Wentworth byelection: The Liberal Party’s last stand

Call it Malcolm Turnbull’s final revenge. The ex-prime minister isn’t going to campaign for the Liberal Party in the seat of Wentworth in next month’s byelection. He will be holidaying overseas with his family.

Turnbull’s absence is dangerous for the party. Since he was first elected in the prosperous eastern Sydney seat in 2004, the party’s majority has increased from 5 per cent to 17 per cent.

The big shift reflects, in part, Turnbull’s personal popularity due to the prestige of becoming prime minister, his support for liberal causes such as same-sex marriage and his high profile in the electorate.

Residents of Wentworth, which stretches from Watsons Bay to Moore Park, report seeing Turnbull swimming at Bondi Beach and drinking at the Centennial Hotel on Oxford Street.

Andrew Bragg, a leading candidate for the Wentworth seat, is president of the Paddington branch of the Liberal Party and ...
Andrew Bragg, a leading candidate for the Wentworth seat, is president of the Paddington branch of the Liberal Party and used to work for the Business Council of Australia.

SMH

Wentworth is white, wealthy and privileged. It has some of Australia’s most expensive schools, houses and restaurants.

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The voters, Labor and Liberal, hold very liberal views on social issues, including the use of drugs, homosexuality and religious practices, with the exception of parts of the Jewish community, who make up about 13 per cent of the electorate.

One in 10 voters

If Turnbull’s personal support is worth one in 10 of the seat’s 145,000 voters, the Liberal Party’s margin without him is about 7 per cent. The average swing in a byelection against the government was 3.3 per cent between 1901 and 2014, according to the parliamentary library.

These aren’t average times. Many Australians are mystified and disappointed at Turnbull’s removal. Without Turnbull present during the campaign to assuage voters’ anger and endorse his successor, history suggests a swing of 17 per cent in extreme circumstances is possible.

Potential Liberal candidate Dave Sharma with Lucy Turnbull, Malcolm Turnbull's wife. He doesn't live in the electorate.
Potential Liberal candidate Dave Sharma with Lucy Turnbull, Malcolm Turnbull’s wife. He doesn’t live in the electorate.

The byelection, which is expected October 6, could be the moment most Australians conclude the Coalition government is finished and Bill Shorten will coast to victory.

“It’s not going to be a walk in the park but obviously we will work really hard to retain it,” says Sally Betts, the head of the Liberal Party organisation in the seat.

Hung Parliament

If Wentworth falls to Labor, the Parliament will be hung and speaker Tony Smith will decide contested votes, placing the government in a precarious position.

Wentworth Liberal Sally Betts: 'It's not going to be a walk in the park.'
Wentworth Liberal Sally Betts: ‘It’s not going to be a walk in the park.’

Sarah Keayes

Asked why Turnbull wasn’t going to campaign in the seat, one person close to him put it simply: “They knifed him.”

The well-organised Labor Party chose a candidate three months ago, Tim Murray, although he is not allowed to give media interviews.

Nominations for Liberal candidates close on Monday. Party sources point to two leading candidates: former Business Council of Australia manager Andrew Bragg, 34, and former ambassador to Israel, Dave Sharma, whose Wikipedia profile says he is 41 or 42.

Tony Abbott’s younger sister, Christine Forster. is also running. But her connection to the former prime minister, who many people blame for Turnbull’s downfall, appears to have hurt her chances. Turnbull’s predecessor in the seat, barrister Peter King, is considering running too.

On Thursday, Angela Vithoulkas, founder of the Small Business Party, announced she will be contesting the seat as an independent while high-profile medico Dr Kerryn Phelps (like Forster and Vithoulkas, a City Sydney councillor) is also considering a run.

Complementary skills

Liberals Bragg and Sharma represent the two complementary skills of politics: campaigning and policy.

Bragg was briefly federal director of the Liberal Party and until this week ran a digital campaign unit for the Business Council trying to compete with GetUp. Sharma was a senior diplomat who served in Washington before heading up the embassy in Tel Aviv from 2013 to 2017.

The Liberal candidate will be chosen by a vote of office bearers from local branches, a central panel, and the state executive. One party source said the branch representatives would make up about 70 per cent of the vote.

Bragg is a local. He has lived in the electorate for 10 years and is president of the Paddington branch.

Sharma lives outside the seat but has been building links to the Jewish community. Both men are prohibited by Liberal Party rules from giving interviews although have established relationships with journalists in recent years.

Siding with Trump

When he was an ambassador, Sharma, who is of Indian heritage, was unable to take public positions at odds with government policy. Now out of the public service he has been using social media and newspaper columns to build his profile.

On the highly contentious question of whether the Australian embassy should move to Jerusalem – which most non-partisan experts oppose as too pro-Israeli – Sharma leans towards Donald Trump’s position.

“I don’t think we should be ruling it out,” he said on Twitter. “I don’t think we should be rushing to do it either. The Americans have moved their embassy and the world hasn’t ended.”

He has defended free trips for politicians, including those paid by the Chinese phone company Huawei, on the basis their work travel entitlements are too tight. “MPs cannot travel overseas and inform themselves, do their jobs, without accepting paid trips,” he has said.

Big business baggage

Bragg’s employment with the Business Council could become a target for the Labor Party, which successfully campaigned against the Turnbull government’s corporate tax cuts in byelections last month.

Even though the Morrison government doesn’t plan to go ahead with the tax cuts, they were championed by the Business Council. Labor might seek to portray Bragg as a shady big-business lobbyist.

On the other hand, Liberal Party donors have been pushing the party for years to come up with an effective counter-force to GetUp. Bragg was one of the first Liberals to challenge GetUp directly. (GetUp wouldn’t discuss its plan for Wentworth.)

As a married, straight man, Bragg volunteered to run a Liberal and Nationals party campaign in favour of gay marriage last year. Wentworth has a large gay population and Sydney’s annual mardi gras is held in the seat each year.

Morale hit

The election will be a test of the Liberal Party’s organisation skills and preparation for the general election, which is expected next year. The party hasn’t yet chosen candidates in marginal Labor seats around the country, whereas Labor candidates have been campaigning in marginal Liberal seats for years.

The Liberal Party is strong in Wentworth. Normally, the party could draw on about 1000 members to help with the campaign.

Turnbull’s removal is likely to have hurt morale. His decision to be overseas during the election may be interpreted as a rebuke to the party. His son, Alex, this week praised the Labor candidate.

“They don’t blame Turnbull,” says John Wakefield, the Labor mayor of Waverley Council, which covers Bondi Beach. “The blame is being placed on those who did him over.”

An angry electorate

One of Turnbull’s Point Piper neighbours, retired businessman Geoffrey Cousins, says the Liberal Party is likely to win unless a specific issue emerges during the campaign to tap into resentment towards the government.

“The electorate generally is very angry with the Liberal Party, which made a shocking mess of recent events,” he says.

A poll this week put the Labor and Liberal parties at equal support. “The bills are coming in for the coup,” ABC political commentator Barrie Cassidy responded.

The evenly matched poll relies on the allocation of preferences, which are hard to predict. The high-profile nature of the byelection and its location in a major city is likely to attract many candidates.

The Science Party is running. “It will be a privilege to offer data-driven, rights-based policies for the people of Wentworth,” its candidate said. So too a founder of the Small Business Party.

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