The Wentworth wipeout

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Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons

What a result! For the first time ever, the Liberals look as if they have lost their formerly blue ribbon seat of Wentworth.

Independent Kerryn Phelps will in all likelihood be the new member, defeating the Liberal candidate, Dave Sharma

In contrast to the euphoria of Saturday night, vote counting on Sunday of pre-poll and postal votes saw Sharma come back strongly into the race. There is a possibility he could still win it.

However, as the News website says:

‘If the Liberals continue to claim about two-thirds of the postal votes, there will not be enough in the remaining 1,266 we currently know about for Mr Sharma to catch up. But thousands more could arrive in the coming weeks, potentially propelling him to a comeback victory.’

More counting on Sunday afternoon revealed some preference distribution errors and, as a result, increased Phelps lead to 1,863 after an initial surge in support for Sharma on Sunday morning. That has declined slightly with more counting on Sunday afternoon to a lead for Phelps of 1,616 at the time of publication. This makes Sharma’s chances very remote.

Given that postal votes received until 2 November will be counted, we won’t know who the declared winner is until after that, although we should have a pretty good idea of the successful candidate in the next few days. I am confident Kerryn Phelps will win the seat.

The swing against the Government in the Wentworth by-election is about 19% at the time of writing. It could decrease a little as more postal votes are counted. Even so, this is one of the biggest anti-government by-election swings in Australian political history. It could well presage a massive defeat for the Coalition Government at the next election.

For example, Canberra fell to the Liberals in a by-election in 1995 with a 16% swing against the Keating Government and, a year later, John Howard won government. In 1975, Whitlam Labor lost the Bass by-election with a swing against it of over 14%. This emboldened Liberal Party leader Malcolm Fraser to block supply. He went on to win the election in December that year on the back of Governor-General Sir John Kerr sacking the Whitlam Government on 11 November.

On the other hand, the Hawke Labor Government lost the seat of Wills to the Independent Phil Cleary with a 23% swing against Labor in 1992, after Bob Hawke lost the prime ministership in 1991 and resigned from Parliament. Yet Keating won the 1993 election. In 2001, the Labor Opposition won Ryan at a by-election with a swing of 8%, but Howard won the election later that year.

Let’s examine the seat of Wentworth more closely for clues about whether it is more like Bass or more like Wills.

The first thing to know is that Wentworth is Australia’s richest electorate. At 57.1%, based on the 2011 Census, according to Antony Green, it ‘has the highest proportion of high-income families’. It has the highest monthly mortgage repayments and weekly rents. It has the highest median house prices in Australia. In short, it is a ruling class seat, populated by wealthy people.

We cannot extrapolate for what the 1% do in a by-election to judge how the rest of Australia will vote. They are chalk and cheese. Wentworth is not Western Sydney.

Turnbull was a popular elected member. Nobody in the Morrison Government can explain why he is not still Prime Minister. The Government cannot tell us the truth — that it was a bid for power by rightwing crazies. 

Liberal Member for Reid, Craig Laundy, put it a little bit more diplomatically when, on Saturday night, he said:

"When you knife Malcolm Turnbull, this is what you get. The blame for this lies squarely at the feet at anyone who thought it was a good time to get rid of Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister."

Perhaps 18% of the almost 30% primary vote for Phelps could be a straight transfer from the Liberals at the 2016 General Election to her at this by-election. This is a big protest vote against changing leader and against removing their elected representative from power.

But the protest vote is not the only explanation. Climate change was also an important factor in the vote. According to an exit poll commissioned by the Australia Institute, the lack of action by this Government on climate change was another key reason for the switch in votes. The treatment of refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru was another — according to a poll commissioned by the Refugee Council of Australia.

Climate change and the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers might be important issues for many voters, but in Western Sydney and Western Queensland, the issues that many people will be voting on are more immediate economic ones, like low wages, underemployment, schools and hospitals, export prices and the drought. (The link between climate change and extreme weather events does seem to be percolating into some rural areas.)

The Government's leadership instability will also be a factor in how people vote, but the alternative in rural and regional areas is shaping up to be not an Independent or Greens candidate, but One Nation — a Party that has been successful in painting itself as the party for the battlers.

That is why Government Senators first voted for Pauline Hanson’s "It's okay to be white" motion. Indeed, much of their rhetoric and action has been an attempt to win back Hanson voters or at least to get their second preferences. The right wing of the Liberals and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, as that vote shows, have a lot in common in pandering to the racist sentiment in Australian society.  Given that Australia is a colonial settler state, genocide and racism are part of the founding tools of Australian capitalism.

The other thing about the by-election was the fall in the vote for the ALP and the Greens. Both lost about one-third of their primary vote at the 2016 Election — around 6% each. The voters of Wentworth did not vote for the Greens, even though many of them want action on climate change and asylum seekers. This is because their position in society does not allow them to vote for a party they think might threaten their class.

The Labor and Green vote may have declined because their supporters voted tactically for someone like Phelps who could win and, in doing so, get rid of the Liberals, and send the Government into minority and its members into shock. The infighting among the Liberals after Wentworth will be brutal. More popcorn, please.

The victory – or even near victory – of Phelps, will give a boost to Independents in other similar seats. There is speculation, for example, that Jane Caro might stand against Tony Abbott in Warringah. The potential rise of Independents reflects the lack of class in our politics and class struggle in our society. Voting for liberals with a social conscience like Phelps, or progressives like Caro without a class analysis, will not change the world. 

It is great that Phelps has won Wentworth, or has run the Morrison Government very close. However, let’s have no illusions. Real action on climate change, on refugees, on wages and public services, can only come about as a result of the pressure we as workers apply to capitalism and its state industrially, economically, socially and politically. Let’s build on the anti-Government momentum from Wentworth to make sure real change happens.

You can follow Canberra correspondent John Passant on Twitter @JohnPassantSigned copies of John's first book of poetry, Songs for the Band Unformed (Ginninderra Press 2016), are available for purchase from the IA store HERE.

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