LNP infighting simmers as polls show Wentworth slipping away

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Independent candidate Kerryn Phelps currently holds a lead over LNP's Dave Sharma (Image via YouTube)

With the Wentworth by-election only a day away, the LNP has been left in a fragile state and risks losing the seat, writes Tarric Brooker.

SINCE THE UNCEREMONIOUS end of Malcolm Turnbull’s Prime Ministership and his subsequent resignation from Parliament, the LNP has tried to be on its best public behaviour, attempting to create an image of a Coalition Government united behind its new leadership team of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Deputy Josh Frydenberg.

With the Wentworth by-election now just a day away, the Coalition has been desperate to defuse as many potential issues as possible, making changes to policy that probably would not have occurred under the previous status quo.

Wentworth is currently held by a margin of 17.75 per cent, making it the fifth safest Liberal seat in the nation. A loss there would be an extremely damaging blow to a Coalition Government that is still reeling from its recent internal leadership struggles.

Should the Liberals lose Wentworth, it would force the LNP into minority government as their slim one-seat majority fell by the wayside. While both Independent Cathy McGowan and KAP leader Bob Katter have indicated they would provide confidence and supply if their requirements were met, it would seriously complicate Coalition efforts to pass legislation through the House with crossbench support being required to do so.

The LNP’s fear of losing Wentworth is well-founded, with recent polling indicating that independent candidate Kerryn Phelps holds a 10 point lead over Liberal hopeful Dave Sharma in the two-party preferred vote 55–45.

A perhaps even more damaging scenario for the LNP is one in which the two-party preferred battle ends up being between Labor candidate Tim Murray and Liberal candidate Dave Sharma. After projected preference flows, Murray also holds a 55–45 lead over Sharma.

Despite the LNP’s best efforts, damaging leaks have surfaced which have seriously undermined not only the fragile peace within the Liberal Party and the wider Coalition, but also put the Liberals chances of retaining Turnbull’s former seat of Wentworth in serious peril.

The leaking of select conclusions from Philip Ruddock’s Government-commissioned review of religious freedoms has forced Morrison into proposing legislation that would prevent non-state schools from discriminating against students on the basis of their sexuality.

While it’s likely that this change in Morrison’s established position on the issue will cause considerable problems for his leadership in the future, in the present, the LNP are fighting to stay out of minority government as one of Australia’s most progressive electorates goes to the polls.

In recent days, the internal LNP debate around its energy policy has re-emerged, after a long period of Morrison trying his best to keep the more vocal and boisterous members of the Coalition’s Party room on mute. On Sunday, prominent National Barnaby Joyce suggested that the $4.5 billion Snowy Hydro 2.0 project should be scrapped or shelved in favour of new coal-fired power stations.

Wentworth is an electorate that cares deeply about climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Malcolm Turnbull’s “small L” Liberal approach to the issue is one of the things that ensured Wentworth’s conversion from a marginal seat into one of the safest in the country.

To have Barnaby Joyce trumpet the conservative wing of the LNP’s position on the coal industry and its associated inaction on the issue of climate change, Joyce has effectively done Tim Murray and Kerryn Phelps's job for them, politically kneecapping Dave Sharma on one of the issues that matter to the electorate most.

The stakes of the Wentworth by-election could scarcely be higher; on paper, the LNP faces losing majority government on the back of losing of one of its safest seats in the entire nation. However, even more than that is on the line for the Coalition this Saturday. A loss in Wentworth will only serve to amplify the divisions within an already fragmented LNP, leading to further instability and internal reprisals.

Ultimately a Liberal loss in Wentworth, a seat held with a 17 per cent margin, would do serious damage to Scott Morrison’s presently fragile leadership, potentially triggering another Liberal leadership meltdown as the party attempts to regain support ahead of the next election.

Tarric Brooker is a freelance journalist and political commentator.

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