A most marginal battle
LIFE, in contrast to literature, rarely offers us neat beginnings, middles or endings. Our language tends to confuse the issue: a car accident in which a family is killed is a terrible event, but despite what we say it is not literally a tragedy.
Nor is it unusual to find commentators and historians trying to fit literary or mythic templates on to real events as a kind of explanatory tool, the most famous modern case being the analogies drawn between Shakespeare ’ s Richard II and the final days of former US president Richard Nixon.
Margot Saville waits until the last pages of The Battle for Bennelong
— her brisk and readable quickie on Maxine McKew ’s campaign to oust John Howard from his northern Sydney seat — before revealing the archetypal template she has applied to her subject.
Maxine versus the PM. It ’s a story that ’s ‘‘ been played out before: David and Goliath, the tortoise and the hare, Don Quixote and the windmill.
In Banjo Paterson ’ s The Man from Snowy ‘‘ River
, the small, weedy mountain horse outrides the thoroughbreds to get down the mountain and catch the colt. When Maxine nominated for Bennelong, she became the ultimate underdog. While many wanted her to win, few thought she had a chance. ’’
These are legitimate literary and mythic parallels, but loaded ones. Others are possible. In the story of McKew stalking Howard on home turf, while he must try and rescue the entire government, is there not a hint of the western tale about the old gunfighter, shot in the back by the kid trying to make a name for himself? Or what about
The Hustler , the 1961 movie starring Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason? Doesn ’ t Bennelong also suggest a story about an ageing champion who, against great odds and with considerable dignity, almost manages to keep a brash young challenger at bay?
Saville ’ s choice of a David v Goliath archetype is justified by her claim: While many wanted
‘‘ ( McKew) to win, few thought she had a chance. ’’ Yes and no. As Saville concedes, election analyst Malcolm Mackerras was predicting that the Coalition would lose government, and Howard his seat, long before Labor came up with its star candidate. And if Mackerras ’s view is to be challenged on the basis he sees it as his role to make big calls, I can testify, as one of the reporters who covered Bennelong for
The Weekend Australian
, that Labor insiders always believed the seat was winnable, and especially so from the moment McKew nominated.
The truth is that, while Howard did not change his spots much during the 33 years he represented Bennelong, Bennelong did. As Saville explains, a series of redistributions pushed the seat westward into Labor territory, while — more significantly — the demographics of Bennelong were transformed by migration.
Saville rehearses the statistics, but they have been canvassed many times. By 2001, almost one- fifth of Bennelong residents were Asianborn. More than 40 per cent of them speak a language other than English at home, which is more than twice the national average. The new Australians of Bennelong are not anti- Howard, but the point is they are not glued- on Liberals, unlike the WASPs they replaced.
The truth about Bennelong, endlessly reiterated by Howard himself, is that it has been a marginal seat for a long time. Indeed, it could be argued that, for at least the past two elections, it has been a natural Labor seat, held on to by the Coalition simply on the back of Howard ’s prestige as prime minister. As McKew told me immediately after the election, and as she repeats in Saville ’ s book, her view is that Howard relinquished his trump card the moment he announced he would be leaving the Lodge during a fifth term of office, should he achieve one.
Factor in that, before Howard, no prime minister in Australian history has contested a seat as marginal as Bennelong, and you could almost accept Saville ’ s David and Goliath analogy, but reverse the roles. At any point of the past 20 years, Howard could easily have traded in Bennelong for another Coalition seat, such as ultra- safe Mitchell to the north, occupied from 1974 to 2007 by that notorious spare wheel, Alan Cadman. However, the fact he did not do so is not entirely explained by noblesse oblige. Like much else in our recent political history, it is partly explained by the leadership struggle in the former government: after portraying himself as a sure electoral winner in contrast to Peter Costello, Howard could hardly throw in the towel in Bennelong.
And let ’ s say it: McKew was an outstanding candidate who ran an outstanding campaign. For all the lead in his saddlebags, the PM would likely have wiped the floor with anyone else. The decision by McKew and her genial partner, former Labor national secretary Bob Hogg, to take on Bennelong rather than run in the proffered safe seat was audacious. Free of factional debts and nobody ’s footsoldier, McKew is poised to become a leading figure within the Government.
They say journalism is the first draft of history, and
The Battle for Bennelong, published within a month of the election, is a second draft at best. It pretends to be little more than a campaign diary by someone who stuck close to McKew throughout, and it is useful as such. Saville is an old mate of McKew, and her bias is evident in everything from the cover photo, showing a grumpy Howard surrounded by 13 beaming McKews, to the final page, on which Saville says Bennelong voters got it right on November 24. ( Isn ’t the point about democracy that they always get it right?) But at least the bias is openly acknowledged.
Saville displays a wicked sense of humour; I only wish she had let it out of its cage a little more. She compares herself a couple of times with Hunter S. Thompson, pointing out wittily that while he spent the 1972 US presidential campaign on acid, she spent the struggle for Bennelong on antacid.
But the point about Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail is that, however strung out and crazed Thompson became, he was strung out and crazed at the epicentre of epochal events.
The struggle for an Australian parliamentary seat, even Bennelong, is mainly a humdrum affair of doorknocking and church fetes and visits to nursing homes. In the absence of either Hogg or Janette Howard getting caught distributing bogus Muslim propaganda, it needed just a touch more stylistic oomph than Saville was prepared to give.