Margin: Labor 1.4%
Location: Sydney North Shore, New South Wales
In a nutshell: Bennelong recorded one of the most spectacular election results of Australian history in 2007, when John Howard became only the second Australian Prime Minister to lose his seat. Howard’s usurper Maxine McKew now faces tennis commentator and former Davis Cup player John Alexander.
Two-party vote map
Swing % map
Electorate analysis: For a long time to come, Bennelong will be associated with the result of the last election, at which John Howard became only the second serving Australian Prime Minister to lose his seat. The first was Stanley Melbourne Bruce in the Victorian seat of Flinders in 1929, which it was widely noted formed part of an electoral debacle which resulted from unpopular industrial relations laws. His defeat marked the culmination of a long-term demographic trend in the electorate over the course of his 33 years as member, with an influx of immigrants from China, Hong Kong and Korea giving it a stronger east Asian identity than any seat other than Watson. In holding the line for as long as he did, Howard became the only Liberal MP holding a seat in the top 20 list for non-English speakers. George Megalogenis of The Australian wrote of Labor research indicating that while such voters in fact leaned slightly to the Liberals, the Anglo voters they replaced had tended to break two-to-one against Labor. Despite Liberal concerns Kevin Rudd’s linguistic skills would prove particularly popular among Asian voters, the swing was fairly uniform outside of the south-eastern riverfront suburbs, where it was well below par.
Bennelong covers the northern shore of the Parramatta River from Gladesville west to Ermington, extending north through Denistone and Ryde to Epping, and has been unchanged by the redistribution. The Asian communities are most heavily concentrated around Epping, Marsfield and Eastwood, the latter the focal point of the Korean community. While the Ryde area has leaned to Labor in the post-war era, riverside suburbs to the south and east made Bennelong a generally safe seat for the Liberals from its creation in 1949 until 2007, in which time it had two members: Sir John Cramer until 1974, and John Howard thereafter. The narrowest Liberal margins were 0.8 per cent at the 1961 election, 2.4 per cent in 1972, 4.5 per cent in 1974 (when Howard was elected) and 3.2 per cent in 1993. When Howard became member, the electorate extended east through Lane Cove to Chatswood and the Howard family abode in Wollstonecraft. This area was progressively lost as the electorate was redrawn with the expansion of parliament in 1984 and the abolition of Dundas to the west in 1993.
Talk of a Howard defeat first emerged from the realms of idle speculation at the 2004 election, when anti-Iraq war activists made the electorate the focus of their “Not Happy John” campaign. Office of National Assessments whistleblower Andrew Wilkie ran against Howard as the Greens candidate, prompting talk that he might secure Howard’s defeat either directly or by feeding preferences to Labor’s Nicole Campbell. Howard’s 49.9 per cent primary vote left him well clear of any trouble, but the two-party margin was shaved from 7.8 per cent to an uncomfortable 4.3 per cent. For the next election the high-profile candidate came from the Labor camp, in the person of veteran ABC political journalist Maxine McKew. Talk of McKew entering Labor politics first emerged in 2001, when party heavyweights proposed moving Julia Irwin to the state upper house so McKew could be accommodated in Fowler. The bombshell announcement that she would run in Bennelong came in February 2007, a decision influenced by the calculations of McKew’s partner of 17 years, former Labor national secretary Bob Hogg.
After emerging from her victory a party hero, McKew was immediately appointed parliamentary secretary for early childhood education and child care, which was traded for higher profile responsibilities in infrastructure, transport, regional development and local government in June 2009. Her Liberal opponent at the coming election is John Alexander, former Davis Cup player and Channel Seven tennis commentator.
John Alexander was one of four nominees for the Liberal nomination, having earlier sought preselection in Bradfield ahead of the by-election to replace Brendan Nelson in December 2009. Alexander won in the first round with support of factional moderates, scoring 67 votes in the ballot of 120 preselectors. In second place was Mark Chan, a 25-year-old manager for GE Capital whose Chinese background was being sold as an asset in the seat. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Chan suffered from a breakdown in Right solidarity that cost him the support of the “hard Right”. The also-rans were businessman Steve Foley and financial services director Melanie Matthewson. Imre Salusinszky of The Australian reported the party brought the preselection process so Alexander could capitalise on exposure over summer as a tennis commentator, so his win was evidently widely anticipated. Names floated earlier included former state leader Kerry Chikarovski, former Shadow Police Minister Andrew Tink (whose respective seats of Lane Cove and Epping were partly located in the electorate) and rugby union international Brett Papworth. The Australian’s Strewth column was advised by a Liberal source that was “absolutely no truth” to rumours John Howard’s daughter Melanie might be a starter.
In the second last week of the campaign, Julia Gillard promised a $2.1 billion contribution to the 14 kilometre rail link between Parramatta and Epping, which will service the north-western corner of Bennelong and fill a missing link in the network between Sydney’s west and north. However, federal funding will not appear until 2014-15, lest it prevent the budget getting back in surplus in 2012-13. The present state government, which promised the project a decade a go but put it on the back-burner when it announced its transport strategy in February, promises to provide the remaining $520 million upfront, allowing work to start next year with completion scheduled for 2017. However, Barry O’Farrell says a state Coalition government would prefer to prioritise a north-west link from Epping to Rouse Hill and a south-west line from Glenfield to Leppington, which Labor has chosen to overlook. It is perhaps notable that they cover the less electorally interesting terrain of Mitchell and Werriwa.
As the campaign entered its final days, momentum built behind the idea that Maxine McKew would not be spared the backlash against Labor in Sydney. A Liberal source quoted by Imre Salusinszky of The Australian said party polling had John Alexander “well in front, confirming what state Liberal MPs based in northern Sydney have been telling The Australian since the beginning of the campaign”. However, a Labor source was quoted saying their polling had it at 50-50, to which McKew recovered after Alexander was “edging towards a win on first preferences” at the start of the campaign. A 300-sample Morgan poll conducted on the Tuesday had Alexander leading 50.5-49.5, while the JWS Research-Telereach poll conducted on the final weekend of the campaign, covering 400 respondents with a margin of error of about 5 per cent, had the Liberal lead at 52.5-47.5. Bennelong was one of six New South Wales marginals covered by a Newspoll survey conducted through the second last week of the campaign, targeting 200 respondents per electorate, which collectively showed a swing against Labor of 1.3 per cent.
Analysis written by William Bowe. Read Bowe’s blog, The Poll Bludger.