The Labor Party has decided that its secret weapon in John Howard’s increasingly contestable seat of Bennelong is Maxine McKew. It couldn’t have chosen a better candidate to attack the Prime Minster. After all, McKew has had years of experience doing exactly that at “our” ABC.
Indeed, the national broadcaster has certainly been a more reliable critic than the Labor Party, a fact Kevin Rudd now seems to appreciate. Even after having apparently stacked the ABC board with conservatives, the public broadcaster remains more effective at landing body blows on a conservative government than the ALP has been for most of Howard’s tenure. But it wouldn’t pay to get too excited about McKew.
Bennelong, which the Prime Minister has held since 1974, is demanding more attention. Howard has won the seat in 13 straight elections but his margin has been steadily declining. Since the Coalition’s victory in 1996, it has dropped from 10.1 percentage points to 4.3. The redistribution that moved Bennelong further into Sydney’s western suburbs has merely sped up the decay in support.
Bennelong is also supposedly peppered with “doctors’ wives”, a group of voters whose concerns align perfectly with the concerns aired nightly on Lateline. If they dominate the electorate as much as the ALP thinks they do, then merely writing “ABC journalist” on her resume should give McKew a landslide victory.
But presumably some of the people who have returned Howard for more than a dozen elections still live in Bennelong. And the recent migrants to move into Howard’s electorate may be more sympathetic to Labor than the Liberals, but they may also be more concerned with maintaining strong economic growth and employment than levels of arts funding.
So where is the evidence that McKew is a political genius who can topple one of the toughest political figures in Australian history?
The art of journalism does not necessarily translate well into the art of politics. Success on the television screen does not imply success pressing palms and hugging babies. But even as a media commentator her political judgment leaves a lot to be desired. This is, after all, the person who said in the days leading up to the 2004 election: “Yesterday [the day after then Labor leader Mark Latham’s launch of Medicare Gold] for the first time I got a real sense of the inevitability of the Latham ascension … Yesterday, I saw someone who, if he does not make it on October 9 [the date of the federal election] — and I think he may — he will make it. And he might make it within six months: it may not be a three-year full term that he has to wait … I think Latham’s time could be coming quite soon.”
The financial recklessness of Medicare Gold stood in opposition to everything Latham had stood for as an independent-thinking backbencher. The ALP was punished with one of its greatest electoral defeats.
Right now, McKew’s appeal to the voters of Bennelong is largely theoretical. She may warm the hearts of the latte Left, but since Paul Keating hired author Don Watson as his speechwriter, this has not necessarily been sound political strategy.
And rule No.1 of Australian politics is that one should never write off Howard. Giving him the kiss of death always amounts to mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. In 2004, despite McKew’s confidence, Latham only strengthened the PM’s lead. In 2001, despite Kim Beazley’s seemingly strong position, Howard easily held government. In retrospect, it looks easy. Howard has won more “certain losses” than any other Australian politician. McKew needs more than her Lateline and The 7.30 Report credentials to unseat him.
This cannot help but reflect poorly on the ABC. One moment McKew is an impartial, objective journalist with no political interest except the truth, and the next moment she is a hungry political campaigner, determined to unseat the head of the government.
ABC host Virginia Trioli refuses to vote at elections. McKew has only just joined the ALP. Although ABC journalists may make these symbolic gestures to assure the tax-paying public that they maintain a balanced objectivity, history suggests otherwise. Barrie Cassidy, Kerry O’Brien, Mark Bannerman, Greg Turnbull, Alan Carpenter, Claire Martin, Mary Delahunty and Bob Carr, among others, have moved from the ABC to the Labor Party, probably to the benefit of both. Indeed, on ABC radio Sydney yesterday morning, former Greens candidate for Bennelong Andrew Wilkie may have jumped the gun when he said that “it’s great that Virginia [Trioli] is taking on Howard”. A slip of the tongue or a future Labor masterstroke?
The list of ABC journalists migrating into the Liberal Party is not nearly as illustrious. Peter Collins, a former NSW Liberal leader, and Pru Goward, candidate at next month’s NSW election, cut lonely figures against their former colleagues across the chamber.
The ALP is learning from its mistakes. What use is a celebrity candidate if they don’t contest the election? After parachuting Peter Garrett into the safe seat of Kingsford Smith with a whirlwind of publicity, he largely disappeared during the campaign. But putting McKew up against the seemingly impenetrable Howard, the ALP is signalling its confidence in McKew, and the Labor branches will respect her for it.
Perhaps this will translate into a stronger local campaign by the ALP; it needs any strength it can get.
Howard said yesterday that the McKew challenge will only provoke him to work harder in Bennelong. “When I get news like this it only steels my resolve to work even harder for the people I have had the privilege of representing for the last 30 years.”
Only a fool would think otherwise.