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As majority government looks further out of reach for the Coalition, internal polling suggests prominent Liberals will lose their seats. By Karen Middleton.

Liberal polling predicts losses for Josh Frydenberg and Tim Wilson

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Prime Minister Scott Morrison in Melbourne this week.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Prime Minister Scott Morrison in Melbourne this week.
Credit: AAP / Mick Tsikas

The federal Coalition’s path to victory appears to be narrowing, with some Liberals now conceding they see no way to win majority government on current internal polling.

There is also heightened concern around Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s prospects of retaining the once-blue-ribbon Melbourne seat of Kooyong against independent challenger Dr Monique Ryan. The Saturday Paper understands that Liberal polling shows Frydenberg’s primary vote currently tracking at 42 per cent. This is about 2 per cent lower than it needs to be to ensure he can withstand a likely preference flow in Ryan’s favour from Greens and Labor voters.

The polling is also believed to suggest assistant minister Tim Wilson is headed for defeat at the hands of another independent – former ABC journalist Zoe Daniel – in the Melbourne bayside seat of Goldstein, with Wilson currently recording a primary vote of just 37 per cent.

These are just two of a slew of races where Liberals in previously safe city-based electorates face serious threat from “teal” independents, who are receiving funding support from the Climate 200 organisation established by businessman Simon Holmes à Court. Four contests are particularly tight, with North Sydney and Wentworth adding to the Liberals’ challenges in Kooyong and Goldstein. In a fifth, Rob Priestly – who is not a teal candidate but endorsed by former independent MP Cathy McGowan and her “Voices of” movement – is now believed to be a strong chance of taking the Shepparton-based regional Victorian seat of Nicholls from the Nationals.

A minority Coalition government remains possible on both major parties’ current internal polling, but in the event of a hung parliament, that would require support from any successful teal independents. They have campaigned against incumbent Liberals and specifically against their policies on climate change and for a federal integrity commission – policies that Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said he will not change. To gain that support, Morrison would likely have to jettison or modify those positions after the election.

Morrison has warned that a hung parliament would be chaos. But senate crossbencher Jacqui Lambie argues the opposite is true. “I think it will make for a better democracy if there is a hung parliament,” Lambie told ABC Radio National on Thursday. “People have to work harder. They have to communicate with each other.”

For majority government, Labor needs to win seven extra lower-house seats – adding one more for each of their own seats they lose. Likewise, the Liberals need to hold everything and, to be safe, gain at least one. Among the seats officially designated as marginal – currently on 5 per cent or less – Labor holds 19 and the Liberals 15. But seats on higher margins are also in play on both sides and could swing either way.

Add to that the challenges in the teal seats, and the mathematics of majority government is complicated for both.

The major parties’ internal polling suggests the Liberals are currently in a losing position in the Western Sydney seat of Reid and the Perth-based seats of Pearce and Swan. In Western Australia, the respective retirements of former minister Christian Porter and MP Steve Irons are making the Liberals’ retention task harder. The Adelaide Hills seat of Boothby, where Liberal MP Nicolle Flint is retiring, is also leaning strongly Labor’s way.

Internal Liberal polling is revealing other seats at serious risk, including Ryan and Brisbane, both in and around the city of Brisbane, and Casey in Melbourne, where former speaker Tony Smith is retiring.

The contest is understood to be tightening in the Perth seat of Hasluck. There, voters may weigh strong personal support for incumbent Indigenous Affairs minister Ken Wyatt against some statewide hostility towards Scott Morrison for initially backing billionaire miner Clive Palmer’s legal challenge against WA border closures. Labor hopes the saturation advertising by Palmer’s United Australia Party might remind voters of that.

