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Phelps’ victory sends message about treating the electorate with respect

Kathy Marks
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Published: 23 October 2018

Last updated: 4 March 2024

THE SWEETENERS – a $500,000 hand-out to North Bondi surf club, national heritage listing for Centennial Park, consideration to be given to moving the Australia’s Israeli embassy to Jerusalem – didn’t work.

Nor did the threats – of political instability, and an Independent supposedly in cahoots with Labor – or the dirty tricks, which culminated in a repugnant fake email last week claiming Dr Kerryn Phelps had withdrawn from the Wentworth race after being diagnosed with HIV.

Notwithstanding Sunday’s white-knuckle ride, when postal votes dramatically narrowed the gap between Phelps and Liberal candidate Dave Sharma, and the possibility (considered highly unlikely) of remaining postal votes delivering him a belated victory, Phelps appears to have pulled off an astonishing win in the Sydney harbourside seat – and the Coalition has suffered a crushing defeat which will reverberate all the way to the general election.

Senior Liberals were quick to play down the result – the biggest by-election swing in Australian history (nearly 19 per cent, according to latest figures) – as a one-off, blaming it on local anger at the ousting of Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister, and on Turnbull himself, for failing to voice fulsome support for Sharma during the campaign.

Bizarrely, the government brushed off what was undoubtedly the biggest policy issue for Wentworth voters: climate change. “On climate policy, we have got that right,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared at a media conference on Sunday.

Alongside the Coalition’s myopia on carbon emissions, Turnbull’s knifing and factional in-fighting in the Liberal Party, a number of factors contributed to the loss of a blue-ribbon eastern suburbs seat held by conservatives for more than a century.

Chief among those were a leaked report into religious freedom – Morrison took two days to repudiate its recommendation that laws allowing religious schools to ban gay students be tightened – and the embassy announcement, which was made without consulting international allies and smacked of desperation. (Indeed, with its implicit assumption that Wentworth’s 12.5 per cent Jewish population votes as a bloc – and would unanimously support the embassy move – it bordered on insulting.)

Then there was the unedifying fiasco of Coalition Senators backing (apparently by mistake) Pauline Hanson’s motion “It’s OK to be white”, with its white supremacist overtones. Rumblings of a possible coup against Nationals leader and Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack didn’t help, either.

Phelps’s stunning victory has sparked predictions in some quarters that other Liberals in apparently safe urban seats – such as Tony Abbott’s electorate of Warringah, on Sydney’s north shore – could be challenged by moderate Independents at next year’s election.

Sharma, meanwhile, who fought a respectable campaign in difficult circumstances, is expected to have another stab at a federal seat – perhaps even Wentworth in 2019.

As for the bloodied, beleaguered government, the Coalition will now be reliant on Phelps and five other crossbenchers to get legislation through – and to win any potential no-confidence vote.

Four of the six (including Phelps) have stated that the government should be allowed to serve out its term until mid-next year. However, a lot can happen in six months. And, for all the government’s attempts to paint Wentworth as unrepresentative of the rest of Australia (wealthier, better educated, more progressive), the by-election does not augur well for the Coalition, whether an election is held next May or earlier.

READ MORE
JULIE SZEGO: The Morrison government’s pointless Jerusalem moment (The Age)

Photo: Kerryn Phelps celebrates her victory on Saturday night (AAP/Chris Pavlich)

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

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