Australian government is in a hole and will not stop digging

Sydney Letter: Liberals’ Wentworth byelection disaster caps a series of missteps

When you go into a byelection in one of your safest seats in the country with a 17.7 per cent buffer and you still lose, it might be time to stop digging. But Australia's governing Liberal Party, riven with discord between its right-wing and centrist factions, cannot leave down the shovel.

With time allowed for postal votes to arrive, the final outcome of the Wentworth byelection will not be declared until next week.

But independent candidate Kerryn Phelps's current lead of about 1,500 votes is almost certainly too much to see her passed by Liberal candidate Dave Sharma. And with the seat – which the Liberals and their predecessors had held since Australian independence in 1901 – goes the government's parliamentary majority.

Having lost one-third of its first-preference vote on Saturday, the Liberals might have looked inwards and questioned if they had done anything wrong – but many of its MPs instead blamed former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, whose resignation after being knifed by his own party in August caused the byelection.


The general consensus is that Mr Turnbull, who left for New York six weeks ago and returned only after the election was over, could have done more to help Mr Sharma. Given he stayed silent throughout the campaign, and his son Alex backed Ms Phelps, that’s an understatement – but it ignores the bigger picture.

If it's odd to dump a sitting prime minister and then accuse him of causing your party to lose the resulting byelection, it's also not true

The man who replaced Mr Turnbull as prime minister, Scott Morrison, tried, but failed, to be subtle in criticising the no-show. "I will be honest about it . . . approaches were made [seeking Mr Turnbull's help]," he said. "But what impact they would have had, ultimately, is for others to judge."

Barnaby Joyce, former leader of the coalition government's junior partner the National Party, was more forthright. Mr Joyce, who resigned as party leader but not as an MP earlier this year after an affair with a staff member, said Mr Turnbull quit parliament "because he was sulking".

“I could have done the same thing myself, shat on the place and left, but I didn’t,” he said. Not coincidentally, Mr Joyce is reportedly doing the numbers and seeking to return as the National leader.

If it’s odd to dump a sitting prime minister and then accuse him of causing your party to lose the resulting byelection, it’s also not true. Climate change and replacing coal with renewable energy was the number one issue in Wentworth, with 78 per cent of voters saying it influenced their vote, including 33 per cent who said it was the most important issue.

They won't have forgotten that Mr Morrison brought a lump of coal into parliament last year to show how little he cared for the issue of climate change. With the seat of Wentworth centred around the Sydney suburb of Bondi Beach, which rising sea levels could destroy if global warming is not tackled, this was the wrong byelection for him at the wrong time.

‘Okay to be white’ motion

The Liberals’ chances were further hindered in parliament last week when coalition senators backed a motion brought by the anti-immigration One Nation party saying “it is okay to be white”. When this move was widely denounced, the coalition said there had been a mistake and its support for the motion was due to “an administrative error”. You really couldn’t make it up, but worse was to come.

The Liberals would do well to take note of how religion and politics mixed in Wentworth

Mr Morrison then announced he was considering following US president Donald Trump's lead by moving the Australian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and reconsidering Australia's support for the Iran nuclear deal. He said this had nothing to do with the byelection in a constituency which is 12.5 per cent Jewish – indeed, in a country where 0.4 per cent overall are Jews, Wentworth is by far the most Jewish seat in parliament. The collapse in the Liberals' support suggests the locals may have felt they were being patronised.

Much was made during the campaign of the fact that Mr Sharma, though not Jewish, is a former ambassador to Israel. Little was made of the fact that Ms Phelps, a doctor who unlike Sharma actually lives in the constituency, is Jewish.

The Liberals would do well to take note of how religion and politics mixed in Wentworth. Ms Phelps attends Emanuel synagogue, whose rabbi, Jeffrey Kamins, wrote to his congregation urging them to consider "the moral issue of climate change" when they voted.

A federal election is due by next May. If the Liberals can lose one of their safest seats in one of the wealthiest parts of Australia, voters might be waiting for them with cricket bats seven months from now.