September 2007


It's Bennelong time

By Judith Brett
It's Bennelong time

Maxine McKew, 2003. © Lorrie Graham.

On the campaign trail with Maxine McKew

In February this year, Maxine McKew announced that she would seek preselection for the federal seat of Bennelong, the very seat John Howard has held since he entered federal parliament in 1974. An audacious move, I thought, aggressive even, to beard the ageing lion in his den, to remind the nation that the PM is also a local member and his seat not as safe as it once was, and to distract him from the national campaign with the sort of local campaigning he has never had to do. But this is not how McKew sees it. “I have a belief that democracies depend on a strong multi-party system, and parties only thrive when committed individuals are prepared to put their hands up ... I am providing the people of Bennelong with an alternative.” And she compares the alternative she provides to Howard in Bennelong with the alternative Kevin Rudd is providing as prime minister.

It is a well-thought-through double act, and it’s working like a dream. A Galaxy poll in early August, just after the interest-rate rise, had McKew ahead of Howard, leading 53% to 47% on the two-party-preferred vote. This is less than Labor’s overall two-party-preferred lead of 58% to 42% in a Morgan poll of around the same time, but if it holds on election day, it will be enough.

Why, aged 54, has McKew decided to stand for parliament? I ask her, “What is it about politics that gives you a buzz?” “Making connections.” She gives the example of getting Peter Garrett to talk to the year-11 geography class at Epping Boys’ High on World Environment Day, and then of putting the boys in touch with a local businessman to help them through the fine print of an application for a rainwater tank.

When we talked in early August, she and her campaign team were sky high from a public forum they’d held a few days earlier on ‘Integrity in Government’. “It was amazing. On pretty dry topics, like individual ministerial responsibility, the public service, ministerial advisers. We had Julian Burnside, who’d flown in from Adelaide straight from winning the case for Bruce Trevorrow [for compensation as a stolen child], and Senator John Faulkner. I’d have been happy if we’d drawn 200. We got around 700. The ballroom at the Epping Club was packed, standing room only. The atmosphere was fantastic.” They are planning another two forums: one on Australia’s foreign policy, for the week before APEC, and one on climate change.

McKew believes that there’s something stirring in the electorate, a renewed interest in politics, and that she can help to express that interest and even shape it. She refers to Hugh Mackay’s column for the Sydney Morning Herald in late January, in which he sensed that Australians were starting to re-engage with politics. “It’s hard to escape the feeling that the Australian electorate might be emerging from its dreamy period. Sitting up. Taking notice. Ready, perhaps, for a little nourishment,” he wrote - ready for a re-engagement with “the bigger picture”. McKew would have read this on the Australia Day weekend, as she was firming up her plans for Bennelong. If Mackay was right, the times would suit her.

At the heart of McKew’s passion for politics is a passion for communication. She says, again and again, that what she wants to do is to give people in the community a voice, to bring them into the national conversation about our future. And she finds, out and about campaigning in Bennelong, that people want to talk: about water, climate change, WorkChoices, health and hospitals, education, honesty in government. Her role is to listen; and then to persuade them that on all these issues and more Kevin Rudd and Labor are an electable alternative to Howard and the Coalition, and that they will provide a “government for the future, for the twenty-first century”. “My job is to persuade people to vote Labor, not by denigrating Howard, but by persuading them that I will be a better representative for Bennelong and that Labor will be a better government for Australia. The campaign is about a prime minister who has stopped listening.”

She stresses that she respects Howard. “I know how hard people work in public life, and what it takes from people. I have never not respected public life.” So she wants no help from the Howard-haters on her campaign, and her volunteers are screened for rudeness and aggression. Before they go out door-knocking, they are reminded by the campaign manager that at all times they should be “polite and courteous, like Maxine”.

In this politics of courteous listening and polite persuasion, I wonder, where is the passion? And what about conflict? After all, one of the key purposes of politics is to manage and resolve conflict. So I ask her, “It’s all very well to give everyone a voice, but what about when the voices disagree? How do you deal with that and find solutions?” Her answer is frank. “I hate managing conflict. When I do SWOT tests, politics suits my strengths, but it also exposes my weaknesses - and that’s one of them.” And when I ask her about the ALP’s position on old-growth logging, and Rudd’s, in my view, disgraceful courting of the Tasmanian logging industry, she simply smiles.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this. Keating and Howard were both fighters, men who were energised by aggression and fought best with their backs to the wall. They thrived on conflict, and they made conflict work for them. Or tried to. One way of reading what has been going wrong for Howard this year is that Rudd has been refusing to fight back, to respond to Howard’s repeated provocations. Instead, smiling and calm, Rudd has been repeating his messages that the government is tired, sneaky and out of ideas, and introducing Labor’s policies at the times of his choosing. So, desperate for an opponent, Howard has launched himself against the Labor premiers. After 15 years of aggression at the centre of our national life, we have almost forgotten that politics can draw on other emotions.