The race has also tightened further in Bass, in Tasmania, where incumbent Bridget Archer’s prospects have worsened since One Nation leader Pauline Hanson decided to urge her supporters to preference against the outspoken moderate Liberal MP. Hanson said the move was payback for the Liberals recommending voters preference the Jacqui Lambie Network ahead of One Nation. But Hanson is also recommending preferencing against moderate Liberal MPs in other states, where Lambie doesn’t have candidates, and against independent Helen Haines in the regional Victorian seat of Indi.

Some seats the Liberals had hoped to seize are currently looking like staying with Labor, most prominently Parramatta and the nation’s most marginal seat, Macquarie, in the west and north-west of Sydney respectively.

The Liberals’ re-election prospects are also undermined by unhappiness among one particular constituent group: Chinese Australians.

Their anger at the Coalition government’s anti-China rhetoric has seen traditionally strong Liberal support across that small-business-heavy community plunge in recent months.

Sources in both major parties report that Scott Morrison’s description of deputy Labor leader Richard Marles as “the Manchurian candidate” and persistent critical references to “the Chinese”, rather than the government of China, have had a severe impact.

The frustrations of Chinese Australians were raised during a televised Sky News debate between Frydenberg and Ryan on Thursday. Ryan said 11 per cent of Kooyong’s voters belong to this community, and concerns had been raised with her.

“The relationship with our biggest trade partner should be treated with respect and sensitivity, not with macho breast-beating belligerence,” Ryan said. “We’ve seen how much that has cost us and it’s been actively unhelpful to weaponise our relationship with China for really local domestic political aims.”

Frydenberg praised the Chinese–Australian community and acknowledged their concerns. “But they also understand the government’s issue is not with the Australian–Chinese community,” he responded. “The government’s issue is with China’s more assertive behaviour … Our focus as a government is in ensuring that the national interest is protected.”

Frydenberg said he made “no apology” for the government pushing back against China. “We have serious issues and we can’t put our heads in the sand.”

While some Liberals insist dedicated campaign work in the seats with a high Chinese–Australian population has improved the situation in recent weeks, they remain concerned.

This animosity has affected the Liberals’ prospects of retaining the outer-suburban Melbourne seat of Chisholm, held by Gladys Liu, and former prime minister John Howard’s old Sydney seat of Bennelong, where well-liked incumbent John Alexander’s retirement is an added disadvantage.

It has also fuelled negative sentiment in the Western Sydney seat of Banks, whose MP, assistant minister David Coleman, spent a year on personal leave. Likewise in North Sydney, where moderate Trent Zimmerman faces a challenge from teal independent Kylea Tink.

There was more evidence of the threat Zimmerman faces this week, when John Howard joined former New South Wales premier Gladys Berejiklian at Zimmerman’s official campaign launch.

Alongside Morrison, Howard is chief sandbagger of Liberal seats in danger. One Liberal observer confirms his presence is the clearest indicator a seat is in peril.

“I look at John Howard as the angel of death,” the Liberal says, of the significance of his presence. “You don’t send John Howard somewhere you don’t need him.”

Earlier in the year, Howard was campaigning in Adelaide ahead of what became the defeat of the South Australian Liberal government at the state election. Along with North Sydney, other key seats Howard has visited during the federal campaign include Bennelong, Ryan and Hasluck.

North Sydney has turned into a three-way contest, with Tink’s emergence potentially splitting the conservative vote and giving Labor candidate Catherine Renshaw a surprise chance of seizing the seat. Having secured almost 52 per cent of the first-preference vote at the 2019 election, Zimmerman now finds his fate potentially resting on whether Renshaw or Tink runs second on primary votes.

If it’s the latter, preferences from Labor’s Renshaw are likely to elect Tink over Zimmerman. If Renshaw is second and Tink is eliminated first, it’s unclear just how the preferences of her independent voters will flow. In this scenario, that unknown, along with how much of Zimmerman’s primary vote is reduced by the two main challengers between them, will determine whether Tink’s preferences deliver the seat to Labor or back to the Liberal incumbent.

