The real takeout from Wentworth: democracy ain't broke yet

Behind Liberal anguish, behind the hand-wringing, behind the recriminations, behind the vengefulness of competing factions, and behind Labor’s perhaps hasty triumphalism, the Wentworth byelection, whatever its final outcome, conveyed a simple and uplifting message: democracy works.

By voting against the government of the day in droves Wentworth voters have sent a clear message to Canberra, and to a cynical political class. They are fed up with business as usual and are less susceptible to gimmickry and manipulation than the cynics in party apparatuses would have you believe.

Illustration: Jim Pavlidis

Illustration: Jim Pavlidis

Craig Laundy, the plain-speaking Liberal backbencher for the Sydney suburban seat of Reid, had a point when he said on Sky News during its election coverage that in a Canberra bubble his colleagues yield too much ground to media bullies whose prejudices have shifted his party too far to the right on issues like climate.

What is clear, irrespective of the final vote count in Wentworth, is that voters want governments to prosecute policies on issues of the day that have some chance of achieving a consensus in the national interest.

Malcolm Turnbull and his energy minister, Josh Frydenberg, had come up with minimalist policies to balance energy security with Australia’s responsibilities under the Paris climate change agreement.

Now, those policies lie in shreds at the hands of the visigoths who tore Turnbull down and condemned the country to further policy paralysis on an issue that extends to virtually every corner of the economy.

Wentworth, therefore, was not simply a validation of our democracy, it was also a reaffirmation of the sensible centre of Australian politics, whatever the outcome. The electors of Australia’s richest electorate have said: enough is enough.

Independent candidate for Wentworth Kerryn Phelps (centre) is congratulated by supporters as she arrives for a Wentworth byelection evening function at North Bondi Life Saving Club.Credit:AAP

Independent candidate for Wentworth Kerryn Phelps (centre) is congratulated by supporters as she arrives for a Wentworth byelection evening function at North Bondi Life Saving Club.Credit:AAP

What should be giving Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his advisers pause is that, quite apart from risking the loss of one of the Liberal Party’s crown jewels, other heartland seats may also be vulnerable to high-profile independents.

Wentworth may be atypical in a wider context in that it is rich, well educated, discerning and a demographic stew, but there are other seats out there similarly at risk to independent challenge, including, notably, Tony Abbott's seat of Warringah.

If Julie Bishop, treated disrespectfully by her party, chooses not to run again, her blue-ribbon seat of Curtin may be a target.

In Melbourne, once seemingly impregnable Higgins is also vulnerable, along with Sturt in Adelaide, to name but a few.

If Kerryn Phelps makes it to the crossbenches there would be six independents in the national Parliament, three of whom are notionally on the right and two on the left. Phelps would position herself in the middle.

After the election it would not surprise me to see those independent numbers swell.

Liberal moderates are talking about a battle to be joined for the “heart and soul’’ of the Liberal Party. Win or lose, Wentworth could be likened to a skirmish on the way to a showdown, or even a splintering of the party between its conservative and moderate wings.

Labor may be crowing about a Liberal setback in Wentworth and prospects for an even more fractured government, if that is possible, but not all the portents are favourable for Labor.

Electoral resistance to Bill Shorten's doleful leadership is proving difficult to shift. The party remains vulnerable on its union links and will find its policies on negative gearing and franking credits challenging to sell.

In other words, an election, whenever it is held, is not necessarily a slam dunk. A lot can happen between now and then.

However, if the Morrison government continues to fall apart as was evidenced by a shambolic week just past in which Murphy’s Law applied – what can go wrong will – anything is possible. This includes a general election defeat, the magnitude of which we haven’t seen in Australian politics in a generation.

Speaking of “Murphy’s Law’’, this was the description attached by parliamentary press gallery correspondents of my generation to the unravelling of the last days of the Gough Whitlam government during which each day brought forth a fresh scandal.

What the parlous state in which the Morrison government finds itself, exemplified by the savage swing against it in Wentworth, does invite is comparison, potentially, with some of the worst electoral debacles in the recent history of Westminster democracies.

In 1983, Labour’s Michael Foot led his party to its worst defeat since 1918 – against Margaret Thatcher’s Tories – losing 52 seats. In 1993 Kim Campbell of Canada’s Progressive Conservatives lost 154 seats and power to end up with just two.

Closer to home Whitlam lost 30 seats in 1975 in a drubbing at the hands of Malcolm Fraser. In 1996, Paul Keating gave up 31 seats to John Howard in one of Labor’s worst-ever defeats.

In light of all this, Morrison and his cohort would be advised to pay less attention to a cat’s chorus of media commentators on the right, and a lot more to the democratic impulses of an electorate whose vote in Wentworth conveys an unmistaken message: people are fed up with business as usual.