With disaffected Liberal MP Anne Sudmalis ensconced in New York on a three-month junket with the United Nations, the government needed to rearrange the seating order in Parliament ahead of this week’s resumption of sittings.

Sudmalis, who is quitting politics at the election, had previously occupied one of the key seats in the House that are reserved for MPs with marginal electorates.

The seats are behind the Despatch Box, ensuring that whenever the Prime Minister or whoever is speaking, the MPs are in full camera shot, either nodding approvingly or shaking their head in disdain, depending on the reaction required.

It is a subtle but important tactic long employed by both sides to help vulnerable MPs gain voter recognition.

The bigger challenge Scott Morrison could face should Wentworth be lost - or barely held - is a fresh push from ...
The bigger challenge Scott Morrison could face should Wentworth be lost – or barely held – is a fresh push from conservatives for a bolder policy agenda.

David Rowe

Julia Banks used to sit next to Sudmalis. After Banks announced she was quitting at the election, she was sent to the nose bleed seats with Julie Bishop.

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The announced departures of Sudmalis and Banks hung a lantern over the Coalition’s dearth of female MPs yet, on Monday, when Parliament resumed after a three-week break, all the key seats had been filled by blokes, including John Alexander, who has a relatively comfortable hold on his seat of Bennelong.

No one stopped to think that the imagery of the Prime Minister in question time with an all-male cast behind him might not be helpful.

When this was pointed out after question time on Monday, stern conversations were had and there was a hasty rearrangement. On Tuesday, Alexander had been replaced by Nicolle Flint, who, as an intelligent woman in a marginal seat, is an endangered species in the Liberal Party.

Basic mistakes at lots of levels

The conservatives remain happy, by and large, with Morrison's policy adjustments post-Turnbull, and even understand they ...
The conservatives remain happy, by and large, with Morrison’s policy adjustments post-Turnbull, and even understand they cannot push too far for fear of splitting the broad church irrevocably.

David Rowe

In the greater scheme of things, the oversight was small but emblematic of a government under increasing strain and making basic mistakes at lots of levels.

It was the same sort of carelessness that enabled two dozen ministers and MPs to waltz into the Senate on Monday and support a motion by Pauline Hanson that had white supremacist overtones.

That error had to be unravelled on Tuesday, the same day as the government backflipped on the GST distribution formula under the threat of a revolt led by the Tasmanians, signalled a softening of its hardline stance towards asylum seekers and, announced a seismic shift on policy towards Israel, which achieved little other than a backlash, both domestically and diplomatically.

By any measure, it was a terrible week for the government, made worse by the Nationals deciding to have a blue over their leadership, as if the disgust the voters evinced at August’s “Muppet Show” was immaterial and they were really salivating for another round of self-indulgence.

Canada's Stephen Harper, a conservative, pretty much sees the world through the same blue-coloured glasses as Tony ...
Canada’s Stephen Harper, a conservative, pretty much sees the world through the same blue-coloured glasses as Tony Abbott. The men got on well when both were leading their countries.

Andrew Meares

A week after Peter Costello dipped into his endless vat of free advice to lament the government’s lack of an economic narrative, the Coalition, by its own design, found itself immersed itself in fights about gays and lesbians, religious freedom, racism, the Middle East and leadership. (Gasping for air amid all of this was a victory on company tax for small business, the passage of the TPP legislation and a very strong set of jobs numbers).

One cannot imagine a worse lead-up to Saturday’s Wentworth byelection which, if the government loses, will see it surrender its majority on the floor of the House by being reduced to 74 MPs.

In practical terms, it should not be a problem governing with one MP short, given the conservative crossbenchers Bob Katter and Cathy McGowan have guaranteed confidence, as has Kerryn Phelps, which would guard against some motion that could collapse the government.

There are only three sitting weeks to survive for the rest of this year and no contentious legislation that will struggle in the lower house.

Only a dunderplunken would be unable to manage a minority Parliament though to Christmas and into the new year if, indeed, it sits again before the election.

And if a break-glass option was required, the government could move Tony Smith out of the Speaker’s chair and offer the job to a crossbencher.

Get ready for ‘populist conservatism’

The bigger challenge Morrison could face should Wentworth be lost – or barely held – is a fresh push from conservatives for a bolder policy agenda.

After he became leader, Morrison was given a log of demands from leading conservatives that included abandoning the Paris climate commitments and moving Australia’s Israeli embassy to Jerusalem.

The conservatives remain happy, by and large with Morrison’s policy adjustments post-Turnbull, and even understand they cannot push too far for fear of splitting the broad church irrevocably.

But they still believe it may be time to go radical should Wentworth be a fizzer, including in the policy areas of immigration and foreign investment.

One template being touted is a new book by former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper, entitled, Right Here, Right Now: Politics and Leadership in the Age of Disruption.

Harper, a conservative, pretty much sees the world through the same blue-coloured glasses as Tony Abbott. The men got on well when both were leading their countries.

Harper argues the conservatives have a responsibility to address the political failures of globalisation and free markets, warning the “deplorables” who voted for Donald Trump and Brexit aren’t going away.

“In short, the world of globalisation is not working for many of our own people,” he submits.

“We can pretend that this is a false perception, but it is not. We now have a choice. We can keep trying to convince people that they misunderstand their own lives, or we can try to understand what they are saying. Then we can decide what to do about it.

“Present-day populism is not an all-or-nothing proposition. There are parts of it that reflect legitimate grievances with the elite consen­sus. There are others that should be opposed.

“What is happening requires understanding and adaptation, not dogma and condescension. Populists are not ignorant and misguided ‘deplorables’.”

Harper argues that according to conservative market values, the customer is always right and “in a democratic system, the people are our customers”.

He says conservatives, at heart, must remain pro-market, pro-trade, pro-globalisation and pro-immigration but that does not mean all regulation should be dismantled or there should never be government intervention or some protectionism.

“One can call this ‘populist conservatism’ or ‘applied conserva­tism’, but, to my mind, it is really just conservatism,” he said.

Others may call it responsible interventionism. The government has already done it with the banks, the gas sector and is about to do it with the electricity sector.

Should Wentworth go belly-up, that may just be the start.

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