party ad that “I don’t like being lied to, and I hate the feeling that I’m being conned.
“Let’s face it, if they were really going to fix (the rail link) they would have done it by now.”
Liberal candidate John Alexander spoke about the government surplus, focusing on “record spending and waste”. On the rail link, “is this a policy that will never be delivered?” he said.
Greens candidate Lindsay Peters gave a good presentation, concentrating on issues of sustainability. Peters ran last time and garnered 4811 votes, or 5.5%. His preferences will flow to Labor — again, they will be crucial to the final result.
After the presentation, he told me that there was a “decent-sized” Tamil community in Bennelong, which is very upset about the government’s halting of all claims of asylum by Sri Lankan and Afghan nationals. They have formed a group called Tamils for Greens, based on the Greens refugee policies.
Another speaker was Susan Raye, from the Australian S-x Party, who looked disappointingly normal — nothing like the Playboy bunny type I expected. Raye has worked in the adult industry all her working life, first as a distributor of Electric Blue videos, and now as the owner of online knicker shop Purr-Fect Lingerie. I was confused by her support for voluntary euthanasia, but evidently this is part of their civil liberties platform; nothing to do with autoerotic asphyxiation.
The final candidate for the night was Bill Pounder, from the Climate Sceptics, who is listed on the Australian Electoral Commission website as a “taxi proprietor” but told us he was a beef cattle producer. His beef is with the climate scientists who blame “methane gas emissions” for global warming, describing it as “climate alarmism”.
However, his firmly held opinions made me think he probably is a taxi driver, possibly of the Alan Jones-listening variety.
“I don’t want to live in the dark,” he said, “life is hard enough as it is.”
So tomorrow morning the PM will grace the stage at Top Ryde, McKew at her side. Campaign experts say that senior pollies only spend time in marginal electorates they actually think can be won, so they don’t waste time on the losers.
Two days to go.