Fear and Loathing in Bennelong A childhood in a suburb no one cared about; a vote to change a nation

Text: Charles Purcell

You may know it as the electorate of Bennelong.

You may know it as the site of one of the “most vicious by-elections in living memory”; ground zero of one of the most contentious campaigns ever; the place where the Government’s one-seat majority possibly came to die. But I know it as my childhood home.

I grew up in what used to be called “centrally locally Top Ryde”, part of the Bennelong electorate. I had water pistol fights in the local mall, in the days when kids still had water pistol fights and the local mall only had two levels.

I experienced both tears (“hey, kid, want to see a match burn twice?”) and triumph (I jumped off the second-highest level of the diving tower) at the local swimming pool, later rebuilt and used in the 2000 Olympics.

I rode my BMX and “popped monos” on the very streets John Howard once rode to power.

At the time no one was very much impressed by the “centrally located Top Ryde” line, seeing how it was some 13 kilometres away from the Sydney CBD and that its major achievement was that Granny Smith of Granny Smith apple fame was buried there.

Yet now, in the dying days of 2017, humble Top Ryde couldn’t be more important. It was home to a battle that could decide the fate of the whole government … and the nation.

Who’s laughing now, ye “centrally located Top Ryde” doubters of yore?

And so, after days of robocalls at dinner, guest appearances in the neighbourhood by John Howard, protestors holding protest signs upside-down and leaked anonymous letters urging the Chinese community to “rise up” and vote out the government, the greatest travelling political show in the nation was about to begin.

It was Election Day.


I joined my relatives on the hustings as they prepared to vote.

Look! It’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull … and he’s winning us over by appearing in our neighbourhood! (Just one reference to the local sports team and the seduction will be complete).

Look! It’s John Alexander … the former tennis ace with a strong hand on the issues and an even stronger backhand (ho, ho)!

Look! Malcolm and John are on Twitter together!

Look! It’s Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, still valiantly pretending that he’s got a short haircut and not a receding hairline! Look! It’s Kristina Keneally, holding an Icy Pole, the ice-cream of the people!

Look! It’s Corey Bernardi being ambushed mid-press conference by a transgender woman!  

Look! It’s the nation’s press! Look! It’s the armies of volunteers from Labor (dressed in red) and the Liberals (in blue), facing off against each other like the Greens and the Blues of the Byzantine empire!

And the questions! Will the Sam Dastyari scandal – and all the talk about foreign interference in Australia’s political process – turn Chinese-Australia voters against the government?

Will this conservative seat buck the trend and vote Labor, kicking out Alexander like they did Howard 10 years ago?

Will there be blood on the streets?

Will there be a decent sausage sizzle? (Yes, there will be: Gladesville Public School has the ”Bennelong Bruiser” for $4, as well as the “Rental Income Roll” for $6 and “Dastyari (Last) Drinks for $2.)


Finally it was time to endure the most painful gauntlet outside the perfume counters of department stores … the stretch of road leading up to the voting booths.

They were all there: the red-clad minions of Labor, feeling the winds of history in their sails: the brave, desperately smiling Libs, sphincters clenched, hoping that their candidate would squeak through; the Greens volunteers, trying to catch our eyes and thrusting their promotional literature into our palms.

Then there were the others: the parties you knew would never get into power because their pamphlets weren’t glossy enough and because they used the wrong fonts; the parties that, instead of promising a faster NBN or more funding for primary schools, promised weird things like crushing their enemies and hearing the lamentations of their women.

Then, once you’ve run the gauntlet, heard their blandishments and accepted their literature, the charm is turned off. The smiles disappear from their eyes. They become as suddenly inert as a clapping cymbal monkey deprived of power.

Then it’s past the sledging signage: the posters that proclaim “Send Turnbull a message” next to a picture of Turnbull looking smug; or Keneally pictured beside jailed ex-Labor powerbroker Eddie Obeid.  

Finally the die – or the vote – is cast. At the time of writing, I have no idea who has won. The booths are closed.

And yet, I am seized by a sense of disappointment.

What promised to be an electoral clash of the titans had, on the street level at least, more of the vibe of a CWA picnic.

All the pamphleteers are happily chatting to each other as if the stakes were no greater than who won the local tombola rather than the seizure of the levers of power themselves.
The voters themselves, often casually dressed in no more than shorts and thongs, also seemed to be unaware of the importance and power of their decision.

If we are to see a coup today it will be a very Australian coup, briefly observed before everyone turns over to the cricket.

All enjoyed with a frosty-cold beer … and maybe a Bennelong Bruiser.

Endnote: As it turned out, this was the by-election that everybody ‘won’. Liberal candidate John Alexander kept his seat despite a marked swing against him. The ALP’s Kristina Keneally did almost as well as anybody had dreamt. Labor was happy if not ecstatic. PM Malcolm Turnbull dined the next day in Putney at a cafe that was once a video store and a cake shop. A victory for Australia against England in the Third Test of the Ashes was in danger of being rained out into a draw, though Mitchell Starc bowled ‘the ball of the summer’, a pace delivery with some reverse swing that hit a crack in the ground and defied all logic.


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