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A climate for change in Wentworth: Sharma, Phelps and the Labor guy

Kathy Marks
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Published: 16 October 2018

Last updated: 4 March 2024

THE WELL-DRESSED WOMAN hurrying along rain-lashed Knox Street in Double Bay paused for a moment. “I’ve been a Liberal voter all my life,” she said, shaking the drops off her umbrella. “But I can’t vote for them this time. Not after what they did to Malcolm.”

Double Bay’s upmarket boutiques and apartment blocks lie within Wentworth, in Sydney’s sprawling eastern suburbs. One of Australia’s wealthiest electorates, Wentworth has been a Liberal stronghold since Federation. That could change on Saturday, with locals poised to vent their anger at the dumping of their popular local member, Malcolm Turnbull, at a keenly watched by-election.

With Mr Turnbull enjoying a nearly 18 per cent margin, the Liberal candidate, Dave Sharma, a former ambassador to Israel, would normally be a shoo-in. However, on top of the anticipated anti-Liberal backlash, he faces a formidable opponent in Independent Kerry Phelps, the former Australian Medical Association president and prominent same-sex marriage campaigner.

The loss of the seat, which has a substantial Jewish population (12.5 per cent, according to 2016 Census data), would be a bitter blow for Scott Morrison’s embattled Liberals, and augur poorly for the Coalition government at the general election, due by next May.

READ PM Morrison considering moving Australian embassy to Jerusalem

The potential repercussions are even more serious, though: with the government deprived of its one-seat majority, defeat in Wentworth could trigger an early election.

Conflicting polls, uncertain preference flows and the by-election’s unique circumstances – which include Turnbull’s son, Alex, urging voters to shun the Liberal Party in protest at it being “taken over by extremists on the hard right” – make the result difficult to predict.

No fewer than 16 candidates – including Dr Phelps, a Double Bay GP and Jewish convert, who renewed her marriage vows with partner Jackie Stricker at the Emanuel Synagogue in Woollahra in January – are standing for the seat, vacated by Turnbull on August 31 after Morrison replaced him as Liberal leader and prime minister.

A poll released by the non-aligned Voter Choice Project last weekend gave Dr Phelps 55.4 per cent of the two-candidate-preferred vote, ahead of Sharma. The Liberals’ own polling has the pair neck-and-neck, according to The Weekend Australian. But other surveys have been less promising for the high-profile Independent.

Despite the see-sawing figures, and still-entrenched Liberal loyalties in Wentworth, Dr Phelps believes she has a fighting chance of victory.

“One thing I’ve learnt is that the best poll is talking to people,” she told The Jewish Independent last week, at one of the pre-poll voting sites, the Margaret Whitlam Recreation Centre in Waverley Park, Bondi Junction, where a small army of volunteers in purple T-shirts had turned out to help her.

“Some people are saying that they’ve always voted Liberal and this is the first time they’ll be voting Independent. One of the common comments I’ve had is ‘thank you for standing and giving us an option’.” 

“Just last weekend I was in Vaucluse, Dover Heights, Randwick, Clovelly, Bondi, North Bondi and Elizabeth Bay, and in all those areas I got very strongly positive feedback for my policies.

“Some people are saying that they’ve always voted Liberal and this is the first time they’ll be voting Independent. One of the common comments I’ve had is ‘thank you for standing and giving us an option’.”

Born in Canada to an Indian father and Australian mother, Dave Sharma migrated to Sydney in 1979. Australia’s youngest ever ambassador, he told The Times of Israel last year, as his family prepared to depart, that Israel “will always be in our hearts … in our blood”.

Sharma, now a businessman, has impeccable connections in Sydney’s Jewish and business communities. James Packer and Solomon Lew are among his backers.

Less likely to support him, though, is another influential Jewish figure in the community: the Emanuel Synagogue’s Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins, who took the unusual step last week of urging members of his congregation to prioritise “the moral issue of climate change” when considering how to vote.

"In light of the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) showing the urgency of the climate situation, people need to vote to protect creation"

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"In light of the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) showing the urgency of the climate situation, people need to vote to protect creation," the Rabbi wrote in a letter mailed to the synagogue’s more than 3,600 members.

While Sharma has stated that he “completely accepts the science on climate change,” he has also insisted that the Coalition government is “doing enough” to bring down emissions. The Liberals’ policy vacuum on the issue has been made much of by rival candidates, including Phelps, who has placed climate change action at the centre of her platform, with a six-point plan which includes banning political donations from fossil fuel companies.

After his letter to congregants was reported by local media, Rabbi Kamins – who officiated at Phelps’s renewal of marriage vows, Australia’s first such Jewish ceremony after same-sex unions were legalised – appeared to backtrack. The synagogue issued a statement asserting that “neither Rabbi Kamins nor the Emanuel Synagogue endorses any political candidate or party in the upcoming Wentworth by-election” and encouraging members to “vote according to their conscience”.

Pundits say the Wentworth result will hinge on who finishes second behind Sharma in the primary vote. If that turns out to be Phelps, she could win with Labor and Greens preferences. But if it is the affable Labor candidate, Tim Murray, Phelps’s preferences could help elect Sharma.

