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Wentworthless: Liberals get a ballot-box bludgeoning that may well prove fatal

wentworth by-election defeat
Scott Morrison said the Liberals had “paid a big price for the events of several months ago”. Photo: AAP
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It’s hard to go past the old baseball bat analogy to describe what happened in the formerly safe Liberal seat of Wentworth on Saturday.

Voters took their bats to the Liberal candidate, Dave Sharma, and by extension the Morrison government, to express their fury over the dysfunction and policies of the Coalition government.

On Saturday night the swing against the Liberals looked to be around 22 per cent – by far the biggest swing ever against a government in a byelection. That’s in a seat which has existed since Federation and never been held by any other party than the Liberal Party or its predecessors.

So it turns out the Prime Minister Scott Morrison, the former PM John Howard, and various other Liberals were not crying wolf when they warned a tsunami of protest was gathering to sweep the independent candidate Kerryn Phelps into federal Parliament.

In fact, the private Liberal Party ‘polling’ provided to the media this week, in an effort to persuade angry Liberal voters not to abandon the government, actually proved to be spot on. So overwhelming was the wave of retribution from voters that the ABC’s election analyst, Antony Green, called the result only 80 minutes after the polls were closed.

Swift too were efforts by the various political players to frame the outcome. Media proxies for the conservatives who tore down the previous member for Wentworth, Malcolm Turnbull, blamed the severity of the backlash on his decision not to take part in the campaign for his successor. The former PM had concluded that his presence would only exacerbate the electorate’s anger about his downfall.

This instinct appears to have been validated by an exit poll commissioned by progressive think tank The Australia Institute. The poll found that, among ex-Liberal voters who voted for Dr Phelps, Mr Turnbull’s toppling was the biggest influence on how they voted (44 per cent), followed by climate change (28 per cent).

The Labor opposition, which took the tactical decision to run dead in the Wentworth campaign to maximise the chances of a Liberal loss, declared the outcome was an indictment of the Coalition government’s policies as much as its dysfunction.

The ALP certainly couldn’t make any (public) claim on the government’s humiliating defeat, given the Labor leader Bill Shorten was notably absent from almost the entire by-election campaign.

Labor’s deputy leader Tanya Plibersek wouldn’t confirm on Saturday night whether the opposition would test the Coalition’s numbers in Parliament next week with a no-confidence motion now that the government had been thrown into minority status.

wentworth by-election defeat
Liberal Party candidate Dave Sharma (L) was the victim of a huge protest vote. Photo: AAP

Ms Plibersek did however declare that “the best thing possible is to put this government out of its misery sooner rather than later”. However, Antony Green pointed out separately that the holding of the Victorian and NSW elections over the next five months makes a March or May federal election the most likely timing.

Just as we saw during the Gillard years, a minority government can still be productive and run to full term if it has a good working relationship with the crossbench.

Dr Phelps has already declared she won’t do a deal with the government to guarantee confidence and supply, but that she is disposed to governments running full term and will judge each piece of legislation on its merit. She did, however, make it clear that her highest priorities would be convincing the government to take genuine climate action and remove the children from offshore detention.

Looking ahead, the speeches of the victors and vanquished on election night provided a taste of what we can expect from federal politics in the coming weeks.

The former diplomat, Mr Sharma, was gracious in defeat and, well, diplomatic about his future in politics. Dr Phelps spoke of bringing decency, integrity, humanity and common sense to the Parliament. And Mr Morrison was characteristically shouty, acknowledging that Liberal voters were angry, and that his party had “paid a big price for the events of several months ago”.

The PM also said he would listen and learn from the Wentworth result.

He will need to if he is to avoid more baseball bats at the upcoming federal election. Mr Morrison did not, however, acknowledge what this might mean for the more conservative policy agenda that he’s been adopting since becoming Prime Minister.

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