The battle for Bennelong


There was simply too much at stake in this byelection, much of which had nothing to do with the poor old voters of Bennelong.

This was never going to be a normal byelection - there was simply too much at stake, much of which had nothing to do with the poor old voters of Bennelong.


Still, few could have predicted how bitter or broad the political proxy war being fought on their suburban streets over the past weeks would become.

When John Alexander executed a dignified fall on his sword on November 11 over questions about his citizenship, the Opposition smelled blood. Most of the other victims of the section 44 prohibition on dual citizens holding seats in federal parliament had been members of the senate. But JA was in the lower house and if Labor could take the seat it could break the government's tiny majority. Labor and the crossbench could begin referring Coalition MPs off to the High Court over citizenship questions at will.

For Bill Shorten's Labor it would be a staggering political victory.

Similarly, such a loss would not only be crippling for the Coalition, but a personal catastrophe for Malcolm Turnbull. All year his leadership had been harried by the bitter right of his own party, but since the success of the same-sex marriage vote and the rapid carriage of laws accompanying the result, he looked set to end the year on a rare political high. A loss would see him dumped back in the trenches, fending off questions about his leadership.

For Labor's candidate, Kristina Keneally, there was a chance at redemption.

As NSW premier Keneally had led her state Labor party to a dismal defeat in 2011, losing 28 seats in a 16.4 per cent swing. To be fair, she had been handed the premiership during that period in Australian politics when the blokes tended to hog the ball until the game was lost, then pass it to the nearest woman standing a few seconds before the whistle blew. But still, the loss must have hurt and, in the years since, she had rehabilitated herself as an insightful political commentator and columnist.

And then there is the Chinese question.

In September last year one of Labor's rising stars, Senator Sam Dastyari, had been stripped of his shadow frontbench responsibilities when it was revealed that he had solicited donations from businessmen with links to the Chinese government, only to echo Chinese government views in contradiction to his own party's foreign policy positions.

Dastyari was well on the way to re-establishing himself as a political force when the scandal blew up again in the midst of the byelection. On November 29, a recording was published of Dastyari speaking alongside one of those businessmen, Huang Xiangmo, in June 2016. In it he can be heard declaring "that Chinese integrity of its borders is a matter for China", again in contradiction of Labor's position on territorial disputes in the South China Sea. It was also revealed he had tried to convince his colleague Tanya Plibersek from meeting a Chinese dissident during a visit to Hong Kong.

The government pounced, introducing laws to curtail undue foreign influence in Australia and describing Dastyari as nothing short of a Chinese double agent.

The issue has particular resonance in the seat of Bennelong, which has the highest proportion of Chinese-Australian voters in the country.

With all these factors in play, the battle for Bennelong has been fought more intensely than any other election voters who spoke to Fairfax Media could remember.

Most indicators suggest that Alexander will hold on to his seat, and that is the view being quietly expressed by many in both parties in the last hours of the campaign.

Not as safe as it seems

John Alexander with former prime minister John Howard.

John Alexander with former prime minister John Howard. Photo: Louise Kennerley

Bennelong has a reputation for being the safe seat from which John Howard built a stable government, but it has been a long time since it was quite as safe as the Liberal giant made it seem.

As far back as 1993, Labor's Monique Rotik gave Howard a scare, though in later years he established his dominance. Finally in 2007, when the broader electorate had determined that it had tired of the Howard government, Maxine McKew managed to take the seat for Labor. By then though, the seat had been moved west, losing Liberal strongholds like Hunters Hill.

The Chinese-Australian community in its borders had grown too. Many of its members were offended when Howard chose to defend freedom of speech rather than them after Pauline Hanson declared that Australia was at risk of being "swamped by Asians". The 2016 census shows that 21 per cent of Bennelong residents have Chinese ancestry, and 13.3 per cent were born in China.

Three years later, John Alexander took the seat back for the Liberals, and he has proved a popular local member, winning swings towards him ever since.

"I have no view of either of the parties," the president of the Eastwood Chinese Senior Citizens Group, Hughe Lee, told Fairfax Media this week, "but I have faith in John Alexander."

Lee's voice matters, too. He had been one of those offended by the association with Hansonism and had even helped form the group MSG, the Maxine Support Group, the year she won office.

With the Liberal Party determining that JA was under threat, it has been hard sometimes to hear from the man himself during this current campaign, so thick are the party's big guns on the ground.

