Briefing | opinion

Result aside, the Wentworth vote is a disaster for the Liberal Party

PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty ImagesElection posters outside a polling station during the Wentworth by-election in Bondi Beach.

As of Monday morning the most likely result of the Wentworth by-election is that independent Kerryn Phelps will win, but by a slim margin and not the landslide it appeared to be on Saturday night.

But even if Liberal candidate Dave Sharma was to manage a spectacular last-minute turnaround with the help of postal votes and some corrected preference allocations through the checking process, this is still a catastrophically bad outcome for Scott Morrison and the Coalition.

The government’s standing with voters is clearly in the gutter. The swing against the Liberals looks like being in the order of 20 per cent. A large chunk of this is likely to be the disappearance of Malcolm Turnbull’s personal vote, but if the swing is just partially replicated in a general election the Liberals are going to be obliterated. A swing of 5 per cent would equate to the loss of about 20 seats.

Some other grim realities for the Coalition:

  • Sharma did well among voters who voted early, suggesting at least some support was pushed to Phelps by the Morrison government’s performance over the past fortnight — in which Coalition senators voted in favour of Pauline Hanson’s “it’s OK to be white” motion, and the government had to scramble to clarify its position on discrimination against gay schoolchildren. The electorate has been watching and Morrison needs to get control over some basic process, immediately, and start projecting some competence.
  • Independents in other electorates are likely to be emboldened, complicating the political arithmetic for the Coalition ahead of an election where it needs to hold every single seat.
  • The Wentworth campaign featured a kaleidoscope of issues — asylum seekers border policy, energy, climate change, coal, religious freedom, anger at the Canberra bubble and instability — that are all nettles for the Coalition. The party is divided on all of them. But regardless of voters real motivations, the fact that they featured in the campaign will mean various interest groups will be able to claim it was their particular issue that was decisive. This has the capacity to drag the conversation to places the Coalition doesn’t want to go: witness Treasurer Josh Frydenberg over the weekend already having to say the party doesn’t need to overhaul its climate policies.

All of this is before getting to the likely reality that the Morrison government will be dealing with a hung parliament and all the compromises that will involve.

More broadly the result also backs the case that blowing Turnbull out of office was a bad idea and keeping the tensions between the conservatives and the more moderate elements of the party top of mind. Tie that in with the signal from Wentworth that a good chunk of voters are waiting with baseball bats for the Liberals and it is not an environment conducive to the ship-steadying Morrison needs to do.

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