Was Wentworth unworthy of the Liberals?
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Was Wentworth unworthy of the Liberals?

One should never take too much notice of post-debacle spin coming from political managers who have lost safe seats at byelections. But a remark by Christopher Pyne indicated that the 18 per cent drop in the Liberal Party vote was not as bad as internal party polling had suggested at the beginning of the final week of campaigning. At that point, he said, the polling suggested that the Independent, Kerryn Phelps, would defeat Dave Sharma, the Liberal Party candidate by 59 per cent to 41 per cent. That would have suggested a swing of about 27 per cent against the government. Or, put another way, that two in every five people who had voted for Turnbull in 2016 were now proposing to vote against the Liberal candidate he had endorsed.

No doubt this explains some of Scott Morrison’s tactics during the last week of the campaign, including his announcement, completely out of the blue, that the government was considering shifting Australia’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. It might also help explain the absolute panic that gripped both the campaign and the ordinary workings of government, with pratfall after belly flops on issues as diverse as energy policy, climate change policy, gay school students, refugee policy and general foolishness and bad manners from the new Minister for the Environment, Melissa Price.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison waits to address media at the Liberal Party Wentworth byelection function in Double Bay.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison waits to address media at the Liberal Party Wentworth byelection function in Double Bay.Credit:Dan Himbrechts

It could even suggest that the panic and desperation, and perhaps the caustic commentary which nonetheless drew attention to new commitments worked, at least up to a point, perhaps dragging back about a third of the stragglers over the last five or six days. If that was the case, Scott Morrison may be a better and more convincing campaigner than he appears, or at least appeared to the keen eyes of observers he is now describing as living within the Canberra bubble. That might suggest that a cashed-up Liberal Party, with the capacity and the will to use all of the advantages of incumbency, might be able to stave off defeat in six months, or, perhaps, at least manage to save more of the furniture than the evidence of opinion polls suggests.

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Perhaps. But the party is not cashed up, even if Sharma was, apparently, a deft fund raiser on his own account, and the Liberals spent well over $1 million in attempting to hold the seat. A party’s capacity to raise funds turns at least in part on whether “investors” think that the party can win or could win with just a bit of top-up. All too many of the obvious donors are looking at the facts of the Wentworth result, rather than the interpretations. And they are looking also at the continuing picture of disunity and sabotage from within the parliamentary party, and a good deal of evidence, including from publicly published polls that confirm that the party is in considerable trouble. Maybe Morrison’s theatrics did claw back a few votes – maybe especially from Jewish voters – but I doubt that it earned much admiration out in the wider electorate.

It is always dangerous to extrapolate from by-election results. It was true, up to a point, that the loss of Wentworth deprived the government of its (bare) absolute majority in the House of Representatives, and that Liberal campaigners, particularly John Howard, alleged that this could cause “instability” in the government. But Dr Phelps is generally conservative, and there are other cross-benchers in the House who suggest that the day to day business of government is not threatened. There may be a lost procedural vote or two, particularly over efforts to gag debate, but it would probably require some new, scandalous, and disgraceful event before the government would lose a no-confidence motion. Not only must the Opposition catch the government with its pants down, as Malcolm Fraser put it in 1974, but it must do so in a way that suits the political interests, and survival instincts, of all, (or given the peripatetic tendencies of some of them, nearly all) of the six cross-benchers.

In the immediate aftermath of the result, there were defiant Liberals who blamed the selfishness of Turnbull, either in resigning and precipitating a byelection, or in failing to do anything conspicuous for the campaign. There were others who denied that Wentworth was any sort of representative Liberal seat – some even spitefully seeming to suggest that the “real” Liberal Party would be glad to be rid of the encumbrance of a seat conspicuous for the wealth of its inhabitants, their cosmopolitan outlook, not to mention their supposed obsessions with climate change, refugee rights, gay rights and café lattes. There were others who dismissed the vote, and the swing, as merely a protest about the way Turnbull had been deposed, without any lessons to be learnt about the party’s present leadership, present policy directions, or record of achievements. Others saw it as a sad reflection of disunity – but not so much in terms of some of the fundamental divides on principle, or clashes of personalities, but simply indiscipline in not falling obediently behind the leader, whoever that is at any one time, and keeping one’s mouth shut. After all, they might say, the divisions and tensions within the Labor Party are probably as great, but the prospect of office has produced a remarkable discipline and unity of purpose, as well as a refusal to do or say anything that undermines their admittedly unlikeable and uninspiring leader in Bill Shorten.

Morrison has declared that the Wentworth result does not – and should not – result in any retreat from policy, let alone on climate change.

But others see in the size of the swing, even after discounts for local factors, and evidence from other polls of a general shift away from the party, a harbinger of a forthcoming electoral catastrophe, of a sort the centre-right Party has not suffered since 1942. That was in the middle of World War II, after Labor had taken power from a disunited and disorganised party seemingly not up to the task of self-defence facing the nation. It saw the virtual destruction of the former United Australia Party, and the atomisation of the conservative groups around the states. It was the achievement of Menzies, over the next seven years, that he was able to cajole and persuade these groups into a new umbrella party of liberals and conservatives of the centre right, there to oppose a confident Labor party with an unembarrassed belief in centralised economic controls.

