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Politics is being held in stasis as the government awaits the outcome of the Wentworth byelection – even as the Liberal candidate is missing in action. By Mike Seccombe.

Wentworth: The race that has stopped the nation

Liberal candidate for Wentworth Dave Sharma and Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
Credit: AAP Image / Mick Tsikas

Some 300 citizens and 14 candidates for the Wentworth byelection braved the wind and slanting rain on Monday night to debate the issues at the historic Bondi Pavilion. But the race’s frontrunner, the Liberal Party’s Dave Sharma, was missing. Much like his party’s climate policy.

Campaign staff told the organisers Sharma had a prior engagement, but the suspicion was that he was being hidden. Much like the recommendations of the government’s inquiry into religious freedom – subsequently leaked this week.

Certainly, the crowd was not happy when the debate moderator announced Sharma couldn’t make it. There were jeers, and laughter at a few shouted interjections that Sharma – preselected even though he didn’t live in the electorate – couldn’t find his way to Bondi.

From the first minute, for two-and-a-half hours it was pretty much open season on Sharma and the party for which he stands. It wasn’t only the other candidates taking shots, either, but also the audience, who expressed their antipathy for Sharma and the Liberals in both their questions and their interjections.

And while the throng at Bondi could not by any means be considered representative of the whole electorate of Wentworth, much less Australia, the depth and breadth of the anger expressed at Monday’s meeting suggested not only short-term peril for Sharma but also longer-term peril for the Liberal Party as a whole. This byelection has held Australian politics in stasis. The stakes for the government could not be higher. If it loses – and that is a possibility – its razor-thin parliamentary majority will be gone, and it will be relying on the fickle cross bench for support. So it makes sense that the government is pouring money into the Wentworth runoff. But almost every time Scott Morrison has spoken publicly during the campaign, he has made Sharma’s job a whole lot harder.

In Bondi, the speakers’ attacks on the government ranged widely, from funding for government schools to political interference in the ABC to the cruel treatment of asylum seekers, campaign finance, arts funding, Alan Jones bullying the Opera House chief executive, euthanasia, paedophiles, you name it.

But amid the thicket of policy ideas, a few recurring themes became clear.

The first was how angry the people remain that Malcolm Turnbull had fallen victim to a coup by the party’s right wing, for no given reason. That resentment was further fuelled by the invisibility of Sharma, who is seen as an outsider imposed on Wentworth voters. As Greens candidate Dominic Wy Kanak summarised, in one of the best lines of the night, the Liberals “abandoned their prime minister, the former prime minister has abandoned the country and the candidate has abandoned us”.

The second standout issue was the government’s cruel treatment of asylum seekers, particularly children held in offshore detention.

And the third, really big issue, to which almost every candidate referred and all the major contenders referred in detail, was climate change. It was the focus of the most questions from the floor. It has become the main battleground of this campaign.

Climate change was always expected to be a significant concern in this byelection, of course, for Wentworth is a socially progressive and environmentally concerned electorate, notwithstanding its uninterrupted history of returning Liberal members of parliament.

A poll of Wentworth voters conducted for The Australia Institute on August 27 found two thirds of them were unhappy with the government’s abandonment of a greenhouse gas emissions target. Almost 69 per cent expected Scott Morrison would do less to tackle climate change than Turnbull. And 62.5 per cent thought Australia should move to 100 per cent renewable energy within five to 10 years.

Other polls since then have also reflected the pre-eminence of climate as a concern. One conducted for the Refugee Council of Australia last week, for example, found climate change to be the No. 1 issue among Wentworth voters, followed by the desire to register a protest about the dumping of Turnbull and, third, getting children out of offshore detention. In that survey more than 62 per cent of respondents said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate advocating a credible climate policy.

Such findings, it should be noted, are not unique to Wentworth. A variety of national polls have shown majority concern about climate change. Just last month, an Essential poll found 54 per cent of respondents believed the current drought across eastern Australia was linked to it. Just 25 per cent thought it was not.

And all those surveys were taken before the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, released on Monday, which Morrison utterly dismissed at a Gold Coast doorstop. He said the report “does not provide recommendations to Australia or Australia’s program – this is dealing with the global program”. Which was technically true, but entirely misleading.

Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack said Australia would “absolutely” continue to use and export coal. The government was not about to make policy changes, he said, in his garbled way, “just because somebody might suggest that some sort of report is the way we need to follow and everything that we should do”.

And Environment Minister Melissa Price, interviewed on Tuesday’s AM radio program, admitted she had not read the IPCC report, but insisted Australia was “on track” to meeting its Paris commitments, even as she acknowledged carbon dioxide emissions were still rising. She also disputed the science behind the report’s conclusion on ending coal use for electricity generation.

Those who care about the issue of climate change were predictably outraged, perhaps none more pithily than renewable energy specialist Simon Holmes à Court, who encouraged his Twitter followers to listen to Price’s “car crash of an interview”, accused her of lying about Australia being on track to meet its emissions target and declared her “not fit for office”.

Holmes à Court also told his followers in Wentworth to ask Sharma if he stands by Price, if they could find him. “If Sharma toes the party line, he’s not fit for office either,” Holmes à Court tweeted.

