Australia

Bennelong by-Election: Race Tightens as both Parties Consider whether China Question will be make-or-break

John Alexander and Kristina Keneally are hurtling down the final stretch in the race for Bennelong, and by-elections don’t come much bigger than this.

The equation is brutally simple: if Malcolm Turnbull loses Bennelong on Saturday night, he loses his absolute majority in parliament’s Lower House.

So it’s no surprise both the Coalition and Labor have plunged enormous resources into the battle for the seat, which was held by former prime minister John Howard for decades.

A parade of frontbenchers and squadrons of volunteers from both major parties have flooded into Sydney’s northern suburbs to join the campaign.

Anyone who wants to catch a train from Eastwood, Epping or West Ryde has had to run a gauntlet of brightly-coloured pamphleteers.

John Howard smiles, tight lipped, looking at John Alexander. Behind them are campaigners wearing blue

The sitting Liberal MP John Alexander remains a narrow favourite — he’s managed to build up his margin to almost 10 per cent over time, which is a big mountain for the Opposition to climb.

But Labor’s high-profile candidate, the former New South Wales premier Kristina Keneally, has hit the hustings with furious energy.

A Newspoll published earlier this week found Mr Alexander’s vote had collapsed, with the seat teetering on the edge of falling to the ALP.

A Fairfax poll a few days later was a little more reassuring for the Federal Government, with Mr Alexander holding on to a slender lead of 53-47.

Hardheads from both parties think the Coalition is still likely to hold on — but there’s no doubt the race has been tightening.

The Prime Minister has been ratcheting up the stakes, warning his government’s position would be “very precarious” if the ALP pulls off an improbable victory.

“If Labor were to win in Bennelong then Bill Shorten would be very close to becoming prime minister,” he said on Wednesday.

“Australia can’t afford that risk.”

Expect those words to be thrown back in the Prime Minister’s face if Mr Alexander falls on Saturday.

A loss in Bennelong would also deal a devastating blow to Coalition morale, which has been showing faint flickers of recovery while Labor has been consumed by the Sam Dastyari scandal.

It would not only make the floor of Parliament much more perilous and unpredictable for the Government, but it would also be a painful reminder that, as the numbers stand, it’s on track for a heavy defeat at the next election.

How important will the China question be?

The contest for Bennelong has been sharpened by the debate in Canberra about foreign interference and Senator Dastyari’s links to Chinese political donors.

The Federal Government has been in a war of words with Beijing over Australia’s new anti-espionage laws.

And while Senator Dastyari fell on his sword this week, Labor says the Government’s treatment of the scandal has whipped up xenophobia and will hurt its chances in Bennelong, where one in five people are of Chinese ancestry.

The Prime Minister has angrily denied that accusation and Ms Keneally’s comparison of him to One Nation leader Pauline Hanson.

But the reality is no-one really knows exactly what impact the controversy will have on the ground.

Most close observers say the debate over foreign influence has angered some in the Chinese community, who feel they are being unfairly tarred.

But they predict the debate will not move large numbers of votes.

“It’s a third-order issue,” one Labor source said.

Kristina Keneally speaks to the press with Bill Shorten in Sydney

Some Chinese language papers in Sydney have begun to criticise the Prime Minister’s attitude to China, following the lead of state press in Beijing.

And yesterday Fairfax revealed an open letter urging the community to vote against Mr Alexander had been circulating on Wechat, a Chinese social media app.

These are worrying signs for the Liberals.

But the Chinese language press has not thrown its full weight behind Ms Keneally in the way it did for Labor’s victor in 2007, Maxine McKew.

And the Chinese community is neither monolithic nor mindlessly wedded to the Chinese Communist Party.

In fact, many of the first Chinese immigrants to Bennelong came from Hong Kong, before it was handed back to the People’s Republic.

Some remain deeply hostile to the CCP and are unlikely to be swayed by editorials making appeals to Chinese national pride.

The focus on the Chinese community also obscures the fact there are several other large ethnic communities in Bennelong — including South Korean, Indian and Armenians — whose votes will also weigh heavily on the final result.

And as the battle for those votes intensifies, it will only get more ferocious.

Liberals say voters won’t remember Premier Keneally kindly

The Liberals have been running hard against Ms Keneally’s record as premier, going as far as to unveil a website dedicated entirely to her blunders in office.

The Coalition has also been quick to point out she awarded a prized cabinet spot to former Labor frontbencher Ian MacDonald and was shepherded into the top job by powerbroker Eddie Obeid. Both are now in jail.

Ms Keneally argues she gave crucial evidence against both men and she cannot be held responsible for their crimes.

But Liberals on the ground say voters still have unpleasant memories of the chaotic final years of the state Labor government under Ms Keneally.

“She has to live with her history,” the Prime Minister declared.

All politics is local

Still, the issues dominating the headlines might not be consuming voters in Bennelong.

The ABC has spoken to more than a dozen councillors and leaders of community groups in the seat.

Their message was clear: the concerns of voters in Bennelong are overwhelmingly local.

House prices remain stratospheric. There’s unhappiness about the wait some people are facing for operations in local hospitals. The NBN’s troubled rollout has not spared Bennelong residents, some of whom have horror stories.

Locals are also unhappy about nightmarish traffic. And they’re worried massive residential tower blocks sprouting up along main roads throughout the electorate, will bring more cars to roads already stretched to breaking point.

Some of these problems have got nothing to do with the Federal Government. But voters may not be in a mood to discern.

And while Mr Alexander is a popular and diligent local member, the persistent rumour that he will not contest the seat again may also hurt his chances — even though he has publicly denied it.

There is also a risk the Coalition’s vote will be splintered by right-wing minor parties — particularly Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives — who are making an energetic pitch for votes.

The stakes are sky high. The result will have big consequences for Mr Turnbull, but it will also reverberate beyond this term of government.

“If you look around Bennelong in 2017 you get a very good idea of what much of Australia will look like in a few decades,” one seasoned local campaigner said.

“The intersection of the hyper-local and the international — with focussed campaigns targeted at different groups within a community. We’re all getting better at this.”

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