Australia Was The Real Winner In The Wentworth By-election: Ben Eltham


Dr Kerryn Phelps’ victory in Wentworth is good for Australian democracy, writes Ben Eltham.

It’s a remarkable commentary on the state of Australian politics that Kerryn Phelps should ever have been considered a wildcard or a long shot as the independent candidate for Wentworth.

On any analysis, Phelps will be a formidable local member. She is a councillor in the City of Sydney, a former president of the Australian Medical Association, a respected doctor with a long history as a campaigner for the LGBTI community. In a representative democracy, where voters delegate their will to members of parliament, Phelps is an increasingly rare example of a politician whom many voters can feel proud of.

The reason Kerryn Phelps was considered unlikely to win Wentworth, of course, is that seats like Wentworth are nearly always held by major parties. In the blue ribbon suburbs around Sydney’s glittering harbour, the seat was long thought to be a Liberal lock. Wentworth has been held by the Liberal Party or its predecessors essentially since its inception.

Only in a system where major parties own safe seats as virtual chattels could the quality of challenging independents be considered irrelevant. In a two-party system, the tyranny of the safe seat has done untold damage to Australian democracy. For voters unlucky enough to live in one, a safe seat has often meant substandard representation. Mediocre candidates are parachuted in by cynical party machines. Local issues are ignored. Constituents are treated merely as stepping stones to higher office. Sometimes a protest vote would be lodged, but it was never enough to unseat the rusted-on local member.

Independent, Dr Kerryn Phelps, pictured on October 20 from ABC TV news coverage.

In the wake of the Wentworth by-election, such received wisdom is looking increasingly antiquated. Swept to victory by a massive swing against the Liberal Party that many voters clearly felt had betrayed Malcolm Turnbull, Phelps positioned herself as a moderate with integrity.

There hasn’t been a lot of integrity in Australian politics for some time now.

Just to take the most obvious example, the Morrison government’s position on climate change is a travesty. The Coalition’s current position on climate is nothing more than a lie, simple and brazen, to a degree that makes even pro-business interests uncomfortable. It is possible to be conservative and to believe in climate change. Many Liberal voters fit that description.

As the Guardian’s Anne Davies reported on Saturday night, many of Phelps’ supporters were disaffected moderate Liberals disgusted by the treatment of Turnbull. “One woman, who asked not to be named, said she had voted Liberal all her life and had once been a member of the party,” Davies writes. “But when the former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull was dismissed and then the party preselected David Sharma, who had no connection with the seat, it was the last straw.”

Former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. (IMAGE: NATO, Flickr)

As attractive as Phelps is as an independent candidate, there is no doubt the Wentworth result is all about the Morrison government. After all, if Malcolm Turnbull was still prime minister, there wouldn’t have been a by-election. But even without voter anger at the departure of their popular former member, there were plenty of reasons not to vote Liberal.

Canberra has become an Augean Stables. Many other aspects of contemporary politics make ordinary voters uncomfortable, from the bizarre sway enjoyed by radio shock jocks and tabloid newspaper journalists to the hermetically sealed bubble that seems to insulate politicians from the concerns of everyday citizens.

The past fortnight has been perhaps the worst in five years of Coalition government, taking Morrison’s administration into Labor 2013 territory of dysfunction. Backflipping on discrimination against LGBTI students in religious schools, voting for a white supremacist motion in the Senate, surprise announcements on relocating the Australian embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, not to mention the background radiation of a divided party apparently unable to stop talking about itself, all combined to give an impression of a government in chaos. Which it manifestly is.

The reasons for Turnbull’s departure are no secret. He was removed by his own party just two years after winning them a second term in government. As I argued at the time, the reasons for that are all about the increasingly bitter split between the Liberal Party’s moderate and conservative wings.

The scale of the Coalition’s self-harm really is hard to get your head around. Two months ago, Turnbull was looking competitive against Bill Shorten. Since then, there has been more good news on the economy and the unemployment rate has dropped to just 5.0 per cent. With a proven leader and party unity, the Coalition would have been well placed for a 2019 election. Instead, they are a shambles.

All of this is bad enough. But the trouble is being exacerbated by Morrison himself, who is struggling in the top job he long coveted.

Delivering an impromptu stump speech to the Liberal by-election wake on Saturday night, Morrison was by turns snarling, combative and revivalist. It might have been a message calculated to revive the flagging spirits of the Liberal faithful. But for voters looking for some contrition and humility, it was exactly the wrong tone to strike. A far more measured Sharma was left to apologise for the dismal showing, in a speech that effortlessly overshadowed his political master.

Exactly how the government can turn things around in coming months is anyone’s guess. The Liberals and their cheerleaders in the Murdoch media were taken up in the usual recriminations yesterday, blaming Turnbull out of spite, if not logic. Of course, the disunity only inflicts more damage on the government. Morrison has until May before he will be forced to call a general election, but time is running short. With the government about to lose its majority in the lower house, the odds are decidedly stacked against a Coalition recovery.

Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, MP, is met by Royal Australian Navy medical officer, Lieutenant Rebecca Ainsworth, RAN, on the flight deck of HMAS Ballarat during a visit to HMAS Stirling, Western Australia. (IMAGE: Defence, LSIS Richard Cordell)

All but the most engaged voters tend to completely switch off from politics during the summer break. By the time people start to pay attention again in early February, the campaign will be on in earnest. The Coalition will be starting from well behind.

There are other consequences for Phelps’ remarkable showing in Wentworth. A template has been established that could see a swag of high-profile independents try their hand at moderate Liberal seats. As Wentworth showed, the contemporary Liberal Party is well to the right of many of its constituents. In normal times, this doesn’t matter, because Labor and the minor parties don’t have enough traction to challenge entrenched local conservatives in blue-ribbon seats.

But Wentworth shows that these are far from normal times. For voters who are economically orthodox but socially liberal, the modern Liberal Party – riven by instability, aroused by the politics of race, and increasingly beholden to an angry but unrepresentative conservative base – is increasingly difficult to vote for.

Phelps has shown that an attractive and electable independent can mount a serious challenge to the major party status quo. Where such independents have won, they have tended to quickly entrench their advantage – as Cathy McGowan and Andrew Wilkie have proven.

While Phelps is in some ways unique, the major party stranglehold is by no means as firm as once thought. We can expect more centrist, moderate independents to challenge sitting Liberals in 2019. There is already talk of education campaigner Jane Caro running against Tony Abbott in Warringah.

The major parties have been written off many times before. But five prime ministers in five years has opened a gaping wound in the public’s trust in politics-as-usual. We may not be experiencing an earthquake just yet, as the Guardian’s Katharine Murphy argues, but we are certainly seeing further erosion of the two-party status quo.

And that’s a good thing for democracy.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.