Remember Bob Hawke. His election in 1983 broke the cycle of bitterness and recrimination that began when Whitlam won in 1972, reached a climax in the Dismissal and smouldered through Fraser’s eight years of government. The tear on Fraser’s cheek as he accepted defeat signalled the end. Fraser was freed to discover a more expansive self, and the country was freed to move on into the consensual early years of the Hawke government. This period of consensus was crucial for the government’s capacity to think through and implement the sweeping deregulatory reforms that are the basis of Australia’s current prosperity.

Rudd, of course, is very different from Bob Hawke. He doesn’t have his easy larrikin charm or his appetite for sociability, and he’s unlikely to reach the same heights of popularity. But he does offer to break Australia out of the phase of conflict politics that began when Keating ousted Hawke from the prime ministership. Howard could get no purchase, in his first go at the Liberal leadership, against Hawke - just as he can get no purchase now on Rudd. It was fighting with Keating that allowed him to display and hone his partisan political skills. If he is defeated at the forthcoming election, this will be the end of the Keating-Howard phase of our politics, as Hawke marked the end of the Whitlam-Fraser phase. The challenge for Rudd will be to give us a few years of national consensus to harness our energies to develop some bipartisan solutions to the problems of the new century, before the next partisan cycle inevitably starts up.

So if Rudd were to win, the times would suit McKew’s style of politics and her gift for listening to people. All the courtesy and charm that made her such a persuasive interviewer are being brought to her new role as a candidate, as are her skills in intelligent listening. When she’s talking to you, you have her whole attention: her wide eyes are attentive, she smiles and nods, she reaches out and touches you, and you sense she has heard what you’re saying. None of this feels at all fake or rehearsed. And I don’t believe it is. The sentiments of her campaign manager, Michael Butterworth, are echoed by others I talk to: “She engages people. They know they’ve had a genuine hearing and empathy. What you see is what you get. She’s the real deal.”

Maxine McKew’s campaign office is on the fourth floor of a building off a pedestrian mall in Eastwood. An old shopping strip, it lost customers and businesses when the nearby Macquarie Centre opened, but has recently been revived by Chinese and Korean businesses serving their compatriots’ and other locals’ taste for North Asian food and cheap imports. It’s now the geographic centre of the 53-square-kilometre electorate of Bennelong, which stretches from the leafy suburbs of Carlingford and Epping, on what McKew calls “the northern frontier”, down to the Paramatta River, with its quietly gentrifying waterfront. In the north-east corner is Macquarie University and Macquarie Park, an area thick with knowledge-workers, who tend to vote Labor. And in the south-west is Ermington, the new block of voters carved off the neighbouring, Labor-held seat of Parramatta in the 2005 federal redistribution in New South Wales. It is these voters that first attracted Labor strategists to Bennelong, as they made it more marginal for the Liberals. Although about 2000 voters were added to the northern frontier from Philip Ruddock’s seat of Berowra, they were easily outnumbered by the 7500 from the west. Plumb in the middle is the state seat of Ryde, which has been Labor since the mid-1990s and is held by the very popular deputy premier of New South Wales, John Watkins.

When John Howard entered parliament in 1974, he had a margin of 13.4%, and the seat included the wealthy Hunter’s Hill and Lane Cove. Since then, successive redistributions have pushed the seat westwards and the margin has fallen. In 2004 Andrew Wilkie, a senior intelligence officer who resigned over the government’s participation in the American invasion of Iraq, stood for the Greens against Howard, and there was a 3.4% swing away from Howard. To win in 2007, Labor needs a further swing against Howard of 4.33%. That is, it has to hold the Wilkie vote and add some.

The macro picture looks good. Zoom in, and the extent of the task becomes obvious. Andrew Carr’s analysis on his website, Psephos, reveals that of the current booths, Howard won 33 in 2004 to the ALP’s 13. But then, in 2001 he won 39 out of 42.

Perhaps more significant for Labor’s chances in the seat is the changing demographic make-up, as educated professional people from Asia move in and older blue-ribbon Liberals die off. (The booth with highest Liberal vote in 2004 was the Royal Rehab, an aged-care and rehabilitation facility.) George Megalogenis, writing in the Australian in early July, analysed federal seats using the 2006 census data. Bennelong is fifteenth on a scale of the ethnicity of population, and it has the highest proportion of people born in non-English-speaking countries of any Coalition seat in the land.

