July 2010


The battle for Bennelong: Round two

By Nick Bryant
Labor Party candidate Maxine McKew with a fan. During the 2007 federal election campaign for the NSW seat of Bennelong at which she defeated the sitting Prime Minister John Howard.  © Samh_78/Flickr
Labor Party candidate Maxine McKew with a fan. During the 2007 federal election campaign for the NSW seat of Bennelong at which she defeated the sitting Prime Minister John Howard. © Samh_78/Flickr

The event is part of “Australia’s Biggest Morning Tea” and alongside the refreshment tables are stalls weighed down with embroidered cushions, fitted sheets, homemade cakes and back issues of Australian Country Craft magazine, as well as plenty of unwanted kitsch from the neighbouring cul-de-sacs and avenues, such as an empty picture frame, as yet unpurchased, emblazoned with the words “Gold Coast”. A choir from Holy Cross College, a Catholic high school on the north-west fringes of Sydney, is singing ‘My Girl’, but, alas, the local member of parliament misses what could have been an ideal musical cue. Making her entrance a few minutes later, she catches the eye of the chirpy emcee, who has been moseying around the school hall with a roving microphone that occasionally unleashes bursts of ear-splitting feedback. “How good’s this lady?” he cries, as if ventriloquising the host of a talent contest, as Maxine McKew, the member for Bennelong, comes into view.

An affectionate type, she embraces a couple of familiar-looking locals and sits down for a quick natter with a group of elderly ladies before taking the microphone to a ripple of appreciative applause from the mainly grey-haired audience. As you would expect from a former television presenter – a recruit from that kingdom of prime ministerial mind known as “7.30 Report-land” – her delivery and stagecraft are near impeccable. In Bennelong, the morning tea is being held to raise funds for breast-cancer research, and McKew praises the women who have come dressed in pink and expresses hometown pride that ground-breaking cancer research is being carried out at Macquarie University, which lies within her constituency. “Think about that,” she says, in an ever-so-mumsy voice that seems geared to the age profile of her listeners, “an Australian breakthrough.” As McKew finishes and the applause starts to peter out, the emcee reclaims the microphone. “I know many of us [are] talking about Kevin Rudd, perhaps not really getting the popularity vote at the moment,” he says. Then comes his applause line: “What about Prime Minister Maxine McKew in years to come?”

Needless to say, the current member for Bennelong won the seat by vanquishing the prime minister in what became the great climactic contest of the 2007 election. Now her Liberal opponent is John Alexander, the well-known former tennis-pro; he has won seven singles and 28 doubles titles, but only one political contest: the fight for preselection in Bennelong. Before this he had lost out in the nearby Bradfield constituency, where he tried to succeed another former Liberal leader, Brendan Nelson.

Dressed in a grey pinstriped suit and what looks like a club tie, he too has turned up for the morning tea, though he seems a less enthusiastic participant. Whereas McKew works the room with Clinton-like gusto, Alexander seems unacquainted with the requirements of retail politics. He stays in a self-delineated comfort zone close to the entrance. Perhaps he is just naturally shy, or perhaps his demeanour is the result of a professional life spent signing autographs and having punters thrust themselves upon him. The emcee doesn’t offer much help in boosting Alexander’s political credentials. After asking a couple of perfunctory questions about the upcoming election, he tackles the more pressing issue at hand: How will Lleyton Hewitt go at Wimbledon?

The last community event I attended in Bennelong was the annual Granny Smith Festival, which was held exactly five Saturdays before the 2007 federal election and which brought together two local celebrities of pensionable age. The first, the nineteenth-century orchardist Maria Ann Smith, had an apple named after her. The second, the then local member for Bennelong, could boast an entire era. For John Howard this usually happy community event must have been an especially forbidding ordeal, because assembled below the viewing stand – which he shared with a human-sized apple – was a boisterous parade that must have looked like a cavalcade of angry ghosts.

There was a rowdy group of trade unionists brandishing specially manufactured placards inspired by the theme of the day: “Your Rights at Work: The Core Issue.” Then came a group of gay-rights activists, spinning rainbow-coloured umbrellas. Indigenous-rights campaigners held aloft the gold, black and red colours of the Aboriginal flag. A placard-waving member of the Greens protested the Howard government’s refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, and a local man, with a medal hanging from his chest, heckled the prime minister for sending Australian soldiers to Iraq. A local funeral director had helpfully dispatched two hearses to spruik his business, much to the delight of a flying wedge of television news camera-crews, who now scrambled to reframe their shots so as to capture the metaphoric image of the day.

