News National The PM has the strategy all wrong in the battle for Wentworth

The PM has the strategy all wrong in the battle for Wentworth

wentworth by-election
The government has done a comprehensive job this week creating uncertainty on several fronts – without any contribution from Kerryn Phelps. Photo: AAP
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Prime Minister Scott Morrison spent much time this week talking about the dangers of ‘unnecessary uncertainty’.

In particular, he begged voters in the seat of Wentworth not to throw his government into unnecessary uncertainty by lodging a protest vote on Saturday with independent candidate Kerryn Phelps.

But given the uncertainty created by the Morrison government this past week, there’s not a lot to suggest that the election of Dr Phelps would make matters worse.

Much of the government’s hyperventilation over the potential election of Dr Phelps has to do with its diminishing numbers in the House of Representatives. If the Liberal candidate, Dave Sharma, misses out, Mr Morrison will have to preside over a minority government and rely on the crossbench to fend off any no confidence motions.

Dr Phelps has indicated that, if elected, she would be likely to support the government if Labor tried to move a no confidence motion, but in an interview on Thursday she warned this was not a blanket guarantee.

“I would have to see the context,” Dr Phelps cautioned, noting that as a general rule “I believe governments should serve their full term”.

The PM leapt on this development, claiming it was proof the election of Dr Phelps would create “the definition of instability” for the government.

Outside the political hyperbole that always accompanies significant by-elections such as Wentworth, it’s difficult to determine whether the election is as diabolical for the Liberals as they’re claiming. The only thing that’s clear is if Dr Phelps comes second on primary votes, she will likely receive the lion’s share of preferences from the 14 other candidates and be elected. The government’s only defence against this happening is to maximise the primary votes going to the Liberal Dave Sharma.

But is the ‘avoidance of uncertainty’ strategy really the best way to attract primary votes for the government’s candidate? The government has done a comprehensive job this week creating uncertainty on several fronts – without any contribution from Dr Phelps.

LGBTI teachers, for example, would likely be feeling more uncertain about their future employment prospects with religious schools after the past week. The PM may have been willing to jump to the defence of gay students following last week’s leaking of the Ruddock review into religious protections, but he’s been coy about protecting LGBTI teachers from legally sanctioned discrimination on religious grounds.

Non-white Australians could similarly feel uncertain about the government’s preparedness to defend their rights, following the allegedly unwitting support given by Coalition senators to a One Nation motion spouting the “okay to be white” slogan favoured by white supremacists.

Then there’s the diplomatic, economic and social uncertainty created by the PM’s decision to ‘think about’ moving the Australian embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Not only has the decision caused unrest in our Jewish and Muslim communities, it has potentially put trade negotiations at risk and caused diplomatic tensions.

And finally there’s the re-emergence of leadership uncertainty in the government’s ranks. Just as Mr Morrison was not responsible for the upheaval and uncertainty caused by the political demise of the last member for Wentworth, this latest leadership uncertainty is not of the PM’s making.

It is, however, the latest self-indulgent folly of the Coalition’s junior partner, the Nationals.

Judging by the PM’s comments while campaigning in Wentworth on Friday, claiming “I know you’re angry, I understand you’re angry”, voters in that electorate are furious about the tearing down of Malcolm Turnbull. And they’re hardly going to be any less infuriated to see destructive forces within the government plotting to tear down another leader.

In comparison, the worst uncertainty that Dr Phelps could bring to the federal Parliament is the passage of a no confidence motion, which would bring on a general election.

If the voters of Wentworth take Mr Morrison’s advice to support the candidate who presents the least political uncertainty, they may well choose Dr Phelps – the one who can offer the certainty of an end to this shambolic government.

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