A most mar­ginal bat­tle

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Rear View - IMRE SALUSIN­SZKY

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.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jon Kudelka

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