John Howard smiles out of posters all around Bennelong, the Sydney seat he has represented for nearly 34 years. But the man himself is nowhere to be seen. The Australian Prime Minister is criss-crossing the country, trying not to lose the impending general election on 24 November.
In the past, Mr Howard has not had to worry too much about campaigning in his own seat. Bennelong, on Sydney's north shore, was a blue-ribbon constituency, solidly Liberal. (For Liberal read Conservative in Australia.) But boundary changes have made it a marginal. And the Prime Minister has a formidable challenger, in the shape of Maxine McKew, a former high-profile television presenter.
The personable and highly respected Ms McKew resigned from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation last year, and a few weeks later went to work for Kevin Rudd, the new leader of the Labour Party. Before long, she was being touted as a possible election candidate. Then came the bombshell: Labour's star recruit would be taking on Mr Howard on his home ground.
At first glance, it seemed madness. After all Mr Howard, a 68-year-old former suburban lawyer, has triumphed in 13 straight elections in Bennelong. He has held it, as one television commentator pointed out, since Australia had black-and-white television. But, thanks to the boundary changes, it now embraces blue-collar, Labour neighbourhoods. Ms McKew, 54, needs a swing of only 4 per cent to win.
Opinion polls consistently suggest that the Liberal-National Party Coalition government, which has ruled Australia for 11 years, will be ousted when voters go to the polls on 24 November. For Mr Howard, that would be bad enough. But if he lost his seat, he would be the first prime minister to suffer such an ignominy since Stanley Melbourne Bruce in 1929, and only the second in Australian history.
That would be truly humiliating, and not the way that Mr Howard – Australia's second longest-serving prime minister and currently the most successful conservative leader in the West – wants to go down in the history books. However, the polls suggest that the contest in Bennelong is extremely close, and that Ms McKew has more than a fighting chance.
While Mr Howard has the advantage of long incumbency, Ms McKew has celebrity appeal. She worked for the ABC (Australia's public broadcaster) for 30 years, most recently presenting the flagship current affairs programmes, Lateline and The 7.30 Report. A person of natural charm, friendly and articulate, she was one of the most familiar faces on television, well liked by viewers as well as her peers. Unlike her opponent, she can spend every day door-knocking and pressing the flesh. Mr Howard – on a punishing national campaign schedule – generally only returns to his constituency at weekends. The dual pressure is telling on him. He looks tired, and is uncharacteristically irritable.
Last Saturday, Liberal and Labour volunteers installed themselves feet away from each other in the main shopping street of Epping, in one of Bennelong's sprawling suburbs. Glowering at each other, they jostled to hand out leaflets to people emerging from Coles, the local supermarket. The Liberal volunteers wore navy T-shirts with the words "Supporting our Prime Minister" written on the back. Their Labour counterparts wore purple T-shirts stating "A strong voice for Bennelong". When Ms McKew herself turned up shortly after 10am, she was greeted like a film star, with passers-by queuing to shake her hand. She remains cautious about her prospects, telling The Independent it would be "exceptionally difficult" to unseat the Prime Minister.
A newcomer to the electorate, she is campaigning mainly on national issues: the appeal of Mr Rudd's "new leadership", and Labour's pledge to scrap highly unpopular industrial relations reforms – an issue that Ms McKew calls "John Howard's poll tax". She told The Independent: "This cuts across people's working conditions, and the concept of the 'fair go', which is one of the things we prize in this country.
"Mr Howard has been the member here for 34 years. He knows this community, and I find it bewildering that he doesn't understand the hurt that this piece of legislation is causing."
Although a political novice, Ms McKew is learning fast. In Epping, she nimbly stepped aside on realising that she was standing in front of a poster of Mr Howard, with television cameras trained on her. Accosted by a bolshie swinging voter who expressed scepticsm about Labour standing by its campaign pledges, she told him: "Kevin [Rudd] will implement all of his promises. I know him, and he's a decent man. He is a man of his word."
While Epping is fairly well-heeled, neighbouring Eastwood is a lower-income area. But it is not just the traditional Labour voters that the Prime Minister has to fear. Bennelong is no longer the monocultural seat that he won in 1974. One in four of its residents was born in a non-English speaking country.
Many of those people are Asian, from China or Korea. And many Asians have not forgiven Mr Howard for a speech he made in 1988 calling for Asian immigration to Australia to be "slowed down" – nor for his failure in the late 1990s to condemn the xenophobic policies of Pauline Hanson, leader of the short-lived One Nation Party.
On the streets of Epping, Chinese-born Geoffrey Lee, a Labour volunteer, addressed passers-by in Cantonese, urging them: "Vote for Maxine McKew, it's good for the Asian people." Mr Lee said that for 30 years he was the sole Asian member of his Labour branch. "But this year you can't believe it; there are that many Asians helping us to hand out leaflets and balloons." He added: "John Howard divides the community. He uses Asians as a political football."
Hong Kong-born Samson Kwang is planning to vote Labour. "I like Maxine. I'm her fan. I watch her programme," he said.
"I don't think John Howard has spent much time here until recently. Maxine would be more of a good local MP.
"In Bennelong there are all nations, all cultures, and you need someone like her who can understand local needs." Mr Howard, of course, has a big advantage over Ms McKew. As Prime Minister, he can make promises to his own voters and back them with cash. Last week he pledged more than $3m (£1.3m) for Bennelong, to be spent on refurbishing a community centre and installing 50 closed-circuit cameras to combat crime.
No matter that neither of these things would normally be funded by the federal government. Citing a recent shooting, and also the stabbing of a 17-year-old boy, as evidence of a local crime problem, Mr Howard said that the (Labour) state government had failed to ensure community safety.
Ms McKew admitted that she could not give voters new cameras, or anything else. "What I offer is a better future with Kevin Rudd, investing in hospitals and education, and addressing climate change," she said, fully on message.
"Mr Howard is offering a series of desperate 11th-hour promises to save his skin, nothing to do with the future of this nation."
The Prime Minister is throwing billions of dollars at the national campaign – $64.1bn so far, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. Not a day goes by without more election windfalls being announced. The most recent round included tax rebates for the parents of all school-age children, money for new childcare centres and tax-free savings accounts for first-time home buyers.
Yet the opinion polls stubbornly refuse to improve in the Coalition's direction. The most recent poll, published in The Australian on Monday, gives Labour a 10-per cent lead over the Coalition, under the country's complicated "preferential" electoral system. Mr Rudd also leads as the preferred prime minister, on 48 per cent, compared with 40 per cent for Mr Howard.
The government's fortunes have not been helped by an interest rate rise last week – the sixth since the election of 2004, which Mr Howard won after promising to keep rates low.
Mr Rudd says he will boost spending on health and education, but calls himself an economic conservative. His economic policies are almost identical to the Coalition's. So desperate is Mr Howard that he is even resorting to the race card. A Liberal campaign leaflet paints a bleak picture of life under Mr Rudd, warning voters that if Labour wins the election, "there will be nothing to stop a softening of our immigration laws". It prompted one Sydney voter to complain to Liberal Party headquarters yesterday, that she was "absolutely sickened to receive this racist literature in my mailbox".
To oust the Coalition, Labour needs to win 16 seats nationally – a daunting proposition. If it takes Bennelong, it is almost certain to win government.
Mr Howard may discover that the writing is on the wall and he and his wife, Jeanette, could soon find themselves moving from the prime minister's official Sydney residence at Kirribilli House back to the family home he has been renovating in Wollstonecraft, north Sydney.
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