The drama of Bennelong: You couldn’t make it up


By Jack Sumner
28 July 2013

The worldwide popularity of political dramas Borgen, House of Cards and West Wing relies upon discerning audiences relating to their storylines. The plot outlined below would severely test the credulousness of any viewers.

A prime minister, dumped by his party after he ended its 11 years in opposition, is reinstated three years later and immediately turns certain electoral defeat into an outside chance of retaining government. A successful Australian businessman living in China with his family for eight years gets a phone call from the PM asking him, in Mandarin, to return to contest a seat held comfortably by the opposition. Within a day, the businessman agrees; within a week, with his wife and three young children, he’s back home installed as a candidate and the centre of media attention.


The story is true and Friday’s ABC Lateline presented it very well.

Labor may have a candidate from “central casting”, but he faces a worthy foe. Labor supporters might snigger at Liberal John Alexander’s mission to bring ping-pong to Bennelong, but he has worked hard in the interests of his electorate. “John Alexander is a strong local member,” Eastwood Plaza shopping centre owner Brad Chan told me.

The Liberals have a considerable war chest and the advantage of incumbency. Well-planted corflutes and blue-shirted support teams are already a common sight and will bloom further as the campaign gets under way. Three years as MP will have given Alexander’s office detailed knowledge of the electorate. The Liberals’ “Feedback” database system will have information on voters’ ages, occupations, ethnicity and interests, enabling direct mail and other communication to be well targeted.

To get a better understanding of how Jason Yat-sen Li and Labor might challenge the strong Liberal position, I was able through the good offices of campaign director Amy Smith and media officer Sam Matilla to spend some time with Jason on Friday afternoon. The campaign office on Rowe Street, Eastwood, had opened only that day. The handful of volunteers outnumbered the chairs available. As I waited, Jason’s father, George, introduced himself and soon confirmed his son wouldn’t have a better, more enthusiastic supporter.


In my conversation with Jason, I didn’t ask all the questions I planned, the most important omission being: “When did you join the Labor Party?” However, I established that while Jason had no immediate plans to enter politics before Kevin Rudd’s call, his experience with the Republic campaign and with the Unity Party made it a likely career development. He made the decision
 quickly, but only after discussion with family and friends.

Now, sitting in the campaign office with a clearer idea of the work ahead,
 he was feeling a little daunted but hugely excited by the challenge.
 Jason had read The Battle for Bennelong and recognised the similarities
 and differences between his and Maxine McKew’s candidacies. He had less time but, like Maxine in her successful bid to wrest the seat from John Howard, he could expect the help of a considerable support team.
  He anticipated the campaign would rely on tried and tested tactics to engage voters, but no priorities for policy focus had yet been determined.

In eight years living in China, he had kept in close touch with economic and social developments back home and felt no disadvantage or concern about his familiarity with the government’s policies.
 Jason would be very keen to engage John Alexander in a formal debate.

My early impressions are that Labor is indeed fortunate to have Jason as their candidate. Introducing an ABC Australian Story in 2000, former Nationals leader and Constitutional Convention chairman Ian Sinclair said, ” One of the more outstanding of those young delegates was Jason Yat-Sen Li. Jason showed passion and commitment, intelligence and a good sense of humour and actually contributed to the compromises essential if we’re going to have an Australian republic. Jason to my mind is a great young Australian and you’re about to see his story.”

Jason will not lack support in numbers. Evidence of that could be seen on Saturday as a young and enthusiastic team handed out balloons in Eastwood Plaza. I would suggest an effective campaign might also need a few battle- hardened hands with experience in setting priorities and handling scarce resources. The question being how many of such hands can be spared from campaigns in NSW seats that need to be saved. Anthony Albanese did a street walk with Jason on Saturday and it can be expected that the campaign will not lack support of high-profile Labor figures.

Time is not on Jason’s side. The opposition is ready. Labor isn’t yet. Triage will be needed. What gets priority treatment could be a “life or death” decision. Opposite Labor’s campaign office is Eastwood Primary School – maybe there’s a clue.

Businessman Brad Chan said: ”To select Jason Li was a smart move, but it’s important that he doesn’t take the non-Asian vote for granted.”

Jason’s willingness to debate John Alexander could provide him with a competitive advantage. Aaron Sorkin would have been hard pressed to script the start of this story. We can only look forward to the next episodes.

More Bennelong reports by Jack

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  1. Loved this Jack – a fun read

  2. Helen Tudor says

    Great article, Jack. Only wish I lived in the electorate to lend a hand to such an impressive candidate.

  3. wonderful ,with youth on your side, I feel you will be successful, and with your broad experience of the world, best of luck, your family must be so proud. if you where in my electorate I certainly would be there for you.

    • There is no doubt we need better quality intelligent responsible politicians – in all political parties. If you think Jason Li is worth supporting why not volunteer to help him anyway. After the last few years the electorate needs to support better quality politicians for everyone’s sake

  4. Well summarised, Jack. Will follow the story with interest now.

  5. Borgen or The West Wing this is not, but its probably a better tale than The Newsroom though.

    You missed a few bits. Before the last redistribution turned it into a marginal seat, Bennelong was a safe Liberal seat. The SMH use to have a standard article on file about how little time Howard needed to spend in the seat campaigning so he was free to to tour marginal seats.

    McKew was parachuted into Bennelong because of her ABC celebrity status. She unseated the PM in the 2007 election with the backlash against Work Choices. McKew had no connection to the electorate and gave frequent interviews to the Northern District Times in which she repeatedly chastised the electorate for electing Howard for 33 years, but that was OK because now she, and Kevin, had ushered in a Golden Age where Asylum Seekers would be welcomed with open arms.

    Late polling during the 2010 Election showed that McKew was in serious trouble. Ten days before the poll Gillard locked in $2.1b for the Epping to Parramatta railway, even though O’Farrell said he would never build it, and the stunt backfired badly. McKew lost, moved straight back to Mosman and wrote a book in which she blamed Gillard for her downfall. McKew got away with this blatant piece of misogyny because she is a woman, or Gillard isn’t black, or something.

    The Liberals parachuted in a celebrity candidate of their own in Alexander and he benefited from events. His main achievement so far has been to complain in the media that penalty rates were making it hard for him to get a cheap cup of coffee on Sunday mornings. After this his party told him to just shut up and attend local fetes because with Gillard in power they were a shoe-in.

    Gillard stubbornly stuck by her railway, even though no one would build it, until this May when she abandoned it late on a Friday evening, before Kevin ousted her as PM. She has now retired to a luxury beachfront pad in Adelaide with Tim.

    It seems pretty clear that Sumner and Elder are going to use this website to promote Li as the underdog and campaign for his election. He is yet another inexperienced candidate parachuted in, this time all the way from China, whom they appear to know no more about than I do.

    Disclaimer: I once got a free sausage and Coke from a McKew BBQ held in support of the Lin family (one of whom is still awaiting trial for the murders). I will be voting informal, via postal vote because the queues at The School Of The Arts are ridiculous.