But McKew is not relying on demographic shifts to deliver her Bennelong. “I’m not going out of my way to target any particular
ethnic group. The Chinese vote. The Korean vote. I’m after Liberal voters. I have to persuade some of the people who’ve been voting, election after election, for John Howard that this time they should consider voting for me and for Kevin Rudd.”

I have long thought that one of the ALP’s political problems was its belief that demography was the key to electoral victory. This is not surprising, given the party’s origins in the mobilisation of the working-class vote, and even in today’s much more complex electorate there is truth in it. Witness the higher vote Labor draws from ethnic Australians. The problem with this way of thinking, though, is that it can make for lazy candidates. Voters are imagined as bearers of demographic characteristics, rather than as citizens who need to be persuaded to vote Labor. With its origins in the parliamentary parties of the nineteenth century, the Liberal Party has generally been a more flexible and responsive electoral organisation, prepared to do whatever it takes to persuade voters to vote Liberal. And this has included, for the stragglers, recourse to the politics of fear. Whatever one thinks of the Liberal Party’s electoral strategies, they have been more alert to the way the vote is there to be won. The 1998 election victory, in which the Coalition lost the overall two-party-preferred vote but won enough marginal seats to hold on to government, can in large part be explained by its better choice of candidates.

When I asked McKew why she decided to stand for Bennelong, she began by talking about the importance of good candidates, and how her partner, Bob Hogg, worked for the revival of the Victorian ALP after John Cain became leader. When Labor won in 1982, it had been out of power in Victoria for 27 years - since John Cain’s father lost office during the Split. The key to rebuilding the party as an election winner, in Hogg’s view, was getting good candidates to stand in winnable marginal seats. “So when I was thinking about standing, Bob said, ‘There’s no point in someone like you standing in a safe seat. You need to win a seat for Labor.’“

At 9.30 on a blue and gold Saturday morning, the mall in Eastwood is getting busy. I’m standing with a couple of other middle-aged women outside the building housing McKew’s office, waiting for someone to open the door. About 40 people have already gone up to the briefing for volunteer letter-boxers and door-knockers. At street level, right under McKew’s office, the Liberals have rented a shopfront which is plastered, inside and out, with posters of a smiling John Howard, Australian flags and the Liberal Party insignia. The door is open and inside a man is sitting at a desk. I’ll go in and talk to him later, I think. One of the posters of Howard had been graffitied: a couple of teeth filled in, and an obscene comment and drawing added. Suddenly, the man from inside the shop appears, walking towards us looking grim and accusing: “One of your lot did this, I suppose.” He is about 70, trim and fit, with a buzzed head and a muscle-bound walk. Our embarrassed protestations that we know nothing about it, and in fact think it as obscene as he does, are met with scornful insults. And he marches back into his empty shop, leaving us to compose ourselves. I don’t feel like going to talk with him after that, to hear what he thinks about John Howard and the achievements of his government, or anything else for that matter.

Upstairs, the volunteers are milling round, every lift delivering another half-dozen or so. By ten, around 60 people are crowded into the office. “Is it usual to have so many volunteers?” I ask one of the staff. “Oh, we often have many more than this. We’ve had a hundred or so.” This Saturday many of the volunteers are from the Labor Women’s Forum, but there are also locals, and about a quarter are men. People from safe Labor seats are helping with the campaign here, because it might make a difference. And the chance to campaign directly against Howard is a big drawcard. “We’ve only come from Kingsford Smith,” says one man, “but we’d come from Dubbo to get rid of Howard.” One of the women who faced the local Liberal’s masculine intimidation with me explained how she was in Italy when Howard turned back the Tampa, and how ashamed she felt to be Australian: “Italy had thousands and thousands of refugees, and we were turning back 400.” She is not an ALP member, but she is here to help with the letter-boxing.

But the biggest drawcard is McKew herself, particularly for the women. An elegantly dressed woman from Cremorne was at a Labor women’s dinner in June at which McKew gave a speech. “She spoke beautifully, she was so sincere and straightforward. There was no double-speak, no bullshit. The room cheered and cheered.” A young Asian woman goes up to McKew: “You don’t know me; I’m from Strathfield. I used to watch your show. I speak Chinese, so I can be useful to you.” Others are having their photo taken with her, or trying to organise for her to come to their community event. And a pensioner in a hand-knitted hat comes in to make a donation. They’ve had a few of these: ungrateful pensioners who have donated their $500 budget bonuses to the campaign against Howard.

