In Liberal heartland in Sydney’s northwest, former prime minister John Howard rallied the troops as the party faces the battle to retain government at the federal election.
“Quite a nice little meeting on a Saturday morning,” Mr Howard told a cheering crowd of over 100 party faithful as he launched the campaign of Simon Kennedy in Bennelong – his former seat which he held for over 30 years.
While introducing the new candidate, the former prime minister delivered a 15-minute, wide-ranging speech.
Mr Howard thanked the retiring member, tennis great John Alexander, for “tidying up that rather messy situation” after he lost the seat in 2007.
“John has been a distinguished servant in Australia,” he said.
“The man who won Bennelong back after the bloke before had been careless enough to lose it.”
What the former prime minister, the former tennis star and the former consultant shared on the day was a similar charisma when addressing the crowd.
Like his predecessors, Mr Kennedy, a former McKinsey partner, used a balance of wit and optimism to rouse the party faithful of all ages.
“This morning it was great to see a sea of blue out in the streets,” he said.
“Early this morning, I looked at my phone and I had a text message at 3am from young liberals up in blue Simon Kennedy shirts putting corflutes all over Eastwood.
“I thought that was fantastic. I wasn’t sure whether they were coming home or whether they were getting out but thank you anyway.”
Speaking after the event, Mr Kennedy said the mood in the electorate remained positive despite NSW Liberal Party ructions dominating headlines.
“Hundreds of people mobbing myself and John Howard – really good vibe,” he told AAP.
“I’m very focused on the community of Bennelong. I’m not receiving any questions about that.
“What I’m hearing about is the cost of living, housing affordability, the economy, over development and infrastructure.”
Bennelong was held by Mr Alexander on a 6.9 per cent margin at the 2019 election, where the former tennis star suffered a 2.8 per cent swing against him.
The economy and pandemic recovery featured heavily across speeches, with only fleeting mentions of Labor.
But Mr Howard had already made headlines before leaving the event after attacking ‘teal’ independents for being “anti-Liberal groupies”.
“Their aim is to hurt the Liberal Party, not to represent the middle ground of their electorates.
“If that were not their aim, they would be running candidates in Labor seats.”
Independent Zali Steggall called the remarks “appalling and sexist”.
“It explains a lot of the culture of the Liberal party and its problem with women,” the Warringah MP wrote on Twitter.
“Women in politics shouldn’t be denigrated with this type of language.”