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The range of candidates running in the Wentworth byelection reflects an electorate that has less and less in common with the Liberal Party, which has held the seat since the party’s foundation. By Mike Seccombe.

Liberal drift in Wentworth

Even by the deceitful standards of the past few weeks in Liberal Party politics, Scott Morrison’s effort at rallying support ahead of the Wentworth byelection was desperately disingenuous.

The Labor Party, he said, now had two candidates in the running for the seat vacated by Malcolm Turnbull.

“There’s Bill Shorten’s actual candidate, who probably can’t win, which is why the Labor Party now has a different candidate in Kerryn Phelps,” he said. “She’s clearly not a Liberal, quite the opposite…”

The lines were delivered at Tuesday’s party room meeting, but those in the room were obviously not the prime minister’s target audience, for no political professional would have been fooled by them. They were intended for public consumption, which is why they were passed on verbatim to journalists at a briefing after the meeting.

The thing that actually concerns Morrison and his party is not that Phelps is too Labor, but that she is too much a liberal.

They are scared that the values she represents and the policies she espouses are near enough identical to those espoused by Turnbull, who was so strongly supported by the voters of Wentworth and so recently driven out by a party that is no longer very liberal at all.

Phelps, in the words of one person associated with her campaign, is positioning herself as “the good Malcolm that everyone hoped they would get”.

The candidate herself does not put it quite so succinctly, but nor does she demur when it is put to her that there appears to be little separating her views from those held by Turnbull – the member Turnbull was, that is, before the Liberal Party forced him to be increasingly untrue to his beliefs.

The real Turnbull, Phelps says, “was on the record as supporting marriage equality and on the record supporting climate change action, on the record supporting a whole range of moderate liberal values.

“But in government he was nobbled by the hard right. He had to toe the party line. And that was tragic. And in the end the right destroyed him.

“And there is the advantage of being an independent,” she says.

It’s hard to argue with her, particularly at this time, when Australia’s voters are unprecedentedly distrustful of the major parties. And particularly in the seat of Wentworth, which is far more eclectic – and indicative of a changing electorate – than it first appears.

Yes, it is rich, by multiple measures. Wentworth has Australia’s highest house prices average at about $2.5 million, although some, such as Turnbull’s Point Piper mansion – worth an estimated $50 million – inflate that figure. Tax data show the seat includes four of the five postcodes with the highest average incomes. It’s no surprise then that since Australian Federation the seat has always been represented by non-Labor politicians, either from the Liberal Party or its predecessor parties. And yes, Turnbull held it with a whopping 17.7 per cent margin at the 2016 election.

But look a little deeper, and you find some very interesting, and for the Morrison government very scary, demographics. Small though it is – at under 40 square kilometres the second-smallest of all electorates – Wentworth is very diverse, from genteel Rose Bay to grungy parts of Kings Cross, staid Vaucluse to cool Paddington and hedonistic Bondi.

According to census data, the seat has an abnormally high proportion of single people and couples living in de facto relationships. More than half of its residents were born overseas and almost half have tertiary qualifications, which is well above double the national average.

Wentworth also is exceptionally non-religious. At census time, close to half either specifically stated they had no religion or stated no particular faith. The biggest religions were Catholic, 20.1 per cent; Jewish, 12.5; and Anglican, 10.6. Christians of all kinds were in the minority.

Not that the denizens of Wentworth lack the old Protestant work ethic. They actually work longer hours than average Australians, in better jobs, are more likely to live in two-income households, and have household incomes 40 per cent higher than average. Yet 44 per cent of them rent their homes, compared with 31 per cent nationally, and pay their landlords well over twice as much. Those with mortgages pay double the national average each month. Which is to say, they are under heavy cost-of-living stress, notwithstanding their healthy pay packets.

The seat is home to a large LGBTQI community, and in last year’s marriage equality postal survey, Wentworth returned an 81 per cent Yes vote, the fourth-highest in the nation and the highest of any Coalition-held seat. And although the Labor vote has been in decline for the past three decades, it is because a substantial minority of the population has moved further to the political left. In the most recent federal election, the Greens candidate got 15 per cent of the primary vote, compared with Labor’s 17.7. And at the state and local level, Wentworth voters show strong support for progressives and independents. They care about issues on which the Liberal Party is weak, such as climate change, Indigenous affairs and refugees.

All this demographic detail goes to make a few points. First, it helps explain the personal popularity of Malcolm Turnbull who, like his electorate, was cosmopolitan, secular and socially progressive, at least by Liberal Party standards. Second, it suggests trouble ahead for Prime Minister Morrison, who is none of those things, although he was raised in the electorate. His opponents are apt to point to a quote he gave to The Sydney Morning Herald back in 2016: “Bronte wouldn’t feel like home to me today.”

