Losing an election when you've been your country's Prime Minister for 11 years would be painful enough. But John Howard faces an even more humiliating prospect when 13.6 million Australians go to the polls on Saturday: failure in his own seat of Bennelong, which he's held since 1974.
Canny, articulate and not reliant on charisma, Howard has been an indestructible force in Australian politics. As recently as 1989, his own party thought him unelectable and dumped him as leader. But since 1996, he's won four elections for the Liberal-National Coalition, twice pulling it back from the brink of defeat. He's left behind a trail of defeated Labor Party leaders, becoming in the process a hero of conservatives across the Western world.
But just days out from the Nov. 24 election, it's looking increasingly like the fellow right-winger whom President George W. Bush called his "Man of Steel" has, at the age of 68, taken on one locomotive too many. The Government remains six points behind Labor in the opinion polls, and bookmakers are offering long odds on a last-minute turnaround.
While many assume Howard's status as Prime Minister will save him on his own northern Sydney seat even if the Government is defeated, others see it differently. "There's nothing special about Bennelong," says election analyst Antony Green. "If the Government falls, my view is that Bennelong will fall with it." Having made history in so many personally gratifying ways as the country's second longest-serving Prime Minister, Howard may depart politics in circumstances that would surely leave him hollow paired with the long-forgotten Stanley Bruce as the only Australian P.M. to lose his seat at a general election. A 4% swing may be all that is needed to tip Howard's opponent in Bennelong to victory.
Outsmarted by Howard on numerous fronts, Labor has been clever this time in the battle for Bennelong. In the broader fight, Howard was always going to be hard-pressed holding off the fresh-faced Opposition leader Kevin Rudd. Knowing that task would be even tougher if Howard could be distracted by a tough contest on his home turf, Labor announced in February that its candidate in Bennelong would be Maxine McKew, a distinguished, high-profile former television journalist. The partner of Bob Hogg, a former national secretary of the Labor Party, McKew still doesn't get close to Howard for political experience; but her charm, eloquence and good looks make her a formidable candidate, and she's forced the Prime Minister to spend more time pressing the flesh in Bennelong than he or his anxious party would have liked. The pressure has taken a toll: Howard has been uncharacteristically irritable for a good part of the campaign, studiously avoiding uttering McKew's name.
In the Bennelong hub of Eastwood mall, constituents say they are enthralled by the ever-smiling McKew. "She's like a beauty queen," says Paul Besson, 57, who admits his dislike of Howard is so strong that "I would vote for Maxine even if she had a forked tail." An art promoter who asks to be identified only as Peter says he's voted for Howard in the past but not at the last election of 2004, and he won't be this time. While most politicians are loose with the truth, Peter says, Howard's dishonesty extends to matters of "war and killing [in Iraq] and that I can't accept. He's done some good things, but he's got away with too much for too long."
The Howard Government gives the impression of being baffled as to how it could be facing electoral defeat at a time when the Australian economy, despite the strain of rising interest rates, is in fine shape. Of all the factors working against the Government, among the most potent is widespread distrust of its employer-friendly overhaul of the system for dealing with labor and workplace disputes. And here the dreaded parallel with the unfortunate Stanley Bruce becomes more stark. Bruce's demise in 1929 followed a period of industrial mayhem involving miners and laborers. For the perception that he's messed with the rights of Australian workers, John Howard may pay a heavy price indeed.