Pub test: Wentworth
The Liberals really could lose it this time
Don’t underestimate the strength of the Liberal Party in Wentworth. Don’t underestimate the anger of Wentworth’s Liberals. It’s a seething, frothing mess in the richest electorate in the country, and anything could happen, except a Greens win. This parliament must by now hold the record for the number of by-elections in a single term; surely no government has ever had to face three successive tests of a single-seat majority. Each time the government fights to retain a seat, the stakes seem to ratchet higher. In New England, Barnaby Joyce was a pretty sure bet. In Bennelong, Malcolm Turnbull’s prime ministership was at more of a genuine risk. Now, in Turnbull’s old seat, the government itself could slip into a minority, or even be forced into calling an early election, although today Scott Morrison purported [$] to rule that out.
At first blush, the Liberal preselectors’ decision last night to pick former ambassador to Israel Dave Sharma seemed very high risk, if not outright electoral suicide. Amid a national debate about the bullying and intimidation of female politicians in the Liberal Party, and the party’s woeful under-representation of women, the Wentworth branch picked a non-resident with a not-especially-high profile, snubbing the preferred candidate of their own prime minister, Scott Morrison. Early frontrunner Andrew Bragg, armed with polling showing that a female candidate could save the seat from the inevitable backlash against the knifing of a popular local member and PM, had withdrawn to leave the way clear for former deputy mayor of Woollahra Katherine O’Regan. What were they thinking?
But walking around the heart of the electorate, it doesn’t take long to realise that even if Liberal voters are angry at the knifing of Turnbull, and even if they would have preferred a female candidate to run in his place, the habits of a lifetime are not easily broken. Jenny, a youthful 72, whom I meet walking with her daughter near the Turnbulls’ favourite restaurant, Catalina, has lived in the electorate since 1960 and has always voted Liberal. She is not a member of the party, but knows who all the candidates are, and was struck by John Howard’s endorsement of Sharma. She was no fan of Peter King (the former Liberal member-turned-independent who held the seat prior to Turnbull), and was shocked at Turnbull’s ousting. Although she had misgivings about the party’s position on the republic debate and marriage equality, she said, “I don’t want to let them down, I’ve been with them so long.” She continued, “Because I believe in what they stand for, which is capitalism, and if you look after the big end of town, it will help employ the small end of town. And if you haven’t got the big people to employ the smaller people, and take the pressure off the government, where’s it all going to end up?” Perhaps Turnbull will come back as president of the republic, she suggests.
I interview a few more Liberal voters – male and female – in the same position as Jenny: fans of Turnbull who wanted a woman as Liberal candidate but were going to stick with the party. I meet no fans of Tony Abbott or of Turnbull’s ousting.
Then there’s the solid Liberal voters who are ditching the party in disgust. At the Royal Oak in Double Bay, I meet David, 56, who is from from Bellevue Hill and works in the finance industry. He has voted for the Liberal Party or the Nationals his entire life (but is not a member of either party) and has lived in the electorate since the 80s. “I am a card-carrying moderate,” David says. “I have been a slavish Liberal supporter for many years, but I am so sick of that party … sorry to say this, but particularly the religious right, who are not representative of modern society.”
He is aghast at the latest coup, although he was disappointed in Turnbull’s failure to stand up to the right: “For the first time in my entire life I’m actually voting Labor and I don’t actually like Bill Shorten that much. If Labor was smart, they’d move to the right and pick up all that middle ground … à la Hawke/Keating.” He is not voting independent, regardless of whether Sydney City councillor and former AMA president Kerryn Phelps decides to run. Last night’s preselection made no difference. For all that, David still thinks the Liberals will win. He says, sadly: “I think the protest vote will be massive, I’ve never heard such talk from dyed-in-the-wool Liberal voters who are not going to vote Liberal this time, but in my bones I don’t think it will be enough.”
Another Jenny, 59, a company director, has lived in the electorate for 30 years, and has been a staunch Liberal supporter, but will now vote independent – any independent – although she could never vote for Labor or the Greens and, when pressed, admits she will probably give the Libs her second preference. Her voice almost shaking, Jenny jumps at the chance to be interviewed, and is furious at the party (again, she is not a member). “I think the Liberal Party has completely screwed up, and I won’t be voting Liberal,” she says. “They need to get their act together and remember why they got that job. The job is to represent us, not to backstab each other.” Jenny might have stayed with the party had it preselected either O’Regan or Mary-Lou Jarvis: “I just think that it’s a boys’ club … I won’t be voting for that guy.” I asked her if she would still feel this way, knowing that the outcome could mean that Wentworth elects a Labor or independent member, or that there could be an early election. “I do know that, yeah. Something has to change … we need a fixed term of four years; they should stick to their term, stick to their leader, it’s completely ridiculous what we’re going through.”
since this morning
The AFR reports [$] that the Australian Securities and Investments Commission is taking court action against ANZ in relation to the controversial $2.5 billion equity capital raising in August 2015 that is the subject of a criminal cartel case.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
Prime Minister Scott Morrison faces a crisis vote [$] next week, with two more (unnamed) Liberal MPs threatening to join Julie Bishop in a backbench rebellion that could force Peter Dutton to face the High Court.
The Australian reports [$] that Scott Morrison has called on Malcolm Turnbull to stop undermining the government, with the prime minister’s office approaching key members of the ousted leader’s camp in a bid to end leaking and destabilisation.
Also in The Australian, Dennis Shanahan writes [$] that “Morrison’s desperate dream of bringing Australia ‘together again’ to set the Coalition on a path to electoral victory is being destroyed by war between the extremists within the Liberal Party.”
Scott Morrison has apologised for a bizarre video that his office posted on social media, showing him rousing his troops to the soundtrack of a well-known US hip-hop tune that glorifies money and casual sex.
Former Commonwealth environmental water holder David Papps has called deputy prime minister Michael McCormack “scientifically illiterate”, and said that the removal of environmental water for farmers’ drought relief was illegal and would “blow up” the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.
Industry is urging federal parliament to salvage the National Energy Guarantee, as Labor contemplates adopting the contentious policy that triggered the Turnbull government’s implosion.
In a speech to mark the 15th anniversary of the Lowy Institute, billionaire Frank Lowy said that Australia was heading in the wrong direction and “having five prime ministers in five years is not acceptable”.
Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is also the author of three books, including a recently updated unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?
Don’t underestimate the strength of the Liberal Party in Wentworth. Don’t underestimate the anger of Wentworth’s Liberals. It’s a seething, frothing mess in the richest electorate in the country, and anything could happen, except a Greens win. This parliament must by now hold the record for the number of by-elections in a single term; surely no government has ever had to face three successive tests of a single-seat majority. Each time the government fights to retain a seat, the stakes seem to ratchet higher. In New England, Barnaby Joyce was a pretty sure bet. In Bennelong, Malcolm Turnbull’s prime ministership was at more of a genuine risk. Now, in Turnbull’s old seat, the government itself could slip into a minority, or even be forced into calling an early election, although today Scott Morrison...