Even those marchers who did not directly assail Howard confronted him with reminders of his troubles. The Chinese dragons swerving from one side of the road to the other must have brought to mind the ethnic changes that have occurred in this corner of suburban Sydney; so, too, did the Korean marching bands parading in strict formation. Bennelong was a mostly white-bread constituency for the 33 years Howard represented it, but nowadays its polyglot population makes it as colourful and multiracial as the procession that passed before him.

Off to Howard’s right, dancing exuberantly to the syncopated beat of a passing Dixieland jazz band, was the beneficiary of much of that anti-Howard sentiment: one Maxine McKew. Wearing a pristine “Kevin 07” T-shirt, she projected precisely the kind of freshness, vigour and energy thought to be lacking in the 68-year-old prime minister. Afterwards, she would be criticised by the Labor Party-machine for acting more like a campaign worker than a candidate but Bennelong was more with it than to have a problem with that. The following month, McKew became the first candidate since 1929 to oust an incumbent prime minister, which she celebrated with the now folkloric line: “… Bennelong will never, ever be taken for granted again.”

“That was the change campaign,” says the 56-year-old McKew today in an outdoor cafe in Eastwood, the shopping precinct that played host to the apple festival. “I suppose this is a campaign of consolidation. Certainly for me personally, the campaign last time was an overwhelmingly buoyant affair. Now this feels different. Obviously, if you have been in government for three years, you own the problems.”

Evidently, she plans to fight for re-election on the Rudd government’s record of economic accomplishment – “the Australian achievement there has been phenomenal,” she boasts. She openly admits, however, that there are some things “that are difficult for us in the Labor caucus”, and which have disappointed her constituents: the climb-down on the emissions trading scheme and the government’s tough stance on immigration, in particular. “I campaigned here on action on climate change, and that is still my position,” she says, distancing herself, slightly but noticeably, from Rudd. “I have had that conversation with the PM, and said, ‘Look, a lot of my constituents still want us to work towards this,’ but I can understand the position that he felt he was in.”

In Bennelong, immigration is an even more complicated issue than it is elsewhere, because many Asian–Australians are wary of new arrivals who they feel have short-circuited the visa application process. But did McKew ever think when she signed up as a candidate that a Labor government would suspend the processing of all new immigration claims from Afghan and Sri Lankan asylum seekers? She dodges the question by pointing out that she is happy Chris Evans is now the immigration minister and not Philip Ruddock. Pressed further, she notes that Malcolm Fraser has just quit the Liberal Party because of its hardline immigration policies. But again, isn’t it hard to imagine the former prime minister suspending asylum applications from two war-torn countries? She pauses, starts a sentence with “That may be—” but leaves it unfinished.

She then reverts to a defence of the government but it lacks her usual fluency. Recapitulating talking points from the 2007 campaign, she blames John Howard for ending the bipartisan consensus on immigration and for making it hard to conduct a “sensible, mature discussion”. This argument appears to be somewhat defeatist, I suggest. After all, the implication is that the Howard government reinforced conservative attitudes towards immigration that are now immutable. “I’m ready to march up the hill on this one,” she says. But would she like her leader at her side? “What is dramatically different is that Kevin has changed the tone in this country, and the mark of that was the apology to the Stolen Generations.”

Given she is making an argument for the power of an opinion-shifting speech, would she like Rudd to offer bolder moral leadership on immigration and the environment? “It’s not as if nothing is happening,” she argues. But again, she asserts her independence from the prime minister, presenting herself as the member for Bennelong rather than the parliamentary secretary for infrastructure, transport, regional development and local government. “We said we would take on climate change in 2007 and people still expect that and, you know, I campaigned on being a strong voice in Bennelong and I see my obligation to continue to say to the PM: This is how my community feels; we must still press on this.”