I ask a young woman wearing a purple “Maxine for Bennelong” T-shirt why she is working for McKew. “I am a member of a very small community of Chinese from Laos, very small. When I was 15, Bob Carr visited my community. He gave up a couple of hours. He talked to everyone; we had photos. I thought, That is a party I could be part of.”

In these days of low party membership and widespread disengagement from politics, the enthusiasm among the volunteers is striking. It reminds us that politics can still move people. And that the need to feel part of things, to be connected in some way to the centre of power, is strong. Sometimes what people want from politics is simply recognition or a hearing, for the people who wield power to give them the time of day. For this, McKew is the perfect candidate. Her high-profile career as a political broadcaster has already marked her as a person at the centre of politics, who knows what’s going on and can talk to presidents and prime ministers. And now she can talk to ordinary people as well. Some people burst into tears when they see her on their doorstep; women bring their daughters to meet her. To be sure, McKew is charming, warm and intelligent, but this is not enough to explain the response. Some of the emotion she is drawing can only be explained by her being seen already as a representative of the centre and by people feeling disconnected for so long. McKew is a little overawed by the responses she is eliciting, and by the expectations so many people are investing in her, and she’s not a little disconcerted when facing a cheering crowd. “I’m very used to public speaking, of course, but I’m not used to the focus being on me.”

Many of the volunteers, though, have more particular political aims. The Maxine Support Group is a group of mainly Chinese-Australian older professionals, none of whom are members of the ALP. They see her as the best chance to get rid of John Howard, “because of what he said in 1988, and what he didn’t say in 1996 about Pauline Hanson. No matter what Howard tries to say, we remember and we know what it was like.” The man who spoke on behalf of the group came to Australia in the early 1960s from Malaysia, when the White Australia Policy was still in force. He experienced the improvement in racial tolerance throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, only to see things slipping back for his children after Howard came along. Many of the new immigrants from China, he says, don’t know about this history; and they don’t really understand the way our political system of competing parties works. “They think you should go with the party that’s in power.” However, he stresses that the group is not just motivated by the negative desire to get rid of Howard. They also support Rudd, for his general policies, and because he can speak Mandarin and understands Chinese history and culture. They see him as better able to manage Australia’s relationship with China. And they look forward to the day when the South Australian senator Penny Wong is a cabinet minister.

McKew is now campaigning full-time. It’s an old-style activist campaign of street stalls in every shopping centre, community morning teas, door-knocking and appearances at community functions. The invitations are pouring in, some coming from organisations that are not usually interested in Labor candidates, like the local chambers of commerce. And like everyone else, once they hear McKew speak, they’re impressed. “It’s all about being a viable alternative government at the micro level,” says her campaign manager.

How is Howard responding to this frontal assault on his seat? He has never door-knocked Bennelong, and although he’s recently done a couple of street walks, he will rely in this election, as in past ones, on pamphlets and direct mailing. When McKew announced her candidature, his response was true to form: “When I get news like that my only reaction is to determine and resolve to work even harder for the people of Australia, and that of course includes the people of Bennelong.” It was left to Tony Abbott to describe McKew as a “blow-in”. Since then Howard has not mentioned her name.

And there have been no signs of a dirt campaign. McKew got the story of her private life out early, in an interview with Caroline Overington for the Weekend Australian Magazine at the end of March. She talked about her 15-year relationship with Bob Hogg, and not having children. “Sometimes you end up childless because that’s the way life works out,” she told Overington. “It was a bit Oprah Winfrey, I know, but having seen how Julia [Gillard] was treated over being single and childless, I knew I needed to be open about it, and get it out of the way.”

In preparation for this piece, I talked with McKew for almost two hours. What I most wanted to know was the personal kernel of her politics, the point at which the challenges of contemporary Australian politics connected with her biography and her desires. Why, in mid-life, had she chosen to become a candidate? What deep pleasures and satisfactions might such a life of public service hold for her? What that she holds dear is at stake for her? My eureka moment came when she was talking about the Liberals’ attack on the unions. “When Howard is attacking unionists, he is attacking all the essential-service workers, the nurses, the police, the transport workers. And the teachers. I am sick of teachers being insulted and beaten up on. I am appalled. I want to be a champion for teachers.”

This for me was the clue. I knew from other profiles that McKew’s stepmother was a teacher, and that she had had a generally good relationship with her. McKew’s mother died when she was five. She lived with her maternal grandparents for a time, until her father remarried. Her stepmother had no children of her own and, unusually for the time, she continued to work. McKew stressed to me that when growing up she had no sense of class. The family was financially secure; her life was bounded by school, home and mass on Sundays. And like everyone else she knew, they had an annual holiday on the Gold Coast. “This was Brisbane in the ‘50s. All the people we knew were the same. No striking extremes of wealth, or not that I was aware of.” There was little in the way she described her childhood or her family’s experience that suggested envy or class grievance was behind her politics. Nothing comparable to Latham’s ladder of opportunity out of Green Valley or Rudd’s family’s loss of their farm after his father’s death. Not even a sense of injustice on behalf of others.