Meanwhile, John Hewson, former leader of the Liberal Party and member for Wentworth, effectively encouraged a vote against his old party this week. He said voters should treat the byelection as a referendum on climate change.

“Given the magnitude and urgency of the climate challenge, as confirmed this week by the latest IPCC report, a major political party that fails to develop a climate action plan essentially forfeits the right to govern,” he said.

Hewson also spoke at another forum in Bondi, this one on Wednesday and specifically about climate change, alongside environmentalists, climate scientists and one of Wentworth’s best-connected business identities, Geoff Cousins.

Cousins told The Saturday Paper that Scott Morrison’s response to the IPCC report was “shameful and shows no regard whatever for Australia’s longer-term economic future, or immediate concerns such as the Great Barrier Reef and the Adani coalmine.

“But that’s hardly surprising from a man who carried a piece of coal into the Australian parliament as if it was a rare diamond.”

Four of the five most prominent candidates for Wentworth – Labor’s Tim Murray, the Greens’ Dominic Wy Kanak, and independents Kerryn Phelps and Licia Heath – turned up to the Wednesday forum. Sharma, once again, did not.

Other candidates are making an issue of his invisibility. Phelps’s campaign has been trolling on social media with the message: “Hey Libs. Where’s Dave?”

In fact, his whereabouts on Wednesday night are known, revealed in The Australian newspaper. He was at a $1500-a-head Liberal Party fundraiser with self-acknowledged climate sceptic, former prime minister John Howard.

Still, he is hard to spot, even in some of his own campaign material. At least one recent mailout was devoted entirely to attacking Phelps – seen by the Liberals as their biggest threat – and didn’t once mention Sharma’s name.

The Liberal Party is spending big on the Wentworth campaign, as might be expected given that the loss of the seat also would deprive the Coalition government of its majority in the house.

Labor, by contrast, has not put a lot of resources into Wentworth, for a couple of reasons. First, it is husbanding its finances for the general election, due to be held by May next year. Second, it sees little chance of winning.

Despite its lack of effort, though, some polls have shown Labor running ahead of Phelps on primary votes, in second place behind Sharma. So why are the Liberals putting all their efforts into attacking her, rather than Labor?

The answer lies in the maths of preferential voting. The widely held belief is that if Phelps finishes second on the primary vote next Saturday, Labor preferences would flow strongly to her and could push her to a win. If Labor were to finish second, though, the preference flow from Phelps would not be as strong, but would instead go back to the Liberal Party.

That’s the theory, but given the field of 16 candidates and the unique circumstances of the seat and the contest, nothing is certain. All sorts of variables are in play.

For one, there is the question of whether the power of money can beat the power of people. The Liberals have much more of the former, but their multiple opponents are way ahead on people power.

Apart from the campaign teams of the individual candidates, the formidable campaigning muscle of GetUp! has been harnessed to the climate change cause – which effectively means the anti-Liberal cause.

The organisation sent a 48-question survey to all candidates. Of the main contenders, Sharma was the only one not to respond. And this week, GetUp! finished assessing the responses and produced how-to-vote cards instructing voters on four different ways they can “send a message on climate change”, by voting for Labor, Greens, Phelps or Heath.

At time of writing, GetUp! members – the organisation claims one in 10 Wentworth voters is a member – had made more than 33,000 phone calls into the electorate to talk climate change. At least 100 volunteers had signed up to hand out those how-to-votes on election day.

Then there is the other issue that fell like a rock on the Sharma campaign this week. That was the leaking on Wednesday of parts of a confidential report into so-called religious freedoms, commissioned as a sop to the Coalition’s religious right at the time of last year’s debate over marriage equality. The government has been sitting on it for five months.

The issue is hugely problematic for the Coalition as a whole because it threatens to restart the internecine warfare between the religious right and social conservatives and the party’s more progressive elements. As The Financial Review’s Phil Coorey put it on ABC TV on Wednesday night, party moderates were warning of “World War III” if the government – led now, of course, by a member of the religious right, who opposed marriage equality – tried to use the report to entrench anti-gay discrimination on religious grounds.

But it’s even more problematic for Sharma, who is running for the seat that returned the highest “Yes” vote of all Coalition electorates in the country in the postal vote, and whose main opponent happens to have been one of the leaders of the marriage equality campaign.

Phelps immediately dialled it up to 11, voicing concerns that the government was preparing to water down Australia’s anti-discrimination laws, and “use vulnerable children and vulnerable groups of people as a political wedge”.

Midweek, Sharma broke cover and took a stance on a hard issue.

“On a personal level, I would be opposed to any new measures that impose forms of discrimination on the basis of gender or sexual orientation, or anything else for that matter,” he said in a quick doorstop outside a Rose Bay pharmacy.

He was doing well on damage control, until the topic shifted to climate. “I do think we are doing enough and I do think we have had a good record on climate change.

“We are on track to meet the Paris commitments and I believe we will address the Paris commitments and we will be addressing affordability and sustainable and coherent energy policy,” he said.

So he hosed down one fire and poured fuel on a bigger one. On balance, it may have been better if he had stayed missing.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 13, 2018 as "The race that has stopped the nation ". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper's national correspondent.