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Last Updated: Friday, 19 October 2007, 01:11 GMT 02:11 UK
Has John Howard 'done his dash'?
By Nick Bryant
BBC News, Sydney

Australian Prime Minister John Howard
John Howard has represented Bennelong for more than 30 years
Australia boasts what is often called a "Washminster" model of government, a hybrid of the American and the British.

So while prime ministers are expected to lead presidential-style nationwide campaigns, they also have to fight for their own seat in parliament.

For John Winston Howard, the Liberal Party's embattled leader, this dual challenge may well prove too much.

Though he has unquestionably seized the initiative at the start of this campaign with the promise of massive tax cuts, the polls suggest still that he will not only lose his job as prime minister but struggle to retain the seat in Sydney which he has represented since 1974.

It is the potential "Double Whammy" of Campaign '07.

With its lace curtain suburbs and leafy cul-de-sacs, the seat of Bennelong has long been Howard country.

Situated in the commuter belt of north-west Sydney, the governing Liberal Party has held it since its creation in 1949.

Mr Howard, who used to live here, has triumphed in 13 straight elections.

Boundary changes, though, have taken the seat westward, encompassing thousands of new voters from Labor-leaning neighbourhoods.

Its ethnic make-up has also been transformed. Bennelong now has the highest proportion of people born in non-English speaking countries of any government seat.

A potentially career-ending combination of boundary and demographic changes has made this a marginal constituency.

I think he's done his dash, I think they've been in for too long
Jim Willett
Former Howard supporter

To add to Mr Howard's woes, he is up against one of Labor's star candidates: former ABC TV presenter Maxine McKew.

Telegenic, articulate and poised, she used to interview John Howard. Now she is trying to unseat him.

"More and more people are volunteering that it is time for a change, and they feel that the government has really lost touch," she says, as she glad-hands voters at Epping railway station.

"We have had fabulous prosperity, terrific growth, but there's been a failure to use that prosperity for the future," she claims.

'Time for a change'

On the streets of Bennelong, there is a palpable feeling that John Howard has reached his sell-by date: that after 11 years as prime minister, and at the age of 68, his time is up.

Former Howard supporter Jim Willett
Some residents, like Jim Willett, think it is time for a change

Listen to Jim Willett, who has voted for Mr Howard in the past.

"I think he's done his dash. I think they've been in for too long. I think it's time for a change. I just think they're tired," he said.

"They say you never toss out a government when things are going well. This proves there is more than the hip pocket. We're not spending enough on roads and the railways, and the health system is in a mess."

True, John Howard does have his devoted fans - Arthur Larsen for one, who has known John Howard, man, boy and prime minister.

"He has saved this country. He has put it on top. We also have the greatest economy we have ever had," he said.

Like many diehard Liberal Party supporters, he seems genuinely bewildered that John Howard is behind in the polls.

"I'm really upset about it. He's done so much for this country, and asked for so little. He's been the best prime minister since Bob Menzies, without fear of contradiction."

Asian view

So what of the Asian Australian voters, who might well hold the key to this election?

I visited the Golden Jade restaurant, a favourite lunch spot and something of an institution, to find out.

An opposition campaigner, with a picture of Labor leader Kevin Rudd
Mr Howard is facing a tough campaign for his seat

Certainly, some are angry at what they believe are the government's xenophobic immigration policies.

Indeed, some Chinese-Australian professionals have formed a Maxine Support Group, partly because of John Howard's reticence on the immigration question when Pauline Hanson harnessed nativistic anxieties to propel her political rise in the mid-1990s.

Others, though, have been beneficiaries of Australia's economic boom, and are culturally unused to changes in government.

"Look at what he has done for the past 11 years for the economy," says Danny Ng. "Everyone is better off."

"He's too old and he's a liar," says another man. "He's untrustworthy and tricky. I want him gone. He took us into Iraq."

Maxine McKew needs a swing of just over 4% to win this seat. Labor needs a swing of 4.8% nationally to win.

Even more tantalisingly, the opposition needs a net gain of 16 seats to win the federal election. Bennelong is the government's 15th most vulnerable seat.

In the polls, Labor currently has a double-digit lead nationally, and Maxine McKew has a five point lead locally.

As ABC political analyst Antony Green notes: "I think all year people have just said that this is the prime minister's seat, and he can't lose his seat. They've just misunderstood the fact that this is marginal seat.

"And every opinion poll this year, whether it be in Bennelong or in the nation as a whole, has shown the same 6 or 7% swing."

The woman who used to read the news may be about to produce the headline of the election, the one inspired by the British author E. M. Forster that editors have been itching to use at successive elections: Howard's End.



SEE ALSO
Time for change in Australian politics?
14 Oct 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Australian PM announces election
14 Oct 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Australia
21 Aug 07 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Australia
21 Aug 07 |  Country profiles

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