Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Judgement day cometh in Wentworth

The previous time a byelection was held to replace a prime minister dumped by his own party, the government lost the seat. It was 26 years ago, when Bob Hawke’s seat of Wills fell to the independent Phil Cleary. The Morrison government is giving every impression it fears the same is about to happen in Saturday’s Wentworth byelection.

This is in itself remarkable, although the Wills precedent is pertinent. Labor had never lost the seat before its 1992 byelection defeat. Wentworth has been a non-Labor stronghold for 70 years and has close to an 18 per cent margin – twice what Labor had in Wills.

But the stakes are infinitely higher this time. With its Wills loss, Labor did not lose its majority, and after nine years in government there was an “it’s time” factor for Hawke, in light of the Kirribilli agreement to hand over to his long-time treasurer Paul Keating. A Liberal loss in Wentworth would see its one-seat majority in parliament disappear – though not its hold on government, thanks to assurances from two crossbench MPs and independent candidate Kerryn Phelps that they would not deny confidence or supply.

The bookies and the opinion polls suggest Phelps is the biggest threat to the Liberals’ Dave Sharma. Indeed, midweek, in a piece of unsubtle expectation management, “internal Liberal Party polling” found Phelps had a 10-point lead after preferences and could win the seat easily. Few took this piece of media management at face value. Labor’s deputy leader, Tanya Plibersek, said it was obviously a tactic to scare regular Liberal voters who are considering a protest vote because they’re still mystified about why Malcolm Turnbull is not their MP and prime minister.

If enough of these disgruntled Liberals do in fact register that protest, Phelps could win on the back of Labor preferences, providing Labor’s Tim Murray runs third. One Labor insider says the best result for the party would be “for Tim to run a strong third”. The affable Murray, though he has been campaigning hard every day for almost two months, has clearly got the message. Earlier in the week, he explained why the leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, had not spent one second in the seat since the byelection was called. It’s because “it’s a sideshow. The main game is winning the general election”, according to Murray. Bill Shorten, he said, has been spending his time in marginal seats.

One thing you can be sure of is that Shorten has kept far away from Wentworth because he is convinced, given the profile and the history of the seat, it is not wise to turn the byelection into a referendum on his leadership. Morrison is in not such a fortunate position. He has tried to avoid setting up Wentworth in such terms but a loss would be a body blow to him and his fledgling administration.

A win, no matter how narrow, would be an almighty relief, although the size of any swing will assume its own importance and could still spook marginal seat-holders on the back bench. Already unsettled are Queensland Nationals George Christensen and Michelle Landry. They believe their only hope for survival is to establish a strong party identity separate from the Liberals by returning an eager Barnaby Joyce as leader. It couldn’t come at a worse time for Morrison, who is urging Wentworth voters to vote Liberal today for a stable government.

Plibersek says a loss, should it occur, “means that people have sent a very strong message to Scott Morrison that the division, the dysfunction, the self-interest, the infighting, the backbiting that has become the modern Liberal Party is not acceptable.”

And, as if on cue, the government was caught in a wedge of its own making that put extraordinary administrative dysfunction up in bright lights. On Monday, Liberal and National senators were instructed to support Pauline Hanson’s motion condemning “anti-white racism and attacks on Western civilisation and that it’s okay to be white”. The fact the motion was coming from the One Nation leader with a long history of race baiting did not raise alarm bells in the office of Attorney-General Christian Porter. What was at play was appealing to One Nation voters who had deserted the Coalition. This, of course, was forgetting moderate, middle-of-the-road Liberals who inhabit seats such as Wentworth.

The phrase “it’s okay to be white” has an established pedigree in America’s white supremacist movements and is a rallying call of the racist Ku Klux Klan picked up by their fellow travellers in Australia. Lending weight to the accusation that this was not “an administrative process failure” was the fact that both Porter and Senate leader Mathias Cormann tweeted their approval of the motion as evidence “it deplores racism of any kind”.

Privately, Cormann is furious his advice not to support the motion back in September, when Hanson first raised it, was ignored by Porter’s office. Cormann was not in the chamber when the vote on the motion occurred. Porter blamed his staff – the lawyers employed by him as the first law officer of the nation – for not picking up the racist reference. This was after a social media storm of negative reaction and the realisation a vote was about to be held in socially progressive Wentworth.

Labor allowed the government to recommit the motion next day, where the Senate was unanimous in voting it down. Hanson and her hard-right crossbench allies didn’t bother to turn up. In a way they didn’t have to; they had already had a big win. It was a victory made all the sweeter for them when government Queensland marginal seat holders Christensen and Luke Howarth were critical of this reversal.

The Greens were utterly unforgiving. Senator Nick McKim rejected pleas of a “terrible error”. He told the Senate there was more than enough time in the four minutes the bells were ringing for each Liberal and National senator to read the 24 words in the Hanson motion before they voted. He said, “This government has made an absolute art form of dancing with, and embracing, white supremacy.”

That fiasco almost overshadowed Morrison’s announcement that he would consider following Donald Trump on key Middle East policies – defying 70 years of bipartisan policy, and the rest of the world, by moving the Australian embassy to Jerusalem and withdrawing support for the joint comprehensive plan of action that constrains Iran’s nuclear ambitions. At his news conference it turned out that what was in fact on offer was a “review” on both of these issues.

Back in June, when Turnbull was prime minister and Julie Bishop was foreign minister, the Trump moves were examined. There was no support for either from our diplomats. There was no credible alternative in relation to Iran’s nuclear program. The head of the Department of Foreign Affairs said the Jerusalem move would be “unhelpful” to the peace process. Bishop and Turnbull agreed.

Israel has long claimed Jerusalem is its capital and since 1980 has declared that occupied East Jerusalem is an integral part of it. For Australia and the rest of the international community, other than the United States and Guatemala, to recognise this is dependent on Israel and Palestine co-existing behind defined borders as two states.

At a forum sponsored by the Jewish Board of Deputies in Woollahra, Morrison’s agenda was greeted with some scepticism. A good number in the standing-room-only audience of about 500 thought the promise wouldn’t survive the byelection. Labor’s Mark Dreyfus, himself Jewish, says “it’s an extraordinarily desperate act by a desperate prime minister who thinks he might actually lose the blue-ribbon seat of Wentworth, which the Liberals have always held”.

The blowback to the Morrison proposal was instant and worrying for Liberals and even Nationals. In jeopardy is our trade with Middle Eastern countries and relations with Malaysia and Muslim-majority Indonesia. Morrison, according to reports not denied by him in parliament, first informed President Joko Widodo by text message the night before the announcement. In his news conference, Morrison described this as his “connection” with the president. The Prime Minister’s Office says they also definitely spoke by phone and it was a “warm conversation”.

Maybe that’s because the prime minister assured the president that Australia has not made any decision to actually recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, or to shift our embassy. Any shift will come only after widespread consultation and assessment of the consequences. No wonder the crowd was cynical in Woollahra.

Sydney-based Liberals fear floating the embassy move will impact Muslim votes in the city’s Western suburbs and could see two seats – Reid and Banks – lost in next year’s election, as well as playing into a failure to take back Parramatta, which has been targeted as a must-win to hold government.

Government sources say what is also a worry is what might happen to the cooperation Indonesia has been giving Australia in turning back the boats and disrupting people smugglers.

The bigger question today is what happens if the Liberals lose.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 20, 2018 as "Judgement day cometh". Subscribe here.

Paul Bongiorno
is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a regular commentator on ABC Radio National Breakfast.