But the highest-profile potential casualty is Frydenberg in Kooyong, where Monique Ryan is polling strongly. The Saturday Paper has been told that Liberal research in Kooyong found up to 20 per cent of voters in the seat believed they could vote for Ryan and still retain Frydenberg as treasurer.

Frydenberg’s campaign billboards now appeal to voters to “Keep Josh”. Stung by criticisms that he abandoned Victoria’s interests during the Covid-19 pandemic, Frydenberg is emphasising his local credentials.

“I’m from my community, I’m for my community,” he told undecided voters during the Sky News debate. “Every single day I’ve woken up I ask myself what more can I do for the people of Kooyong? What more can I do for the people of Australia?”

Some Liberals are despairing that Frydenberg agreed to debate Ryan at all, giving her a platform that elevates her to equal status with the nation’s treasurer. They believe his own early panic at the electoral pressure he was under has raised Ryan’s profile and possibly worsened the situation.

“You never mention your opposition, let alone debate them,” one says. “He’s given her a platform and he should never have done it.”

There is now a huge financial effort to save him from defeat, with saturation billboards and a social-media splurge.

Data published by Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, shows Frydenberg’s campaign spent $16,561 on online ads on those platforms in the week from April 26 to May 2.

Also with serious money behind her, Ryan spent $12,564. Since her Facebook page was created on December 9 last year, Ryan has spent $153,638 on paid social media ads there.

Frydenberg spent $201,999 over the past 21 months.

Frydenberg’s social-media spending is almost matched by NSW Liberal colleague Dave Sharma, whose situation is understood to be at least as precarious. Sharma is defending the eastern suburbs seat of Wentworth, which was previously held by Malcolm Turnbull but fell to independent Kerryn Phelps in a byelection before Sharma won it back for the Liberals in 2019.

Under threat from teal independent candidate Allegra Spender, Sharma spent $14,064 on social media ads in the week to May 2. By comparison, fellow teal-challenged Liberal MPs Trent Zimmerman and Tim Wilson spent $555 and $481, respectively, over the same period.

The Liberal Party’s polling in Wilson’s seat of Goldstein is similar to separate published polling conducted by uComms on April 27 on behalf of progressive think tank The Australia Institute. The latter puts Wilson’s primary vote at 35 per cent and Daniel’s at 34 per cent. It puts Labor on 14 per cent and the Greens on 8 per cent, figures that would see their preferences elect Daniel.

Significantly, the poll did not rely on previous voting patterns to calculate the two-party preferred vote, but asked respondents to specify their subsequent preferences. It found the seat would go to Daniel over Wilson, 62 per cent to 38 per cent.

Despite the gloomy outlook, there are some potential seat gains for the Liberals.

They remain confident of winning Gilmore, on the NSW south coast, where former state Liberal minister Andrew Constance is seeking to shift to the federal arena. Constance shot to national prominence during the 2020 bushfires and won praise locally as he clashed with Morrison. His chances may depend on whether Liberal-inclined voters still angry over the bushfires focus on him or on the man who would be his leader in a returned Coalition government. The Labor Party is not willing to concede it yet.

Liberals say they are also hopeful of seizing McEwen in outer Melbourne, although Labor sources query this. The Labor-held seat of Corangamite, around Geelong, is understood to be lineball and the Liberals are pouring resources into the seat. They also hope public animosity towards Premier Daniel Andrews in Victoria over Covid-19 lockdowns will complicate Labor’s task in that state.

With 17.2 million eligible Australians yet to vote and two weeks to go, things could still change to a small or large degree. Labor strategists are holding their breath, hoping Anthony Albanese does not misstep again in the meantime. Their Liberal equivalents are reaching for whatever scares might make those inclined to punish the government hesitate over endorsing an alternative.

But figures in both major parties agree that, right now, the trend does not favour the Coalition.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 7, 2022 as "Liberal polling predicts Frydenberg, Wilson loss".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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