Prime Minister Scott Morrison has pleaded with voters on the eve of the Wentworth byelection not to punish him and his government for dumping Malcolm Turnbull, by arguing he did not support the leadership spill.
“I know you are angry, I understand you are angry, I was there when it was happening supporting the then-prime minister when they were seeking to take him down and I stood by him,” Mr Morrison said.
With the Coalition fearing a loss of the blue-ribbon eastern Sydney seat that it has held since Federation, Mr Turnbull refused until the very end to send a message of support for Liberal candidate Dave Sharma, angering and exasperating his former colleagues, including those who supported him.
However, AFR Weekend has confirmed Mr Turnbull will travel to Bali at the end of next week to represent Australia at an Oceans summit at the request of Mr Morrison.
While there, he plans to have talks with Indonesian President Joko Widodo to shore up support for the Australia-Indonesia Free Trade Agreement, which Mr Morrison is hoping to sign next month at either the ASEAN or APEC summits.
Mr Morrison’s decision this week to consider relocating the Australian embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has angered Jakarta and raised fears about the trade deal, which had been all but finalised.
The Israel decision opened Mr Morrison to accusations he was desperately trying to win votes in Wentworth, which has a large Jewish population and which the Coalition’s own polling shows is in peril of being lost to independent candidate Kerryn Phelps.
Campaigning with Mr Sharma on Friday, Mr Morrison directly addressed lingering voter anger at the dumping of Mr Turnbull as Liberal leader on August 24. Mr Morrison pointed out he did not lead the insurrection but was the compromise candidate who emerged victorious.
Sharma ‘same calibre’ as Turnbull
“I’m asking Liberal voters to do as I’ve had to do, as the Prime Minister, to deal with the events of a couple of months ago and step up,” Mr Morrison said. “I’ve had to step up and bring our party back together again and we’ve been doing that in quick order.
“What I’m telling you is, this candidate for Wentworth will be as good as the last one … he’s the same calibre with the same capacity and potential.”
Mr Turnbull, the former member for Wentworth, won the seat at the last election with a two-party-preferred margin of almost 18 per cent.
Losing it will require the biggest byelection swing in history, eclipsing the 16.1 per cent swing against Labor in the 1995 Canberra byelection.
There are 16 candidates in the field and Labor is running dead, sending its preferences to Dr Phelps. The Greens have issued how-to-vote cards directing preferences to Labor’s Tim Murray but former leader Bob Brown and current leader Richard Di Natale have urged voters to ignore the edict of the NSW Greens party and effectively give their preferences to Dr Phelps. This is designed to stop Labor coming second, knocking out Dr Phelps and ensuring Mr Sharma wins.
If the government loses the seat, it will lose it majority and have 74 MPs on the floor of the House. Mr Morrison warned repeatedly on Friday this would only further add to the instability plaguing politics and put at risk the economic recovery. He cited this week’s 5 per cent unemployment rate, a seven-year low, and the passage through Parliament of legislation for small and medium business tax cuts, and for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
“While people have been concerned about the instability that we have seen several months ago, this will only add to that,” he said.
“So that is why it’s important that when people think about their vote tomorrow, they think about the future certainty, the future stability.”
Phelps won’t ‘bring government down’
If the government is reduced to 74 seats, it should still be able to govern. Two conservative crossbenchers Cathy McGowan and Bob Katter say they will guarantee confidence while Dr Phelps scoffed at reports on Friday that she could support a no confidence motion that would collapse the government.
“I will not seek to bring the government down. I will seek to hold it to account,” she said.
If Dr Phelps wins, all six crossbenchers would need to side with Labor at the same time to collapse the government.
To hold the seats, Mr Sharma needs a minimum primary vote of about 45 per cent if he is to fall over the 50 per cent line on preferences. Due to preferences, Dr Phelps can win from a primary vote as low as 25 per cent. The latest round of internal party polling had Mr Sharma’s primary vote in the mid-30s and Dr Phelps’ primary vote in the mid-20s.
If the Coalition loses, plenty are gearing up to blame Mr Turnbull; for refusing requests from former colleagues, including Mr Morrison, to send a letter to voters endorsing Mr Sharma.
“Of course it would, 100 per cent,” said one NSW Liberal source when asked whether an intervention by Mr Turnbull would have helped.
Some in the party have warned Mr Turnbull will be known as the next Malcolm Fraser, a reference to the former Liberal prime minister turning his back on the party in the latter years of his life and even campaigning with the Greens.