Many years ago I lived in the Wentworth electorate. It’s a wealthy part of the world but is also very pretty. I lived in Watsons Bay, just about on the tip of South Head. Watsons Bay has a quaint appeal, a bit sleepier than the more glitzy suburbs of Vaucluse and Double Bay down the road on the 325 bus.
I loved living in Watsons Bay, so much so that most visits to Sydney now include a visit there to sit in the beer garden of the pub, or walk along Gibsons Beach, as so often I did back in the day.
Wentworth is in all the news today because yesterday, and for the first time, someone other than a Liberal MP was voted into federal parliament. This is a notable moment in Australian politics and marks – I hope – a turning point. Up till yesterday, Wentworth was the safest of blue ribbon Liberal seats, and it took a swing of historic proportions to upset that. Hopefully, it is a harbinger of things to come.
As I do with most notable elections I set myself to watch the developments last night from the comfort of my couch. By little after 7 it was all over – the pundits declared the seat for Kerryn Phelps, the Independent, and I switched over to watch the A-League.
The result last night was the bitter pay-off for the nasty and underhand shenanigans that led to Malcolm Turnbull, the prime minister and Wentworth incumbent, being deposed. He was a popular member in an electorate better educated than most, and more progressive than the usual Liberal seat. He embodied their small l liberal beliefs, and they were angry.
The whole thing is symptomatic of an utterly dysfunctional Liberal party. They trailed in the polls when Turnbull was in charge, but he was the more favoured leader. Many in the electorate had been disappointed by his performance but retained a belief that he shared similar values. He was the acceptable face of an increasingly toxic coalition. That small bonus became a negative once he was ousted and, after a farcical few days, the utter buffoon Morrison became PM.
Since Turnbull was ousted Labor have increased their lead in the polls. A safe seat has had an unnecessary by-election and been lost that would have been easily held otherwise, resulting now in a hung parliament. An urbane and intelligent leader has been replaced by a hectoring buffoon so generally incompetent that you have to question how he ever made it so far. (I can see him running the local newsagency, but that’s his limit.) Policy making is on the run, reactive to events and polls and primarily concerned with shoring up crumbling support – even so, it is so badly misjudged in intent and executed so poorly that it leads to contempt and ridicule.
This is the big takeaway out of this result. The people of Wentworth have protested. They’re unhappy with what happened with Malcolm, but they’re also sick and tired of a shambolic government that doesn’t represent their interests. Big issues for the electorate were climate change and the refugees on Nauru, issues the Liberal party is disdainful of.
This is why I think the worm may have turned, though it’s taken much longer than it should have. The government has been allowed to get away with general inaction on these topics till now. News Corp has had their back and much of the rest of the media has been pliable (they don’t break news any more, they report it only after it has finally broken). Lobbyists and other interested parties have been in the ears of government ministers and plying the party with donations. And, of course, the RWNJ wing of the party has been vocal and generally destructive in support of retrograde policies. More broadly, there seems to be a mistaken belief inside the party that their so-called ‘base’ is on board with their policies.
Let me break the news. Most Australians believe climate change is real and want some action. Many of us have for years called for asylum seekers to be treated more humanely. The base they allude to is no more than the raucous jeering of conservative ratbags on the fringe of the society, given a megaphone by Rupert Murdoch’s press. This is not Australia. This, certainly, is not Wentworth. This is now, and if they’re smart enough the libs will realise it – but they won’t, and even if they did the kamikazes on the right would sabotage it regardless. The Libs are dead.
I’ve been wary of saying that, but I feel as if the tide has turned. The overwhelming result yesterday is testament to the impatience of the Australian people. If this can happen in a safe Liberal seat, what lies in store across the land? This genie is now – finally – out of the bottle.
I seriously wonder what will happen to the Liberal party. About 18 months ago I raised the prospect of a complete fracture within the parliamentary party. I still think that is very possible, and potentially inevitable. The ideological schism between the conservatives and moderates is too great and too bitter to go on. I can see the conservative faction breaking off to become a traditional conservative party and aligning themselves generally with the likes of One Nation and Cory Bernardi. They’ll take their inspiration from Trump – and there’s a lot of Trump in recent Morrison edicts – and pursue their hardline agenda.
That will leave the moderate rump of the Liberal party remaining – that’s the party of Fraser, and Menzies before him, and Turnbull if he was still around. It’s the party I would flirt with voting for – economically conservative, socially liberal.
If that was to happen it would have a domino effect. The Labor party would have to re-position themselves, probably slightly more to the left than at present, which wouldn’t be a bad thing.
As you may gather, I’m greatly heartened by the signs. We still have another six months of this government, and anything can happen – but I feel in my heart as if we might just survive the general conservative, reactionary, Trumpian fervour that has engulfed so much of the world. Fingers crossed.