What now after Wentworth?


The nation has a couple of weeks to hold our breath while the final result from the Wentworth by-election plays out. Australia is one of the few democracies that make these generous provisions for pre-poll and absentee voting. Be that as it may, whoever finally wins, the independent Kerryn Phelps or the Liberal candidate Dave Sharma, the Morrison Government is doomed.

Big statement, I know, but do we really think an outfit that dumped a prime minister for no other reason than half the party room didn’t like him or his popular policies, will be able to learn the lesson of the historic swing against it? The National Energy Guarantee, which had overwhelming support according to opinion polls, is the prime example, and yet that was the trigger for the coup. Turnbull’s acceptance of climate change action is another, widely supported by voters according to the polls. Even if Sharma scrapes across the line, unlikely at time of writing, the swing will still be in the order of 18%, an ominous body blow to the government.

Comparisons with John Howard after the Ryan by-election defeat in 2001 are, in my opinion, delusional. Ryan, like Wentworth, was a blue ribbon Liberal seat in Brisbane. It took an almost 10% swing to defeat the Liberal candidate but Labor did it. John Howard, who was nearing the end of his second term as prime minister – yes second term, almost unbelievable by today’s standards – set about not only learning the lessons but demonstrating that he had.

Building on the credibility that he already possessed with two general election wins under his belt, and no one saying a change of prime minister was the best answer, Howard directly addressed the voters’ main gripe. The unpopular and recently introduced GST had added to skyrocketing petrol prices. At great cost to his own and future government budgets, he froze the excise on petrol. He also arranged for a damaging internal assessment by the party’s federal president Shane Stone to be leaked.

This said, the electorate thought Howard was “mean and tricky”. The tactic allowed the wily Howard to ditch some of his more unpopular measures showing he was listening. So far what we are getting from Scott Morrison is an acknowledgement that the Liberal voters of Wentworth were angry because the party had dumped their local member Malcolm Turnbull. Whatever he does, Morrison can’t shake the perception that he was part of the coup. Ambition trumped the national interest.

Morrison’s other problem is the chaos caused by the Liberal leadership implosion is now panicking the coalition Nationals. A return to Barnaby Joyce is being openly canvassed. This would be the last nail in the government’s coffin some fear in Joyce’s own party room.

So Morrison has to hold his fractious government together while at the same time produce credible climate and energy policies and get sick children off Nauru – all issues playing negatively beyond Wentworth. Good luck with all of that.

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