June 2007

The Nation Reviewed

Stars in their eyes

By Mungo MacCallum
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Imagine that you are a member of the Labor Party living in the regional New South Wales electorate of McMahon. The seat is held by the National Party, but the long-standing member is retiring this year, and that, combined with demographic changes, has made the seat distinctly marginal. Your proposed candidate is a local bloke named Terry Dobbin. Terry runs the hardware store in the biggest town in the district, coaches a junior football team and is a staunch member of the Lions Club. He is well known and well liked, and has already contested the seat twice, each time eating into the National Party's majority. If the opinion polls are right, he's a big chance to win in 2007 and perhaps push the ALP across the line.

But just as Terry is dusting off the how-to-vote cards and his wife is putting up a batch of plum jam for the fundraising stall, a message arrives from head office: the party's national executive has taken over the preselection process and the candidate for McMahon is to be one Jack Wentworth Bentley. Bentley was something of a war hero before graduating in medicine and becoming a specialist in immunotherapy, and more recently hosting a national television show; in the process he has picked up a Military Cross, a Nobel Prize and a Gold Logie. In his spare time he runs an international aid agency, composes symphonies and sails in the Olympics for Australia. His wife was a successful merchant banker before retiring to take over the Royal Flying Doctor Service. The couple have two improbably beautiful and talented children of their own, and have adopted a Sudanese orphan rescued from Darfur.

Jack Bentley has never actually lived in McMahon, or been a member of the ALP. Indeed, as far as is known he has never even voted Labor. He has never previously expressed any desire for a political career; indeed, there is a report that when once asked if he was interested in politics, he responded, "Well, what exactly is a politic?" But the spin doctors, pollsters, sociologists and astrologers who hold sway at campaign headquarters are not interested in such irrelevancies. Focus groups have shown that Bentley has all the attributes of a Star Candidate.

In reality, of course, none of Kevin Rudd's highly promoted and over-publicised celebrities is quite as intimidating as Jack Bentley, but they present problems all the same. Nicole Cornes, a Sunday-tabloid columnist thrust upon the bewildered electors of Boothby, began her campaign by confessing that she had no real idea of Labor policy on issues which had been in the headlines for months; but at least she lives in the right part of the country. Colonel Mike Kelly, who will contest the bellwether seat of Eden-Monaro, has to rely on some kind of antediluvian family connection to establish any kind of legitimacy. Others are more logical choices: the human-rights lawyer George Newhouse is a good choice for Malcolm Turnbull's seat of Wentworth, even though he cannot claim a lifetime of party activism and is a mayor (more on that later). Similarly, the former journalist Maxine McKew makes perfect sense in John Howard's Bennelong; she is most unlikely to win it, but will provide a host of useful distractions while lining it up for next time.

The practice of preselecting celebrities has a dubious history at best. Even if the stars can overcome local resentment at branch level and unite the party workers behind them, they are likely to face a parochial backlash from the voters, especially in rural and regional areas, where people know each other. This is why the party heavies insist on safe seats rather than marginals when they are ready to be bumped into federal parliament: Greg Combet demanded Charlton and Bill Shorten wanted Maribyrnong, both impregnable Labor strongholds. Apparatchiks with less ambition will settle for the Senate, but few are willing to put the party's interests ahead of their own by trying for a marginal.

These are left to the blow-ins: Cheryl Kernot, having defected from the Democrats, was rewarded with Dickson, a knife-edge seat which she lost after one term. In retrospect she was of far more use to the ALP when shovelling preferences into the tent from outside than when causing upheavals inside. Her brief, tragicomic union with Labor gave new meaning to the old advice: Never marry your mistress.

Another defector, Peter Garrett, got a safe seat, but his worth is still to be proved. Brought in to demonstrate Labor's impeccably Green credentials, he has instead been forced to shed most of his own, while still exciting fear and loathing among much of the union movement. Though the 2004 timber-industry debacle was not entirely his fault, he must at least share the responsibility for losing Bass and Braddon, and for failing to win Eden-Monaro and Gippsland. You could say he goes into this year's election owing Labor a couple of seats. Note also that the stars, even if successful with the electorate, are usually greeted with envy and suspicion in the party. Many old hands resent the rise of Garrett; on the other side of politics, John Howard's whiz-kid waterboy, Malcolm Turnbull, would command just two votes in the party room: Howard's and his own.

Kevin Rudd obviously feels that assembling a political hit parade in the marginals is good politics, and he may be right; certainly it has the effect of countering the government's line about Labor being totally dominated by faceless union bosses and other figments of the Liberals' imagination. But Rudd, especially as a Queenslander, should know how badly the strategy can misfire.

In 1974 Gough Whitlam believed he had secured a coup by persuading the lord mayor of Brisbane, Clem Jones, to run for the marginal seat of Griffith (now safely held by Rudd himself). Jones was an immensely popular figure across the city, consistently re-elected by huge majorities: he should have been a shoo-in. But he lost to the undistinguished Liberal Don Cameron. In retrospect it was all too easy to see why: the good citizens of Brisbane liked their lord mayor where he was, and they were buggered if they were going to let Canberra poach him.

Some stars should just stay fixed. And with others, it is wise to remember that just as they rise, they can also fall.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum was a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Much of his work can be found here: The View from Billinudgel.

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