With friends like Alan Jones, who needs enemies?
While Malcolm Turnbull is bearing the brunt of blame for the likely loss of Wentworth by triggering the byelection by resigning from Parliament and then not lifting a finger to help Dave Sharma, that version of history glosses over other factors that helped high-profile Kerryn Phelps steal the blue ribbon seat.
One of those factors that no one in the Liberal Party or Phelps campaign had any control over was the furore over advertising the Everest horse race on the sails of the Opera House. The controversy really erupted in the public sphere when Jones – who later apologised for going too far – hectored Opera House chief Louise Herron and told her she should lose her job if she did not relent and turn it into a billboard.
With Premier Gladys Berejiklian overriding the public servant hours later, it reminded many voters again that Jones has too much power when it comes to politicians pandering to him. After all, he had been one of the right-wing shock jocks who egged on Liberal MPs to dump Turnbull in the first place.
The campaign to light up the Opera House was not driven solely by Jones of course. Both Liberal and Labor politicians including Prime Minister Scott Morrison backed it, fuelling sentiment that politicians are more interested in looking after special interests.
Phelps issued a statement lashing out at the “crass commercialism”, with a campaign insider citing the controversy as a turning point for her prospects.
But support for the celebrity doctor’s bid was galvanised by the leaking of former attorney-general Philip Ruddock’s review of religious freedoms less than a fortnight before polling day. The initial story mistakenly suggested Ruddock had proposed giving faith-based schools the power to expel gay students (schools in some states already had that power) but Morrison was forced to promise a few days later the government would actually change the law to outlaw the practice.
According to the Phelps camp, the leak reminded Wentworth voters – 81 per cent of whom voted yes in the same-sex plebiscite last year – that Phelps, a long-time gay rights activist, spoke for them on issues of equality, decency and fairness, helping her build momentum.
The government also kicked some own goals, particularly in the crucial final week, such as the shambolic support for Pauline Hanson’s motion decrying “white racism”, policies on refugees and climate change deeply at odds with the values of locals, and instability over the Nationals leadership.
Morrison’s announcement last week that he was open to moving the Australian embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem also probably came too late to have much impact on Orthodox Jews who care deeply about the issue, because they vote early ahead of the Jewish sabbath, and only served to reinforce the picture of a chaotic government due to the backlash from Indonesia and Arab countries.
Even so, one senior Liberal held out hope that a large enough influx of postal votes from Israel could flood in over the coming days to help Sharma to an unlikely victory.
An analysis of the voting results backs the view that Phelps gained momentum as the campaign went on. Sharma polled 55 per cent of pre-polls after preferences, and 63.5 per cent of postal votes (which the Liberals have long put a focus on), compared with the 47.5 per cent of the votes cast on Saturday.
However, government sources dispute that the dying days of the campaign were disastrous for Morrison and Sharma. According to internal polling, at the start of last week Phelps was leading 59 per cent to 41 per cent, with Sharma’s primary vote languishing on 35 per cent.
They believe the government’s message that a vote for Phelps was a vote for instability helped narrow the gap. “Nervous Libs who were considering a protest vote came flocking home in that last week,” one source said.
But as Turnbull and his wife Lucy jetted back into Sydney on Monday morning after their New York exile following the August coup, he is being greeted by anger from Coalition MPs for not endorsing Sharma with a letter to voters or robo calls.
One Liberal said “everybody under the sun” – MPs, party officials and Sharma himself – asked Turnbull to publicly support Sharma.
“Him not choosing to do it was absolutely the difference to winning or losing the seat,” the MP said. “His endorsement could have shifted 1000 votes.”
This MP said Turnbull should have helped out for two reasons: to get a Liberal with a bright future elected, and to protect his own legacy. “Malcolm will wear this personally and deserves to do so.”
Another MP was more philosophical. “Don’t know if you’d call it anger. A sense that finally now the public know what we had to deal with with Turnbull as leader.”
Turnbull offered a number of excuses for his unwillingness to help Sharma, fearing it would be a “circus” if he made any public appearances, arguing he would have to refer back to his knifing in any communication, and that voters would see through it anyway.
Turnbull’s former numbers man, Defence Minister Christopher Pyne, dismissed the criticism of the former PM, saying that “it’s well and truly time we stopped examining the entrails of politics”. He also refused to sledge Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton and his supporters for precipitating the strike against Turnbull’s leadership.
“It’s well past time that we moved on from the change of prime minister. I think that’s what the Wentworth byelection message was: that disunity is death,” Pyne told the ABC.
Another loyalist, Trade Minister Simon Birmingham, said clearly voter anger over Turnbull’s removal was “profound”.
“I think the politics of Malcolm’s removal played a far greater role than any particular issue or policy did in this campaign, and when it comes to the next election obviously we will be asking voters to focus on our policy accomplishments, on the choice for the future that they have to make and that will be a very different scenario and climate to the one that we faced in Wentworth,” he told Sky News.
One backbencher said Wentworth posed “unique circumstances”, in both demography – economically dry but socially progressive – as well as the events surrounding Turnbull’s demise.
But the MP said colleagues who blamed the Dutton camp for bringing on the leadership crisis, or Turnbull’s non-involvement in the campaign, risked falling into a trap if they did not heed the lessons.
“It is a serious warning sign that unless we get the fight right against Shorten and co, we are in a real danger of a Labor government,” the backbencher said.
“I don’t know how many wake-up calls we need. If we are trying to sugar coat it and explain it away that it was all about Wentworth and Malcolm, we are missing the point.”
This MP said Wentworth showed voters wanted a stable and united government that focused on bread and butter issues that counted to them, rather than internal games.
“Everyone knows that the level of trust in institutions across the board, particularly in politicians, is at a very low level,” the MP said.
“We picked a scab [over the leadership] and it didn’t have a lot of time to heal. It was an enormously messy week and we paid the price for that on Saturday.”