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Wentworth by-election : Might Phelps Help Shorten Surf To Victory?

24 September 2018 146 views No Comment


By-elections matter. The Bass by-election in 1975 presaged the defeat of the Whitlam government. The Canberra by-election in 1995 predicted the defeat of the Keating government. The Aston by-election in 2004 foreshadowed the recovery of the Howard government. And most recently, the Longman by-election set in train the downfall of Malcolm Turnbull.

On the other hand, winning the Flinders by-election in late 1982 didn’t save the Fraser government at the general election just a few months later.

Winning next month’s Wentworth by-election won’t improve the Morrison government’s fortunes, but losing it will change things for the worse. Losing a seat where the Liberals won 67.7 per cent of the two-party preferred vote just two years ago would be a catastrophic blow to morale and it would make the government’s survival largely dependent on the unpredictable Bob Katter. Even last week, with Malcolm Turnbull out of parliament but his seat as yet unfilled, the government needed Katter’s vote to save Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton from a no-confidence motion

Across the country, many rusted-on Liberal supporters were ­relieved to see the end of Turnbull; but that’s much less true of the Liberals in Wentworth, who are appalled that he’s quit the seat, if they weren’t already dismayed that he was rolled as PM. Plainly the Liberals will lose any personal following Turnbull had, as well as suffer the general by-election swing (averaging 5 per cent). But even if that’s 10 per cent all up, there’s still a 7 per cent margin of comfort.

Of course, Turnbull contested the 2016 election as prime minister and there was no strong independent candidate against him. This time, there is a strong independent in the field, as well as a Labor candidate who has been highly active and visible since the moment Turnbull announced his departure. The Liberals’ strongest argument against the independent is that a “vote for Kerryn Phelps is a vote for Bill Shorten” — notwithstanding last week’s backflip. Shorten is likely to be even more unpopular than usual in the highly affluent parts of Wentworth. Still, having initially said that she’d put the Liberals last, no doubt advised by her uber-smart ex-Labor election guru Darrin Barnett, Phelps cleverly reversed that last Friday, announcing she would preference the Liberal Party.

A safe Liberal seat is always more vulnerable to a strong independent candidate than to Labor. Phelps needs disillusioned Liberals to vote for her. Her preference stunt is an attempt to give them permission to do so, knowing that she needs to come second in the primary votes and then surf to victory on the Labor preferences that she can take for granted. If she came third and her preferences were distributed, the Liberals would already be well on the way to winning. That’s why this apparent magnanimity towards the Liberals is such a shrewd move on her part and suggests that she will run a highly sophisticated campaign.

Money is unlikely to be a problem for Phelps as she’s a well-established local medico with a very large practice; the unions will be only too happy to chip in to help, and GetUp is already campaigning hard against the Liberals, with plenty of posters distributed around the area. We can be sure head office will warn the Labor candidate not to work too hard, as his job is to come third, not second.

To their credit, ignoring pleas to pick a woman, any woman, the Liberals have selected a fine candidate in former ambassador to Israel, Dave Sharma. Sharma’s background is Indian but he was an unusually well-regarded Australian envoy to Tel Aviv and should be extremely popular with the significant percentage of Wentworth voters who are Jewish. Although he was supported by the Michael Photios faction at preselection, he’s been at pains to emphasise he’s owned by no one and is more than capable of being his own man in parliament. Australia’s youngest ever ambassador will be on a steep learning curve as a candidate, but Sharma’s initial interviews suggest he’s politically savvy, intellectually acute and receptive to helpful advice.

The NSW Liberal Party is heavily factionalised and short of money. The party membership is old and divides into antagonistic progressive and conservative camps. Even so, I’d be surprised if it couldn’t pull together to mount at least as good a campaign in Wentworth as it ran last year in Bennelong, where a star candidate from Labor was convincingly beaten.

The wildcard will be Turnbull. He’s said that he’ll stay in New York until after the by-election and it’s hard to say whether having him on the hustings would help or hinder his would-be replacement. But as he’s already shown with his anti-Dutton tweeting, Turnbull can have a big impact on local politics from the other side of the world. The question is: does he want the Morrison government to win? Does he want the Liberal Party to succeed without him, or would he prefer its defeat to show how wrong it was to roll him?

You’d think that he’d be grateful to the Liberal Party for the chance to be PM and could accept his fate. On the other hand, Turnbull was quite happy to threaten the government’s hold on power by forcing a by-election in his own former seat and is trying to force another in Dutton’s much more marginal one.

My sense is that he could easily take the view of France’s Louis XV: Apres moi, le deluge.

So far, Turnbull has written to every elector in Wentworth about the “shocking and shameful” events leading to his removal as PM — an event, he said, that “disgraced our parliament and appalled our nation”.

Watch out for more sabotage in a similar vein from afar.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.

The Australian. Monday September 24, 2018, p 12.

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