The by-election in Malcolm Turnbull’s old seat of Wentworth has the Morrison Government on edge. Despite having a margin of near 18%, all the polls point to a tight tussle. At stake, the Coalition’s one-seat majority but not immediately the fate of the government itself. Two crossbenchers have guaranteed confidence and supply no matter what the outcome.
The poll to be held this Saturday will, according to Scott Buchholz, a Queensland Liberal, “see us either in the penthouse or the dog house”. He was actually a little cruder but the sentiment sums up the mood.
A Voter Choice Project Poll late last week placed independent, Sydney City Councilor Dr Kerryn Phelps, far ahead of the Liberal candidate Dave Sharma. But, as we have seen in the nine other by-elections this term, single seat polls can get it horribly wrong. But a sure sign that the Liberal Party’s own polling shows there’s a big swing against the party came from Scott Morrison himself. He told reporters at the weekend that the by-election is a three-horse race between Sharma, Phelps and Labor’s Tim Murray.
“She’s (Phelps) clearly running strongly second and, if she continues in that place, she can still be a long way behind on primaries and then she can come over the top and win that by-election.” He’s urging voters not to create chaos and instability by abandoning the Liberals. Pity he and his colleagues didn’t think of that before they knifed Turnbull.
This near panic goes a long way to explain the amazing and rapid change of heart we saw last week after the leaking of recommendations of the Ruddock Expert Panel on religious freedom. That review found that there was no “imminent threat” to freedom of religion in Australia. But it advised a tidy up was needed to bring all states and territories into line on the way they allow religious schools to discriminate against gay children and teachers. New conditions would give these schools pause for thought but still allow what many Australians would see as cruelly outdated prejudice and misplaced homophobia.
For two days Morrison defended this exemption, insisting it was existing law put in place by the Gillard Labor Government. His close ally Special Minister of State Alex Hawke was confident it wasn’t even controversial to allow religious schools to discriminate in this way. Is it little wonder middle-of-the-road Liberals, appalled by their colleagues’ tolerance of bigotry, brought the matter to a head in the final days of the by-election campaign? The Ruddock leak was an Exocet missile into the Liberal campaign. Wentworth recorded an 80% vote for marriage equality and is one of the most socially progressive electorates in the nation.
The penny finally dropped for Morrison; it took 48 hours. He is now promising to work with Labor to end the exemption for religious schools in this sitting fortnight.