Ghosts of Howard walking the streets of Bennelong
It normally takes about two hours to get a sense of which way an electorate is going to vote. In Bennelong, the site of John Howard’s humiliation in 2007 where he became only the second prime minister to lose both his seat and the election, the longer you spend talking to voters, the more confused you become.
On paper, Bennelong should be an electorate which represented the peak of Labor’s 2007 landslide, which with a 1.4 per cent margin should revert to the Liberals in 2010.
That is not the case. The giant-killing former ABC journalist and 7.30 Report host Maxine McKew might have won by just 2400 votes, but there are signs this middle-class seat in Sydney’s inner north-west might be easier for Labor to defend than some blue-collar electorates.
The NSW Liberals got off to a solid start in the seat, installing David Cup tennis champion John Alexander as a candidate back in February, in contrast to other winnable seats where candidates were only chosen this month.
But Alexander’s head start in no way ensures the Liberals will simply regain this seat where, without getting too Raymond Chandler about things, the ghost of John Howard is in evidence.
Howard’s legacy is both a massive positive and a huge negative in the seat he held from 1974 to 2007.
Conservative voters talk wistfully about his economic credentials, marvelling at the speed with which Labor trashed his surplus.
Progressive voters talk with disdain about his heartlessness on industrial relations and his neglect of public education.
In shorthand, they’re the dominant policy issues of this campaign. But in a day’s conversation with voters at the North Ryde shops this week, the seat is also throwing up some counter-intuitive trends which make it difficult to read.
NOT one person raised the Building the Education Revolution spending as a negative, with women in particular enthusing that the projects had been well-received by school communities.
WHILE many women said that they were thrilled Australia finally had a female PM, but they all stressed they would not be voting for Julia Gillard purely because she was a woman. Conversely, some men cited Gillard’s gender in arguing that she wasn’t up to the task, and did not like the way she had knifed Kevin Rudd.
DESPITE being ridiculed by her opponents as “Maxine McWho”, McKew seems not only well-recognised but well-liked in the seat, with few voters knowing that Alexander was the Liberal candidate.
If McKew is standing at a crossroads, she’d better hope that it’s not the one on Coxs Rd, North Ryde, where for the past 11 years Charles the 88-year-old German-born lollipop man has been helping kids cross the street.
Maxine doesn’t do anything for me. See that pedestrian crossing here? It’s because of John Howard. I got no answer from the state member, no answer from the RTA, and in the end I wrote to John Howard. It was three weeks before the last federal election and he got it done. He lost the seat but after the election work started on the crossing. It might have been the last thing he did as prime minister. I really don’t care who wins, Abbott or Gillard. But I care for my grandchildren and for me the issue is what Labor has done to the economy. To see them waste and squander John Howard’s legacy so quickly breaks my heart. We will be paying off that debt for generations.
The flipside of Charles’ criticisms of Labor’s economic management and stimulus spending comes from voters such as Peter Jelly, a 50-year-old transport executive on the M2 motorway.
If the Liberals had have got back in last time nothing would have changed. They would not have done anything differently from what Labor did. They would have had to stimulate the economy. It wouldn’t have mattered if it was Rudd or Howard.
Or this, from young mum Leanna Ralla, who works in a gymnasium crèche:
Maxine McKew has done a good job on education. Our daughter has got her photo with her in the pamphlets they’ve been sending out. Julia Gillard was out here when they were improving the school.
McKew told The Daily Telegraph that she had taken a close personal interest in the rollout of stimulus projects at schools such as North Ryde Public.
We’ve really micro-managed this from my office. Whenever we have had a principal; or the P&C say wlook we’ve got trouble here, we want the library over there not where our favourite tree is, we have actually intervened. It’s my view of the job – do your homework, find a solution, work with all the parties to get it done.
This is highly contestable territory. There were 2400 votes in this last time. But I do feel that the issues that the issues that are working extremely well for us are health, education and jobs. One of the great achievements of stimulus is that it’s kept the nation working. There’s no more important thing for any government, particularly a Labor government, than to keep people in work. We’ve got 5.1 per cent national unemployment but in this part of Sydney it’s about 4 per cent. I say that Bennelong is working and it’s working because of the stimulus.
McKew says that the best definition of the seat of Bennelong comes from Paul Toohey who described it as seat that is held by Labor, but does not necessarily feel like a Labor seat.
She says it comes through in the laidback approach most voters have to the often explosive question of asylum-seekers, and there higher-than-average sense of political interest and engagement, which she concedes may have become a negative when Kevin Rudd was knifed.
People here do pay a lot of attention to the news, they have a highly developed political consciousness. People will stop and they will talk about policy in some detail. Getting back to Kevin, clearly they paid a lot of attention to that, and it was a jolt. I mean, this has not happened before. So I’m not surprised that you would have heard about that. But I would have to say that in terms of email traffic or people raising it with me, it’s clearly not what it was. Coupled with that, it may be the case that people say “this caused us some concern”, but they equally look at the quality of the Labor leadership, particularly female voters, and say they are impressed with Julia.
John Alexander regards the Rudd-Gillard handover as a bit of a side issue from the main game – which he cites as their combined management of the national economy.
Alexander is trying to identify local issues, such as congestion and the neglect of infrastructure, and tie them to what he describes as Labor’s reckless spending on the stimulating the economy with flawed projects.
One example he gives is the West Ryde social housing project, funded by Canberra as part of the stimulus package, which came in at a cost of some $7000 per square metre, when the industry average is less than half that price.
The infrastructure here cannot cope. Ryde Road, Victoria Road, Epping Road – the optimist says it’s cheap parking and the pessimist says it’s not moving. What’s wrong with Ausrtralia is that the population growth has got ahead of infrastructure. As Tony Abbott says we want to take in as many people as we can but we must be able to provide housing, health services, education, infrastructure, all of the things that people require. By taking in too many people you can’t do it in a way that harms the people of Australia.
There’s great concern over the mismanagement of the economy across the seat. If you look at the Chinese community, they are great entrepreneurs and small business people and their culture is to be very wary of borrowing their way out of debt. On the BER, people superficially look at their school and say this is great. But when you scratch the surface to find out how much did this building cost per square metre or how much did this toilet block cost per square metre, it goes to their economic credibility.
If Bennelong is now a bellwether seat, it’s an infuriating one. In the course of my day, it was as if the voters were taking turns to laud or denounce the Federal Government over its stimulus strategy.
But the one constant, and it’s a depressing one, is that Bennelong is united in declaring its disappointment with the performance of both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott. Visiting the seat on the Monday after the so-called great debate, which most of the voters I met had watched, not one was impressed by what they saw.
Aged pensioner Elaine Campbell says she’s voting Labor purely because she believes the work in schools was long overdue. But she can have the last word today, as it sums up the mood in an electorate which expects from the nation’s political leadership.
I don’t think either Labor or the Liberals are doing a very good job but I would have to take Labor against Tony Abbott. The debate was very boring, I wasn’t impressed, there was nothing in it that told us what they were going to do. And I didn’t think it was very nice the way Labor got rid of Kevin Rudd, he was failing, but I think that maybe they could have done it a different way. But for me, I think it is good that they finally put some money into the local schools and did their bit for jobs and for the schoolchildren. But that’s really all. I’m not really that taken with either side.
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