Though she does not appear to be as closely aligned with Kevin Rudd as she was back in 2007, she expressed public delight when he convened a community cabinet meeting at a local school in mid-April. “It doesn’t get much better than this,” she beamed as she introduced the prime minister. That autumn night, the issues raised by her Bennelong constituents ranged from Japanese comfort women to disability rights, and from local road upgrades to health reform. But there was evidence of a growing annoyance with the government. One person asked about the tough new policy directed at Tamil asylum seekers, a question the prime minister immediately handed over to his immigration minister in the manner of a tag-team wrestler who realises a much tougher opponent has just leapt over the ropes. Another man, who had actually attended the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen last December, declared himself to be “very disappointed over the lack of action by the Federal government” ever since. “Borderline hostile,” was how McKew summed up these questions.

In the months since that community cabinet meeting, more frustrations have risen to the surface – for many, the hostility is no longer borderline but forceful. Without prompting, many locals speak of the gap between Kevin Rudd’s promises as a candidate and his performance in office. “I don’t have a lot of faith in him at the moment,” says a local doctor who voted for Rudd in 2007. “A lot of backflips … so I’m not sure how much trust you would place in him.” One young Asian–Australian notes of Rudd’s action on the environment: “He promises us a couple of things, but then he doesn’t do them.” And a young mother – a fellow Queenslander – says that Rudd makes policy pronouncements but keeps on messing up; she no longer bothers listening.

Bennelong has now become a marginal seat for the ALP, which won with a majority of just 2434 votes. When he visited in March to open the new Liberal office, Tony Abbott described it as “probably as crucial as any seat in this coming election”. If they are to make a speedy return to power, Bennelong is a “must win” for the Liberals, so they have decided to fight star power with star power. The party’s candidate, Alexander, has the lean physique and tanned complexion you would expect of a former tennis-pro who was once ranked eighth in the world. But, most importantly, he has a familiar face that is soothing to suburbia. “I have a particular type of people who recognise me,” he says. “Probably aged over 60, and who watch a lot of tennis.”

Though his Liberal handlers turned down my requests for an interview, perhaps reflecting a concern within the party that he is still too much of a political neophyte, Alexander himself was more than happy to field questions. A long-time Channel Seven commentator at the Australian Open, he, like McKew, is comfortable in front of a microphone. “They are disillusioned,” he says of the voters of Bennelong. “They think the stimulus packages weren’t an intelligent spend … They are concerned about the waste … and the pink batts have been a catastrophe.” But the overarching issue, he claims, is debt. “They’re well aware that John Howard inherited over $96 billion in debt and it took over ten years to wipe that out,” he says. “The question is, can we afford another term of Labor government?”

As well as playing on concerns about the fiscal profligacy of the Rudd government, Alexander believes he can harness the backlash against the state Labor government. “There’s a very, very strong feeling that the state government has really been pathetic,” he says, a prevalent view in much of New South Wales. Significantly, the next state election will not be held until 2011, which will be after the federal election. Alexander also has no doubt that Tony Abbott is a prime asset. When the Liberal leader visited in March, Alexander observed, in almost startled admiration, the reaction from locals: “I don’t know how he does it. People were coming out of their shops, young women, young Chinese women. They see him as a superstar.” Authenticity is the key to Abbott’s suburban appeal, he reckons, epitomised by his involvement in the Rural Fire Service and the Surf Life Saving club; these things make him an Australian everyman. “Nothing was choreographed,” he adds.

Particularly striking in Bennelong in 2007 was the mood of anti-incumbency. Touring the constituency in the months leading up to the election, I lost count of the number of voters who started a sentence with the words “I used to vote for John Howard, but …”, and who finished it by expressing their discontent over Kyoto, WorkChoices or Iraq. Equally common was the view that, at 68 years old and after 11 years in office, the prime minister had “done his dash”, as one longtime Liberal voter rather memorably put it. Talking to locals this time around, the mood appears very different: disgruntlement with Rudd has not yet translated into support for Abbott, nor a definite feeling that Rudd has outlived his usefulness. Though it is easy to find voters who feel let down by Labor, it is harder to find people who assert they voted for Rudd in 2007 but have decided already they will desert him in 2010. Instead, many appear prepared to abide by the unwritten rules of Australia’s fairness doctrine, which decrees that a first-term prime minister deserves a second term in the Lodge. “He deserves another chance, I guess,” said one young voter, disappointed by the backflip on the ETS but not prepared to vote Liberal.