“I, too, was appalled at the treatment that was meted out to him [Turnbull]. I wouldn’t discount that there is anger and frustration out there"

The City of Sydney councillor initially said she would preference the Liberals last – then announced she would favour them over Labor. The backflip, seen as an attempt to woo disenchanted Liberal voters, was seized upon by her opponents and dismayed some of her supporters.

At a packed “meet the candidates” forum at Bondi Pavilion last week, Phelps was heckled by locals and repeatedly challenged about the switch. She retorted that she “would have stayed home” if she had wanted the Liberals to win.

The meeting – which ranged over local issues, such as axed bus services and the need for a new public high school, to climate change, the ABC and offshore detention – was peppered with digs at Sharma, who was conspicuous by his absence.

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One audience member joked that Sharma had “got lost on the way” – a reference to him moving into the electorate only very recently, from Turramurra, on Sydney’s upper north shore.

The Greens candidate, Dominic Wy Kanak, drily declared: “The Liberals …. have abandoned their Prime Minister, the former prime minister’s abandoned the country, and the Liberal candidate has abandoned us.”

Both Phelps, who lives in Potts Point, and Murray, a Mandarin-speaking investment analyst, emphasised their local credentials. Born in Waverley, Murray has lived in Bronte, Paddington, Bondi Junction, Bondi Beach and, now, Tamarama, where he is president of the local surf club.

At the Bondi Pavilion, Phelps was applauded by other candidates, as well as the audience, when she called for “humane treatment of the asylum-seekers on Nauru and Manus Island, including the immediate evacuation of children and their families”. Australians, she said, were “a good-hearted people being led by a heartless government”.

The Liberals are reportedly spending up to $1 million in Wentworth, as well as throwing party heavyweights at the campaign. The Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, accompanied Sharma to Centennial Park on a sunny morning a fortnight ago, to announce that the 130-year-old park was being placed on the National Heritage List, “joining the likes of Bondi Beach, Uluru … [and] the MCG”.

“I do think for the country’s interests we should have a general election. Between now and May, the Coalition will just cynically sit around in power and hope people forget how badly they’ve behaved" 

In a brief interview with The Jewish Independent, Sharma identified support for Jewish education and security for Jewish community institutions as among his policy priorities. (The government subsequently announced an extra $2.2 million for security for Jewish schools and institutions in NSW.)

The Liberal candidate also said it was important to “keep a very close eye on anti-Semitism in Australia … I don’t think it’s nearly as bad as in Europe or parts of America, {but] we need to make sure that the climate does not allow these things to emerge, and if we do see them, that we stamp down on them very forcefully.”

While he may be a newcomer to Wentworth, Sharma can claim to be the candidate best versed in Middle-East politics.

Describing Israel as “a democratic and free society surrounded by a sea of hostility”, he observed: “I think people are a little too quick to judge its actions without taking full regard of its uniquely challenging circumstances.” Moving the US embassy to West Jerusalem will not jeopardise a two-state solution, he contends.

A member of the advisory board of Project Rozana, which raises funds to train Palestinian health professionals in Israeli hospitals and to treat critically-ill Palestinian children in Israel,  Sharma said such initiatives promoted peace by “building trust and understanding and empathy between peoples”.

Phelps calls herself “a supporter of Israel” who advocates a two-state solution, “so the people of the region can live in peace”.

Unlike some in his party,  Murray – who cheerfully admits to being “a novice in terms of understanding Jewish community issues” – does not back unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state. He said he supported Israel’s right to defend its borders, including launching pre-emptive air strikes on Iranian military targets in Syria.

While Sharma has mostly confined himself to broad policy statements, he has been outspoken on the subject of religious freedom, which was in the news last week after a leaked government inquiry report suggested that existing laws be tightened to enshrine the right of religious schools to discriminate against gay students and teachers.

Distancing himself from the report, Sharma said he was “opposed to any new measures that impose forms of discrimination on the basis of gender or sexual orientation, or anything else for that matter”. The government has since rejected the inquiry’s recommendation .

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Socially progressive Wentworth is home to a large LGBTI community, and more than 80 per cent of locals voted “yes” to legalising same-sex marriage.

At a debate in Bondi yesterday, hosted by the Sydney Morning Herald, Sharma urged locals to give the Liberals another chance. “I, too, was appalled at the treatment that was meted out to him [Turnbull],” he said. “I wouldn’t discount that there is anger and frustration out there … Ultimately, though, it will be for the voters to decide whether they’re ready to forgive or not.”

Although Phelps has pledged not to block supply if elected, Prime Minister Morrison warned on Saturday that a Liberal loss could lead to a hung parliament and instability.

Clearly anxious about the threat posed by the Independent, the Liberals have sought to paint her as a Labor stooge, distributing thousands of leaflets featuring photos of her and Labor leader Bill Shorten, and claiming that “a vote for Phelps is a vote for Labor”.

Murray relishes the prospect of an early election. “I do think for the country’s interests we should have a general election,” he said.

“Between now and May, the Coalition will just cynically sit around in power and hope people forget how badly they’ve behaved. I think they’ve lost legitimacy, and the only way to get legitimacy is to go to the polls.”











About the author

Kathy Marks

Kathy Marks is an award-winning Sydney-based journalist and author. She was The Independent’s Asia-Pacific Correspondent for 17 years

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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