Mungo MacCallum: Alexander wins Bennelong and returns to obscurity

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Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and John Alexander claim victory for Bennelong by-election (screen shot via YouTube)

So after all that, the bomb did not drop, the world has not ended. John Alexander has been re-elected and "Australia’s champion, Bennelong’s champion", will relapse into the obscurity of the backbench whence he came.

But he has given Malcolm Turnbull a few frights. Our Prime Minister could have been forgiven for donning a safety helmet — a real one, not the one he wears for photo-ops during his numerous visits to factories inhabited by the hard-working Australians he so often invokes.

It needn’t have been like this; it should have been a doddle. John Alexander had built up a very healthy cushion and although there is normally a swing against the government in a by-election, this was less of a by-election than a temporary recess.

Alexander, like Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, was still the same candidate, an object of sympathy from the voters rather than censure. Both were seen as victims of an aberration in the Constitution confirmed by over-literalist, unelected High Court judges.

And Alexander – while something of a political non-entity – was considered a reasonable local member; the only things really held against him were his multi-million dollar property in the Southern Highlands and his residence in the prestigious eastern suburbs, instead of his less salubrious electorate.

True, he was facing a more than plausible opponent in Kristina Keneally, but he was also backed by most of the Cabinet and even John Howard — the man comprehensively ejected from government and his constituency in 2007, but now considered an older statesman, at least by the conservative media.

In the circumstances, a swing of more than five per cent against the Government could hardly be considered a triumph. Still, a win’s a win and given the alternative would have been catastrophic, Turnbull can be forgiven for a spot of relieved gloating.

Unsurprisingly, both sides claimed a victory of sorts, their supporters loyally cheering their respective leaders – although it was interesting that while Laborites chanted for Bill, the Libs opted for Turnbull — perhaps they felt that using his first name would have been offensively familiar for their patrician Prime Minister.

But both of them deserved credit for throwing themselves into the campaign, especially Turnbull, who was criticised for not doing enough in New England and, more crucially, in Queensland, where the Coalition’s defeat in the State Election may be rather more relevant to his long-term chances of survival.

From now on, there can be no holding back; if, as is likely, the still unresolved issues of dual citizenship lead to further by-elections, it can be assumed that Turnbull will go in boots and all. And he seems to be developing a taste for it — the relentless bashing of Keneally for the real or imagined sins of the past gave us a glimpse of the street fighter concealed in the urbane façade of the corporate lawyer.

And since by all reports, Keneally will be bumped into the Senate in place of Sam Dastyari, Turnbull will still have her to kick around for a while. So he will have plenty of opportunities to practise a bit more kicking and gouging while waiting for the real thing.

Obviously, she is not the target Dastyari afforded, but she’ll do until someone better comes along. Turnbull may carry on about the need to respect women but, as always, that was one of his policies — until it was changed.

Mungo MacCallum is a veteran journalist who worked for many years in the Canberra Press Gallery. This article was published on 'Pearls and Irritations' and is republished with permission.

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