Scott Morrison’s ability to recover from the body blow that was the Wentworth by-election will depend as much on his own fractious party and Coalition as it will on anything else.
As the slow count continues, independent front runner Kerryn Phelps says she’s feeling more confident now than on Sunday morning.
Her victory and the resulting hung parliament will mean the fate of any government bill will depend on its discipline and winning over one of the six crossbench members.
The independent member for the Victorian seat of Indi Cathy McGowan puts it this way: “Liberal Party, you sort it out. It’s not our fault that there are people who want to cross the floor. It’s not our fault that people in the Liberal Party are trying to bring down climate change. It’s their fault.”
Ms McGowan revealed she had been in discussions with senior ministers over the weekend and said she was making getting the “kids off Nauru” and “sorting out the mess on Manus” her No.1 priority.
Both are extremely divisive for the Coalition and came into serious play at the by-election. Ms McGowan has no patience with the internal instability paralysing the government on these issues.
But like Ms Phelps and another independent, Rebekha Sharkie, she is not threatening to bring down the government. Instead, she is signalling a willingness to work for a majority on important matters if the government can’t.
When Ms Phelps takes her place in Parliament, the numbers will be there to refer Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton to the High Court to resolve doubts about his eligibility under section 44 of the Constitution.
“Whenever there’s confusion around members of parliament and their status, the High Court’s the body to sort that out,” she says. “I would welcome that clarity.”
By any analysis the issues these independents are pushing are in line with majority community opinion beyond Wentworth. The Sydney seat is a weather vane showing where middle Australia is heading.
The signs are Mr Morrison and his Treasurer Josh Frydenberg aren’t being swayed.
Mr Frydenberg, after sweating blood to put together the National Energy Guarantee for Mr Turnbull, synthesising emission reductions, reliability and affordability of electricity, has now abandoned it.
The treasurer, who knows the climate energy issues intimately, is even parroting Mr Morrison’s unsupported claim that new policies aren’t needed because Australia will reach its Paris targets in a canter.
The only explanation is neither man is willing to pick a fight with the climate deniers and coal champions in their midst. Their clout is not to be underestimated. Elements of the powerful LNP, the amalgamated Liberal and National parties in Queensland, are close to schism.
One of its most conservative MPs George Christensen says there are no lessons to be learned from Wentworth. “It’s light years away from an electorate like mine,” he says.
This is the same MP who proclaimed he was speaking for his voters when he vehemently opposed marriage equality. About 55 per cent of his constituents begged to differ.
While Mr Christensen and other hardline conservatives have accepted Mr Morrison’s legislation to make it illegal for religious schools to discriminate against gay kids, no such ready acquiescence is expected when the full Ruddock report is released.
And for good measure Queenslanders are behind the push to destabilise the coalition further by dumping Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack to bring back Barnaby Joyce.
That has been stalled for now, but there is talk of a move by the end of the year unless the polls start improving.
It was another Liberal prime minister who famously said “life wasn’t meant to be easy”. In Scott Morrison’s case, that’s an understatement.