Labor too has had crushing defeats. Its worst was in 1966, over conscription and the Vietnam War, but it did very badly in 1975 and 1977. It had also split in the mid-1950s and been out of power for almost a generation as a consequence. But none of its defeats had prevented its capacity to get off the floor and to reorganise, sometimes indeed, again within striking distance of power only one election after defeat.

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Morrison’s continuing problem is that there are some in his party who accept that heavy defeat next year is inevitable, and perhaps desirable. Only then, they argue can the major party of the centre-right coalition reorganise itself as a party with the true philosophies and values that the nation needs. By that, of course, they mean a party that is far more conservative, in the sense that they define the word, without room for the moderates and the doctors’ wives: the sort of people who had been missing in action during the culture wars because, at the end of the day, they were closer on cultural matters to Labor than to the party’s right.

There are always faction players within parties who would almost rather that the outright enemy won than that some factional enemies on their own side prosper. But the current situation seems to go well beyond this, or the continuing prosecution of mere personality politics, old grudges and old grievances. It is, they say, about values and convictions, and a rejection of a type of pragmatic politician, they're rather more for the perks of power rather than the triumph of beliefs and abiding ideas.

In certain respects it resembles the approach of the Tea Party in the United States, which persuaded itself, first, that a particular model of limited government and morally conservative (and authoritarian) government had always been the abiding principle of the Republican Party, a path from which many modern Republican heretics had deviated. These heretics, they alleged, had become Republicans In Name Only, or RINOs. What was the point of seeking power if those to whom it was given were not committed to their one true faith, they asked.

Independent candidate for Wentworth Kerryn Phelps is congratulated by supporters as she arrives for a Wentworth by-election evening function at North Bondi Life Saving Club, Sydney.

Independent candidate for Wentworth Kerryn Phelps is congratulated by supporters as she arrives for a Wentworth by-election evening function at North Bondi Life Saving Club, Sydney.Credit:Chris Pavlich

The more recent attraction to such people of populist politics, economic and political nationalism, hostility to immigration, particularly of non-whites, and, ultimately to strongmen demagogues on the Trump model is not necessarily fundamental to the convictions of such groups. But it has been, in recent years, the direction in which most have been moving. What’s a lot less clear is whether they have a clear understanding of the temperament and basic ideas of the electorates from whom they want to receive power. Or whether their “grass-roots” structures are seriously representative of general opinion, rather than mere crusaders for a faith they seek to impose. They have sometimes succeeded because of failings on the part of parties on the other side. But the new philosophy has yet to redefine relationships between government and the people, or popular expectations of what is wanted from government. And again and again, they have shown themselves out of touch with community attitudes on social issues, such as on same-sex marriage, or gay rights.

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Morrison has declared that the Wentworth result does not – and should not – result in any retreat from policy, let alone on climate change. Instead he is doubling down on policies designed to appease his party’s right – whether on power prices, a virtual vacuum of climate change policy, and a national security and border control package. Repackaging, fresh slogans, some fresh, but so far unavailing efforts to wedge Labor with familiar traps, and relentless activity should not be interpreted as adapting to circumstance, or as pandering to the electorates’ wishes. To the contrary, it is a big gamble on the idea that some consistency of purpose, as opposed to constant flip-flops, might at least attract some respect and grudging credit from voters. Whether it will work at this late hour depends on whether voters still have an open mind.

I doubt that their minds will be opened by the constant repetition of words such as “Canberra bubble” – the suggestion that the political class has a focus on politics, conflict, and sharp points of differentiation of no interest whatever to the “ordinary voter.” Morrison has taken it upon himself to decide that voters are not interested in some issues (for example in climate change, or political interference with the ABC), or have “moved on” from some matters that once concerned them (such as leadership tensions in the Liberal and National parties) and that they have no interest at all in matters of process, probity and propriety in dispensing public money, or why the Government resisted inquiries into the banks, and sought, at the banks’ behest to gut legislation governing conflict of interest in the provision of financial advice.

Talk about “bubbles” and swamps needing draining may work among some constituencies at least. Morrison may portray himself as a dag with tight underpants, fond of Dad jokes and the wisdom of shock jocks purporting to be outsiders explaining the world to politicians. But he is an unconvincing actor as some sort of outsider, or as an arbiter of what “real” people think. Like most of his side, and the other side as well, he is a quintessential insider, a suit, and, perhaps like his predecessor Joe Hockey, has always had a cack hand in declaring what the man, or the woman in the street, thinks.

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He is not famous for dirty fingernails or for squeamishness about the effusion of other people’s blood. If there is one thing voters are fairly good at, it is detecting synthetic passion, the emperor with no clothes, and the person who isn’t really what he or she pretends. As witness the fate of most of our recent prime ministers. And, I expect, some of their successors.

Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times. jwaterfordcanberra@gmail.com.au