And third, the demographic data helps contextualise the campaign strategies of the diverse array of candidates vying for the seat.

At time of writing, there are nine. Although there could yet be more before nominations close this Thursday. Of those, observers suggest five are likely to be most relevant to the outcome.

First is the Liberals’ Dave Sharma, who comes with a very impressive CV: master of arts, first-class honours in his law degree, a master’s in international relations, rapid rise through the Department of Foreign Affairs, ambassador to Israel by age 37.

But there are reasons to suspect he might not be an ideal fit for Wentworth. For a start, he lacks any personal connection to the seat and lives more than 30 kilometres away, in the leafy northern suburb of Turramurra – although he has promised to move to Wentworth, should he win the seat. Second, he was politicised in the office of former foreign minister Alexander Downer. Downer had a strong record for hothousing young talent – Josh Frydenberg was another – but not Liberal moderates. And the little we know of Sharma suggests a right-winger.

Last December, in a comment piece for The Australian, he argued that President Trump’s controversial decision to move the United States embassy in Israel to Jerusalem could “lay the groundwork for genuine progress”.

Despite abundant evidence the move has done nothing of the sort, Sharma doubled down with another piece for Fairfax Media in May, saying, “as a pragmatic and solution-oriented nation Australia should be prepared to lend our support to this common-sense proposition. We should consider recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.”

Such views might be expected to win significant support from Wentworth’s large Jewish community and, more importantly, help open some very big wallets for a party that is acutely strapped for money. Another Fairfax story cited Liberal sources in calling Sharma the “million-dollar man”, and claimed he was supported by heavy-hitters including Solomon Lew, David Gonski and Rabbi Levi Wolff, from the central synagogue in Bondi, as well as James Packer.

How such Trumpian views go down with the broader Wentworth community, not to mention more moderate Jews, is another question. Certainly Sharma’s main opponents have not rushed to similar positions.

Phelps, who is Jewish, tells The Saturday Paper she strongly endorses Israel’s “right to defend itself … within secure borders”.

“I want a peaceful solution. This has been going on for 70 years. I don’t pretend to have the answer,” she says.

Labor’s candidate, Tim Murray, used a very similar form of words in an interview this week with The Australian Jewish News, stressing the importance of “respect[ing] Israel’s borders and its right to defend itself”.

He also dumped on sections of his own party.

“I do not support the NSW Labor people that advocated for an independent recognition of Palestine. I don’t believe Bob Carr has an informed point of view,” he said.

Beyond Sharma’s views on Israel, little is known about his policy platform, with one unfortunate exception. In yet another opinion piece, run in The Sydney Morning Herald, he addressed the need for reform of school education.

“Most school assets – the buildings and infrastructure – are used only during school hours, or roughly 15 per cent of the time,” he wrote. “School employees and teachers are similarly underemployed, working hours closer to three-quarters of a regular full-time job.”

Big mistake. In response to wide criticism from teachers, parents and his political opponents, Sharma issued a grovelling tweet on Wednesday night.

“Re my SMH oped on schools: I owe all teachers an unreserved apology,” he wrote.

“My main point was to [question] whether school as structured serves needs of modern society. Comment about teachers unfair & unwarranted. I benefited from many hardworking + great teachers, as do my daughters. Mea culpa.”

A spokesperson for Sharma’s campaign said that he supported marriage equality and believed in anthropogenic climate change, while also stressing the party line about affordable and secure energy supply.

Sharma’s other problem is not of his making. Before the Liberal preselection, Morrison made known his preference for a female candidate, apparently on the basis of polling showing that could bring in a few extra per cent of votes. But the selection panel rejected the women who stood. Given all the current heat about the low and declining representation of women, and the welter of complaints about gendered bullying during the leadership contest, it’s just not a good time to be yet another male conservative candidate.

Of course, Labor’s Tim Murray also is a bloke, but it plays as less of a problem for him, given nearly half of his party’s members in the House of Representatives are female, and Labor has set a quota of 50 per cent by 2025. Vote for this man, the campaign formulation goes, and you get a party replete with women. Watch for lots of appearances in Wentworth during the campaign by prominent Labor women, such as Tanya Plibersek and Penny Wong, the latter Australia’s first female LGBTQI parliamentarian.

Murray has a couple of other things going for him. He was born in Waverley and though he left for 20 years to work in China, he has lived in Wentworth for the past five years. He has strong local connections. He is president of the Tamarama surf club. And he has had something of a head start in campaigning, having been endorsed back in May.

On the other hand, until the Liberal leadership coup, and resignation of Turnbull, Labor had not put a lot of resources into Wentworth, for they had no hope of beating the then prime minister.

