Friday, September 21, 2007

CRIKEY: Will Howard need to switch to a safe seat?

In a fiery Question Time yesterday, the PM declared: "I can beat the Leader of the Opposition without resort to smears."

On a federal level, that may well be true. But even if this happens, the question remains: can John Howard defeat Maxine McKew?

The polls seem to be improving federally. But in Bennelong, Howard still looks shaky. My straw poll of Indian "aunties", many of them long-time Howard voters, suggests that Maxine may well knock off the PM. If this happens, where will he go?

Will Howard do what Beazley did in 1996 when he switched from Swan to the safer seat of Brand? As Australia’s first PM to win an election but lose his own seat, will Howard have any political credibility left? Or will he have to give up his political ghost and watch Costello take over?

Crikey has learned from various sources that senior figures in the NSW Liberal Party are openly sniffing around for a seat for Mr Howard to switch to before the next federal election. Naturally this will effectively involve conceding defeat and handing the seat to Ms McKew. However, if a seat can be found, it would enable Howard to focus on other marginal seats where he is needed more.

But which seat? All safe seats surrounding Bennelong are taken by senior ministers (Phil Ruddock in Berowra, Dr Nelson in Bradfield and Joe Hockey in North Sydney ) or are safe ALP seats (Reid and Lowe). All except one. The seat of Mitchell currently held by Alan Cadman.

Cadman is a long-time Howard loyalist. Ever since Bennelong joined the growing list of NSW marginal seats, it has always been understood Cadman would stand aside for Howard in Mitchell should the government win the election but Howard lose his seat.

Cadman narrowly survived a preselection stoush in 2004. He wasn’t so lucky this time around, despite having the support of Howard and his Senatorial head-kicker Bill Heffernan. Neither was former Howard staffer David Elliott. In the end, pro-Howard forces allowed Cadman to be roasted by the hard-right Alex Hawke, staffer to far-Right powerbroker and NSW MLC David Clarke. The proviso was that Howard would enable Hawke to run if Hawke agree to stand aside if the PM needed the seat.

Of course, that arrangement was made back in March at a time when the Rudd was still on his political honeymoon and Costello’s leadership ambitions were securely locked away. Now the situation is quite different. Should Howard lose Bennelong, who knows whether Hawke would have any incentive to stand aside?

Howard supporters have good reason to knock off Hawke before the election. Hawke’s far-Right faction has proven to be an electoral liability at both state and federal level. Further, Cadman would rather hand the seat to the PM than to some young upstart. Knocking off Hawke now would merely involve Hawke being dis-endorsed and followed by Cadman handing the seat to Howard. And Liberal sources have told Crikey that Cadman is open to the idea.

But any move by Howard to deprive Hawke of Mitchell might lead to a show-down with David Clarke and the far-Right. The result could be a bitter factional war between two conservative sub-factions – the old Howard loyalists and the younger far-Right still smarting from Howard’s intervention in the Cook preselection.

Watch this space.

First published in the Crikey daily alert on 21 September 2007.

Words © 2007 Irfan Yusuf

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Marek Bage said...

I wonder how many of Bennelong's Asian residents are aware of Howard's anti-Asian immigration stance?
Let's face it, if Howard had gotten his way all those years ago the demographics of Bennelong would be considerably different.
Perhaps they need reminding.

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The Happy Revolutionary said...

There may not be too many 'safe' seats left, if the polls are to be believed.