A visit to an Ultratune outlet in the Macquarie Centre on Monday morning was typical. Treasurer Scott Morrison faced the cameras to talk up his own planned tax cuts and to warn voters not to "let Kristina Keneally do to the people of Bennelong what she had done to the people of NSW".

State treasurer Dominic Perrottet nodded along, then chimed in to boast about the strength of the state economy. Alexander barely got a look in.

Similarly Keneally has been accompanied by Labor's biggest names. On Tuesday morning as Dastyari made his lonely resignation address to media, Keneally and Shorten were at a forum on education funding hosted by the St Charles Catholic Primary School in Ryde.

This was a political gift. Keneally is well-known in her own Catholic church community and Shorten is a product of the Catholic system, a point he made several times. Even better, from their perspective, Alexander had declined to attend the event. This was another point both took care to make more than once.

New voice in the community

Sam Dastyari announces his resignation.

Sam Dastyari announces his resignation. Photo: Janie Barrett

By then though the race had changed in a way that neither party could control.

On Monday morning the People's Daily, the leading Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece, published an opinion piece urging the Australian government and media to discard their biases. Immediately a new tone appeared in Chinese Australian media, apparently directed at voters in Bennelong.

Another major Chinese language outlet, Sydney Today, published an article hours later saying that Turnbull was at the front line of anti-Chinese sentiment in Australia. That view was echoed and reinforced on Chinese-language social media.

On Thursday Fairfax Media revealed a letter was being shared by Chinese Communist Party-linked identities on social media urging readers to support Keneally.

"When we look at the Liberal Party we see it's already totally different from before. It's a far-right ruling party and they are privately against China, against Chinese, against ethnic-Chinese migrants and against Chinese international students," it reads. "For the interests of Chinese people, let us mobilise, share this message and use the ballots in the hands of we Chinese to take down this far-right Liberal Party ruling party."

Suddenly it appeared that not only were Labor and Liberal fighting in Bennelong, the Chinese Communist Party had joined the fray, if only to send a message to the Australian government.

How all this might affect the result is not clear. A Fairfax Media poll conducted by ReachTEL and published on Thursday found around half of respondents said the Dastyari affair would affect their vote. But of those voters, half said it would make them more likely to vote for Labor, and half, less likely. A Newspoll published earlier in the week found the two candidates to be neck and neck.

And while Chinese-Australians in Bennelong have the numbers to sway the election, it is not clear they will vote as a bloc or as it appears the Chinese-linked media would like them to. As Lee explained, his members were impressed that Alexander had helped their group secure funding, geo-politics was not their concern.

And there are other complicating factors. The Australian Conservatives are running their first-ever candidate in this race, Joram Richa. He is polling at around 6.7 per cent according to ReachTEL, votes that may eat into the Liberal Party's first preference tally.

Smears and ambush

The candidates greet voters outside a pre-polling booth in Epping.

The candidates greet voters outside a pre-polling booth in Epping. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

As pressure mounted this week, the political rhetoric has grown more heated and tactics more base.

The Liberal Party set up a website in Keneally's name with the object of smearing her. She responded that the PM was a "fool" and sought to link him with Hansonism.

On Friday afternoon a group of protesters ambushed Alexander's final press conference, the driver of the van they appeared in saying "no comment" as he fled media.

Both parties have accused the other of damaging Australia's relationship with China. Both might be right.

"It's ridiculous," fumed Bob Pitts, who had just run a gauntlet of volunteers to lodge a pre-poll vote in Epping on a brutally hot morning on Thursday.

Pitts was of the view that the people of Bennelong had already made it clear who they wanted to represent them last July, so in this byelection he had a duty to cast his vote for Alexander, whatever his own political preferences.

Besides, he said, no one seemed to be focused on the issues he cared about: traffic congestion and massive urban development. "This is not the Epping I grew up with," he said, looking at the towers rising out of the ground around him.

And like many other voters who spoke with Fairfax Media over the past weeks - some of whom have recently endured council elections and the marriage vote - Pitts was exhausted by the constant intrusion of politics into his life. He has taken evening robo-calls from, among others, John Alexander, John Howard, Cory Bernardi and the ACTU throughout the campaign.

What do they say?

"I dunno, I just hang up."

The story The battle for Bennelong first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.


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