One of the most memorable results in Australian electoral history was John Howard’s defeat in the seat he had held for 33 years when his government was evicted from office in 2007. However, the seat returned to old habits when the tide went out on Labor in Sydney three years later.
Bennelong covers the northern shore of Sydney’s Parramatta River from Gladesville west to Ermington, extending north through Denistone and Ryde to Epping. While the Ryde area has leaned to Labor in the post-war era, riverside suburbs to the south and east have helped keep the seat in Liberal hands for all but one term since its creation in 1949. The memorable exception came with the 2007 election when John Howard, who had succeeded inaugural member Sir John Cramer in 1974, became only the second serving Australian Prime Minister to lose his seat. The first such occasion was in 1929, when Stanley Melbourne Bruce lost the Victorian seat of Flinders upon the election of Jim Scullin’s Labor government – which, it was widely noted, also formed part of an electoral debacle resulting from unpopular industrial relations laws. However, Labor member Maxine McKew’s hold on the seat would prove to be short-lived, with tennis identity John Alexander unseating her at the 2010 election.
Howard’s 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. The Asian communities are most heavily concentrated around Epping, Marsfield and Eastwood, the latter being a focal point of the Korean community. 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. Labor research had reportedly indicated that while the electorate’s Asian voters in fact leaned slightly to the Liberals, the Anglo voters they replaced had tended to do so by a ratio of two to one.
Talk of a Howard defeat in Bennelong 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 and future Denison independent 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% primary vote left him well clear of any trouble, but the two-party margin was shaved from 7.8% to 4.3%. Redistribution shaved off a further 0.3% going into the 2007 election, at which a 5.5% swing to Labor delivered the coup de grace.
The beneficiary was veteran ABC political journalist Maxine McKew, who had first been mentioned as a potential Labor MP when party heavyweights proposed accommodating her in Fowler at the 2001 election by moving its sitting member Julia Irwin to the state upper house. 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. McKew was promptly promoted to parliamentary secretary, and emerged throughout her term in parliament as a steadfast ally of Kevin Rudd. She developed a correspondingly frosty relationship with Julia Gillard, of whom she was highly critical in a book published in 2012.
The electoral threat posed to her by Labor’s mounting unpopularity in New South Wales was well apparent during the 2010 election campaign, inspiring an attempt to shore up her position through $2.1 billion of promised funding for a 14 kilometre rail link between Parramatta and Epping, to serve the north-western corner of Bennelong and fill a missing link in the network between Sydney’s west and north. However, this received a largely cynical response on account of the state Labor government’s failure to deliver on similar commitments in the past. McKew went on to suffer a swing of 4.5% swing, easily enough to account for 1.4% margin. Despite much talk of Kevin Rudd’s popularity among Asian voters powering both the 2007 swing and the 2010 backlash, the swings on both occasions were evenly distributed throughout the electorate, and well in line with the broader Sydney pattern.
Bennelong has since been held for the Liberals by John Alexander, a former Davis Cup player and Channel Seven tennis commentator who won preselection with support from factional moderates. His Labor opponent at the coming election is Jason Yat-Sen Li, a businessman and high-profile figure in the Chinese community. In 1998 he ran as the lead Senate candidate of the Unity party, which was established to counter the rise of Pauline Hanson. Kevin Rudd has twice visited the seat so far during the campaign, in the evident hope that his popularity among Asian voters will lead to a boilover. During the first of these visits he promised to make Korean a priority language for the national curriculum.
If a ReachTEL automated phone poll of approximately 600 respondents conducted last week is even remotely accurate, it will be of no avail. The poll found Alexander leading Yat-Sen Li by a hard-to-credit 65-35 on two-party preferred.