It is early on Sunday morning, and Maxine McKew is knocking on doors in Ryde to raise money for the Salvation Army’s Red Shield Appeal. Located on the northern bank of the Parramatta River, this is one of the more affluent enclaves of her constituency, and many of its suburban mansions were surely intended as a personal affront to the architect Robin Boyd. Among the stylistic misdemeanours on display are faux-Victorian lampposts, Greco-style water features and, on one property, a Georgian portico supported by two white columns and embellished with a fake coat of arms. At a by-election for the state seat in 2008, this part of Ryde shifted emphatically from Labor to Liberal, with a pendulous swing of 23.1%. So technically this should be Liberal turf, but the reaction to McKew – “they know me as Maxine,” she says – is unfailingly polite and usually extremely warm. A man dressed in a Ferrari jersey, who has just emerged from one of the bigger mansions on the street, hands her a crisp 50-dollar note. “If I don’t trust you,” he says, when she offers him a receipt, “I don’t trust anyone.”

On Wednesday and Sunday afternoons for six months of the year, McKew tours her constituency having a “conversation with the community”, and has built up something of a personal following. Evidently, she is running well ahead of her leader in Bennelong. Her faith probably helps, for Bennelong harbours an unusually large proportion of fellow Catholics – almost 30% of the electorate – and possibly so does the fact that her elderly stepmother, who is in her late eighties, has made 11 pilgrimages to Penola in South Australia where Sister Mary MacKillop built a country school. “See, she [Australia’s first saint] was into the BER over a century ago,” says McKew in reference to the Building the Education Revolution policy. Clearly, she is joking but I cannot decipher whether the reference to the BER is a loyal iteration of Ruddspeak or part of the parody. No doubt it’s useful right now to create that sense of political ambiguity in what remains a knife-edge marginal. It helps to convey the impression, real or imagined, that she is not a fully fledged Ruddite, and has reservations of her own.

Later, when the door-to-door collecting is finished, I ask her to list her political heroes, suspecting that some might come from the US, given that she was once the ABC’s Washington correspondent and her campaigning style would not be entirely out of place in, say, Iowa or New Hampshire. Yet she starts with the Australian suffragette Jessie Street, before moving on to the postwar Labor prime ministers “Gough, Hawke, Keating”. Noting that her list did not include the present Labor leader, I ask whether she thinks Kevin Rudd has done anything heroic. His “finest hour”, she says, was the apology, and she claims his economic stewardship in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis fitted that description. But surely battling to stave off recession and delivering an apology that most Australians considered long overdue can hardly be described as a profile of courage?

“Quiet heroism,” she says, modifying her earlier answer.

But is not political heroism about standing up for unpopular causes? The question is followed by a slice of silence. Again, fluency has deserted her and there is no formulation to fall back upon. Ultimately, she reframes the question: “Is it a time for heroics or is it a time for calm, cool, you know, management, and management that is working?” Even disregarding its questionable veracity, this is hardly a catchy response.

Despite being prone to parrot her leader, McKew has better communication skills than all but a few of her colleagues. “I talk in stories,” she says. Still, she has been only a peripheral figure during the first term of the Rudd government. In the aftermath of her lofty victory in Bennelong, colleagues pushed her to demand a more prominent role but her immediate ambitions were more modest. “I’ve been happy to pay my dues, serve an apprenticeship,” she says. But given the government’s myriad problems, and its over-reliance on acronyms, faux colloquialisms and unmoving set-piece speeches, could her skills in presentation have been better deployed? Once again, her answer veers towards rebelliousness. “We have a good story to tell, and I don’t think we always tell it with sufficient richness or gusto.” At the last federal election, Maxine McKew achieved a Kevin 07-assisted victory. This time, she is much more self-sufficient. And, while there is a rhetorical succinctness to her formulation about “consolidation” rather than “change”, it is more a case of having once benefited from the unpopularity of a sitting prime minister, and now being hampered by the same. Perhaps there was a visual clue at Australia’s Biggest Morning Tea: the discarded souvenir from the Gold Coast. In this corner of Sydney, exports from Queensland are no longer in vogue – at least, not when they are a frame without a picture.

Nick Bryant

Nick Bryant is a broadcaster and writer, who has just returned to Australia after covering the Trump years for the BBC. His latest book is When America Stopped Being Great: A History of the Present.


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