Politics

The view from Billinudgel

Bennelong’s greatest hits
John Alexander’s victory has instilled Malcolm Turnbull with some fighting spirit

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So after all that, the bomb did not drop, the world has not ended. John Alexander has been re-elected and Australia’s champion, Bennelong’s champion, will relapse into the obscurity of the backbench whence he came.

But he has given Malcolm Turnbull a few frights. Our prime minister could have been forgiven for donning a safety helmet, and a real one, not the one he wears for photo-ops during his many visits to factories inhabited by the hardworking Australians he so often invokes.

It needn’t have been like this; it should have been a doddle. Alexander had built up a very healthy cushion and although there is normally a swing against the government in a byelection, this was less of a byelection than a temporary recess.

Alexander, like Barnaby Joyce, was still the same candidate, an object of sympathy, rather than censure, for the voters. Both were seen as victims of an aberration in the Constitution confirmed by over-literalist unelected High Court judges.

And Alexander, while something of a political nonentity, was considered a reasonable local member; the only things really held against him were his multimillion-dollar property in the Southern Highlands and his residence in the prestigious eastern suburbs instead of his less salubrious electorate.

True, he was facing a more than plausible opponent in Kristina Keneally, but he was also backed by most of the cabinet and even John Howard, the man comprehensively ejected from government and his constituency in 2007, but now considered an elder statesman – at least by the conservative media.

In the circumstances, a swing of more than 5% against the government could hardly be considered a triumph. Still, a win’s a win, and given that the alternative would have been catastrophic, Turnbull can be forgiven for a spot of relieved gloating.

Unsurprisingly, both sides claimed a victory of sorts, their supporters loyally cheering their respective leaders – although it was interesting that while Laborites chanted for “Bill”, the Libs opted for “Turnbull” – perhaps they felt that using his first name would have been offensively familiar for their patrician prime minister.

But both leaders deserved credit for throwing themselves into the campaign, especially Turnbull, who was criticised for not doing enough in New England, and more crucially in Queensland, where the Liberal National Party’s defeat in last month’s state election may be rather more relevant to his long-term chances of survival.

From now on, there can be no holding back; if, as is likely, the still-unresolved issues of dual citizenship lead to further byelections, it can be assumed that Turnbull will go in boots and all. And he seems to be developing a taste for it: the relentless bashing of Keneally for the real or imagined sins of the past gave us a glimpse of the street fighter concealed in the urbane façade of the corporate lawyer.

And because by all reports Keneally will be bumped into the Senate in place of Sam Dastyari, Turnbull will still have her to push around for a while. So he will have plenty of opportunity to practise a bit more kicking and gouging while waiting for the real thing.

Obviously Keneally is not the target Dastyari afforded, but she’ll do until someone better comes along.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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