That has changed now. Labor still doesn’t think it has a realistic chance of winning, but it sees an opportunity to help the Liberals lose. And they are being helped in this by some surprising people, most notably Alex Turnbull. Not only do Murray and Turnbull’s son know each other well, through their shared history in financial services, but Turnbull the younger holds strong progressive views, particularly on climate change.

He has advocated a vote for Labor, saying one could not “in good conscience” vote Liberal because the party has been hijacked by the coal lobby. What’s more, Turnbull has called on his wealthy fund manager mates to kick money into the Labor campaign.

“Best bang for the buck you’ll get in political donations in your life,” said one of his many tweets. “Tight race, tight margin for government, big incremental effect whatever happens. If you want a federal election now this is the means by which to achieve it.”

Sources suggest this has yielded some $40,000 in donations, so far.

No doubt, though, the Liberals will spend much, much more than Labor in Wentworth, both because the seat is more important to them – this is literally an existential crisis for the government and maybe even the party – and because the harbourside-mansion set is still substantially behind them.

One anecdote highlights the difference between the campaigns. The Wentworth Courier reported last week on an upcoming Liberal fundraiser, saying the “$500 per head September 21 party at the Woollahra home Ms [Skye] Leckie shares with her former media executive husband David will be an eastern suburbs homecoming of sorts for Mr Morrison, who grew up in Bronte.”

The article notes that, originally, the event planned to feature the former prime minister.

“Ms Leckie is understood to be hitting the phones bringing guests up-to-date with the changed arrangements,” the Courier said.

Murray organised an LGBTQI-friendly, family-friendly fundraiser at the nearby Dickerson Gallery on the same night, attended by a substantial cohort of surf club mates.

When it comes to local roots, though, neither of the major party candidates can compete with the Greens’ Dominic (Darugland Boondi Boondi) Wy Kanak. He has served on Waverley Council since 1999, and is in his second stint as deputy mayor. He has equally long connections with various Indigenous and local community organisations.

Asked about his campaign issues, he says, “Obviously with my cultural bias I’m concerned about First Peoples’ need to get some focus on First Nations sovereignty, reconciliation, treaty.”

He also nominates climate change – unlike Phelps, Sharma or Murray, he is unequivocal about stopping the development of new coalmines, particularly the Adani mega-mine in Queensland – and the usual range of Greens’ social justice issues, as well as the need to curtail “rampant” development, particularly on Crown land at South Head.

He is, it seems, more a man of action than words – action on the steps of Malcolm Turnbull’s electoral office, on the beach in front of Turnbull’s house, in various places. When thousands of people gathered on Bondi Beach last year to spell out “#stop adani”, Wy Kanak was there.

He represents a substantial demographic. He has no chance of winning Wentworth, but the preference of his supporters will be important to the outcome.

It’s a similar case for independent Licia Heath – yet another former finance sector worker who gave it up a couple of years ago to work, mostly pro bono, on various community issues. She is a director of a non-profit organisation called Women for Election Australia, which aims to equip women with the practical skills for seeking public office.

Her campaign platform is largely about reforming the political process. She wants, among other things, tighter controls on political lobbying, four-year election cycles, a federal anti-corruption body akin to ICAC, and – particularly pertinent given recent revelations about the role of Rupert Murdoch in deposing Turnbull – reforms to media ownership laws, including a public interest test on mergers, greater powers for the press council, stronger protections for the ABC and perhaps deductible gift recipient status for those who fund independent journalism.

Heath also is prominent in the campaign to get a new high school in Wentworth, which is a big local issue. She has a campaign war chest of only $50,000 to $100,000, but importantly, she has the backing of the local independent state MP, Alex Greenwich, and his campaign machine. Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore also has expressed her approval of Heath, although has not offered a formal endorsement – yet.

Once again, Heath can’t win, but she is expected to draw enough support to make her preferences important. And, as with all the others, she won’t be directing them to the Liberals. Nor, it is understood, will a couple of the other lesser players: the Science Party and the Voluntary Euthanasia Party.

Which brings us back to Kerryn Phelps, the candidate with the best chance. She is cleverly pulling together the disparate threads of the diverse field. She is the moderate Jew, the high-profile campaigner for marriage equality, the advocate of gender equality. As one-time president of the Australian Medical Association she drove that organisation to take a stand on the health effects of climate change, way back in 2002. On all the key social issues, she is centre-left.

But on economic issues, she is calculatedly conservative – she prefers to say “sensible”. Whatever word you use, she is opposed to Labor Party economic reforms – on superannuation, trusts, dividend imputation et cetera – that might threaten the retirement incomes of Wentworth’s wealthy constituents.

A Turnbullian liberal, she is threading the needle between the social progressives and the economic conservatives.

And a few weeks from now, she’s in with a good chance to stitch up a party that once was liberal.

 

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that David Sharma did not respond to a request for an interview.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 22, 2018 as "Blur-ribbon seat". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper's national correspondent.