After being rather bored at the parish primary school, McKew went to the Mercy Sisters All Hallows’ for her secondary education. Here life began to open up for her. All Hallows’ is the oldest secondary school for girls in Brisbane. Established in 1861, two years after the colony of Queensland was formed, its beautiful old buildings and gardens sit on a hill overlooking the Brisbane River. She was well taught by dedicated lay and religious teachers, who encouraged her to find and use her talents. To this day she feels grateful to them. “All Hallows’ gave me my voice. I can remember Sister Mary St Vincent. She would have me at the end of the speech and drama room reciting something from Hamlet - the speech by Polonius to Laertes, for instance. The premium was on getting it right.”

All Hallows’ offered an education grounded in Christian faith for its girls to take out into the world, but like many of her generation McKew did not stay a practising Catholic. “I wasn’t into duty and service when I was young. It was about me, about making it in the big world.” But so it is for most young people. When a young person’s life is based on duty we feel something’s wrong, that it’s a sacrifice, as when young men are killed in war or young women are kept home to care for aged relatives. But talk of duty and service after mid-life is quite different. For many people, the time after mid-life is for giving back.

In a famous article of 1965 called ‘Death and the Mid-Life Crisis’, the psychoanalyst Elliot Jacques contrasts the hot, spontaneous creativity of young adulthood with what he describes as the “sculpted creativity” of later life. The contrast is between an optimistic creativity of conquest and fluid boundaries, the feeling that one can do anything, and a creativity realised in grappling with hard, resistant materials in the time one has left. The psychological dynamics of mid-life are much more widely discussed now than when Jacques wrote that essay. Their driver is the realisation of death, of the finitude of life. People react differently, and denial is one response, like the stereotypical male flight to new women and red sports cars. Another is the process of acceptance and letting go, and of revisiting the issues and conflicts of one’s youth with the insights and capacities of an adult.

We are so used to thinking about politics as driven by ambition that we forget the other emotions that can motivate a political life, like gratitude and the desire to contribute. And when a person enters politics in mid-life, after they’ve already made it, this seems a more plausible explanation. The anger and cynicism so often directed at the self-interest of politicians masks a disappointment, as our expectations of something bigger and of someone more interested in us are unmet. As the response to McKew shows, when someone does come along who is interested, the cynicism evaporates.

McKew talks a lot about education, not just about teachers but about students, about responding to the needs of immigrant children, improving the quality of the curriculum, and about parents’ aspirations for their children’s futures, women’s in particular. In a speech to the Fabian Society in May on ‘Who Owns the Soul of Australia?’ she contrasted the masculine, Australian-legend version of the nation’s soul, of men and horses, Anzacs and mateship, with what matters most to a woman looking out the window at her kids playing in the backyard:

I’ll bet my woman at the window is thinking about the future - her own and her children’s. She’ll be thinking about the quality of the education they are going to get; the kinds of jobs available when their schooling’s over, what advantage she can create for them so they can discover their potential and live up to it, fulfil their promise, find happiness - call their souls their own ... Survey the suburbs and towns and farms of this country and you’ll find the desire to assure the happiness and independence of the next generation is inextinguishable. This altruism in the nature of most human beings - it’s one of the better angels. To which all good governments should listen.

She talks a lot about the goodwill and big hearts she finds in the community, “the spirit in our teachers, our nurses, our aged-care and child-care workers”. In speeches she sometimes quotes George Eliot’s famous elegy for Dorothea at the end of Middlemarch (a book she read at All Hallows’): “her full nature ... spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts.” The sentiments are similar to those Robert Menzies appealed to in his 1942 speech to the Forgotten People, those “people who are nameless and unadvertised, and who ... see in their children their greatest contribution to the immortality of their race”. A different party, different times, but Menzies’ speech too was made mid-life when, after losing the prime ministership, he paused to look back at where he’d come from, and he saw the people who made him what he was.

When Maxine McKew looks back, she sees the women who raised and taught her: her grandmother working long hours in the shop at Scarborough, her stepmother teacher, and the lay and religious women who taught her so well. And she’s grateful.

Judith Brett

Judith Brett is an emeritus professor of politics at La Trobe University. Her latest book is Doing Politics: Writing on Public Life.

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