By Tim Mantiri
The North West Sydney by election that could cost Malcolm Turnbull his majority
While the result of the by-election may see only a single seat change hands, the result this weekend could have huge implications in Canberra. However, a win in Bennelong will be the boost Prime Minister Turnbull needs to cap off a strong finish to what has been a difficult year, and put pressure on Opposition Leader Bill Shorten coming into 2018, Timothy Mantiri writes.
This Saturday voters in the North West Sydney electorate of Bennelong will be casting their ballots to elect their local Federal MP in a by-election brought on by the resignation of Liberal member John Alexander.
Mr Alexander, who is contesting the seat again, resigned in the wake of the recent dual citizenship crisis in parliament after being unable to conclusively determine that he was not a British Citizen by descent through his English born father.
abor in turn is running former NSW Premier Kristina Keneally for the seat, after being hand-picked as the candidate by Opposition Leader Bill Shorten.
While the result of the by-election will see only a single seat potentially change hands, the result this weekend could have huge implications in Canberra when Parliament returns next year.
Given the Coalition’s precarious position in the lower house where it currently holds 75 of 150 seats (not including the vacant seat of Bennelong), a loss in Bennelong would mean that it would lose its majority in the House of Representatives resulting in Prime Minister Turnbull having to rely on the Speaker’s casting vote in the event of a tie and on the cross benchers on motions on confidence and supply.
The electorate of Bennelong is comprised of north west Sydney suburbs including Ryde, Epping, Eastwood and Macquarie Park and has been crucial in recent elections. In 2007, the year Kevin Rudd became Prime Minister, then-Prime Minister John Howard lost the seat to Labor's Maxine McKew. In 2010 Alexander regained the seat for the Liberal Party, while the Coalition under Tony Abbott came agonisingly close to toppling the first-term Labor Government.
This year, as voters decide which candidate to back, a host of considerations will be on their minds, from the candidates themselves to local issues in the electorate and other broader factors at play.
Prior to his resignation, Alexander had held the seat for seven years and most recently won the seat again resoundingly at the 2016 election, being one of the few Liberals to record a swing towards them and extending his margin to 9.7% against the Labor candidate.
Alexander has carved out a reputation for being a hard working local member and is generally well regarded, a fact seemingly acknowledged by Labor’s reluctance to target Alexander in its campaign but rather to focus on attacking the Prime Minister and the Coalition Government.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten in his choice of Keneally will be banking on her high profile as both a former Premier and more recently as a media commentator to displace the locally popular Alexander.
Despite leading Labor to its worst ever election defeat in 2011 and her close links with corrupt former Labor powerbrokers Joe Tripodi and Eddie Obeid, Shorten has calculated that her strengths as an energetic campaigner and her articulate style could be enough to win.
Bennelong is one of the country’s most culturally diverse seats.
More Bennelong residents describe their ancestry as Chinese than Australian or English. In total, 51.7 per cent of Bennelong residents were born overseas.
With this in mind both major parties are actively campaigning to win the support of Asian-Australian voters, with many campaign events being held with prominent local ethnic communities as well as a large number of campaign collateral being printed in Chinese and other languages.
The typical local issues for Sydney suburbs will also be a factor in the by-election. The respective parties’ promises on transport links, school funding, roads, and community facilities are all issues that will weigh in on Bennelong voters’ minds.
Being the incumbent candidate, Alexander can point to built transport infrastructure, and community facilities and programs as his achievements as local member. Earlier in the campaign, alongside the Prime Minister, he also announced a new $100 million bus interchange in Macquarie Park.
For its part, Labor has been continuing its broader lines from the last Federal election around: perceived cuts to education; its effective ‘Mediscare’ campaign; and NBN issues.
Despite Alexander’s 9.7% margin, recent polls have suggested there will be a solid swing against him on the weekend. The latest Newspoll this week had Alexander and Keneally at 50-50 two-party-preferred (TPP).
The poll found Alexander’s primary vote had dropped substantially since the last election, with Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives the apparent beneficiary. Alexander will be relying heavily on the preferences flowing on from the Conservatives if he is to regain the seat.
The late-in-the-piece scandal around former Labor Senator Sam Dastyari tipping-off Chinese donors (with close links to the Chinese Communist Party) about their likely ASIO surveillance may also influence the way voters approach the election.
While the polls suggest the result will be on a knife’s edge, a recent surge in the Coalition fortunes federally, and a strong on-the-ground campaign, may see Alexander safely across the line.
A win in Bennelong will be the boost Prime Minister Turnbull needs to cap off a strong finish to what has been a difficult year, and put pressure on Opposition Leader Bill Shorten coming into 2018.