Fittingly, given the perennial instability of federal politics, the
Wentworth byelection looked clearcut on Saturday night only to become
very murky on Sunday morning.
But as things stand, although a lot of postals are still outstanding,
independent Kerryn Phelps is expected to take the seat and the
Coalition is poised to go into minority government, and potentially to
descend into yet more infighting on the way to seemingly inevitable
defeat next year.
In Wentworth Phelps’ support appears to have strengthened late. She
improved her messaging, while the government’s shambles last week
reinforced in voters’ mind why it needed a walloping.
Regardless of the narrowing in the count, the top line message is that
these voters shouted their outrage at the political assassination of
Malcolm Turnbull. They also strongly signalled they care about climate
change and are not satisfied at the government’s policy response; as
well, they want something done about the offshore refugees who have
been treated inhumanely for so long.
Defenders of the leadership switch will say Wentworth isn’t Australia,
voters elsewhere won’t feel so strongly, and Scott Morrison cuts
through better than Turnbull.
But a large number of Australians are disgusted with the expedient
coup culture that has overtaken our politics. As Liberal candidate
Dave Sharma told Sky on Sunday, “Australians are sick of this
[instability]”. The Coalition can’t avoid paying a price for that at
the election – the question is only how high a one.
To think that the Nationals could be even remotely contemplating a
coup by Barnaby Joyce against Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack
shows that some politicians find it hard to learn the most basic
McCormack is lacklustre but cutting him down would be simply to court
danger. Not least, some rural women are so against Joyce that the
party might face active opposition from them. Yet, Nationals sources
still don’t rule out a move before Christmas.
As for Morrison, as much as bringing him new problems, Wentworth has
put up in lights the ones that were already there.
Even if those in other electorates are not as agitated about climate
change as Wentworthians, that issue is more important to the broad
Australian community than it is to the government.
Morrison may have held the line against the right wing Liberals
arguing for quitting the Paris agreement but he errs by
brushing away people’s concerns about climate change with his
singleminded focus on power prices. Many voters won’t see that
approach as adequate.
Morrison remains wedged between his Liberal right wing ideologues and
mainstream voters. The right claims to speak for the “mainstream” on
climate (and other things) but it doesn’t.
Morrison needs a way out – to show that he understands a more
sophisticated policy is required – but none is in sight.
Liberal deputy leader Josh Frydenberg was holding firmly to present
policies on Sunday, even though he has previously admitted his bitter
disappointment at the death of the National Energy Guarantee, which in
its totality integrated energy and climate policy.
The story is a little more positive on the refugees. Finally, the
government shows a willingness to settle some in New Zealand, but it
demands that Labor pass the legislation to close the “back door” to
stop these people (and boat people settled elsewhere) ever setting
foot in Australia. Labor says such a ban is too wide but the pressure
is on for a deal. One “push” factor is that progress on a New Zealand
solution, albeit partial, would take some weight off Bill Shorten at
Labor’s December national conference.
A hung parliament, assuming it happens, will make everything harder for the government, including building a platform for the election. To pass any
controversial legislation, it would have to get the support of at least one of six crossbenchers. The crossbenchers will exploit their enhanced importance.
Generally, risks will be higher. The possibility of a successful no
confidence motion is remote. But Home Affairs Minister Peter
Dutton might be a little more nervous about the chances of his eligibility to sit in parliament being referred to the High Court.
The government’s worsened situation may impose more discipline on its backbenchers – or it may encourage backbench grandstanding in the pursuit of survival.
Coming up on the policy front is the issue of the response to the religious freedom report. Here Morrison is on a hiding to nothing. His right wing wants
more religions protections to be legislated. But in the run up to
Wentworth he had to promise legislation to remove the existing right
of religious schools to discriminate against gay students – and he is
resisting calls to do the same for teachers. The religious freedom
debate is going in quite another direction to that foreseen by the
right and Morrison himself.
Morrison would do better to simply bury the (still unreleased) report.
But the right won’t allow that.
Then there is the Middle East policy U-turn Morrison put on the table
in the campaign’s last week – to consider shifting the Australian
embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. A decision is due by year’s end.
Is Morrison going to stick to this controversial path – or make an
ungainly retreat? Either way, there’ll be a fresh argument.
After the Wentworth debacle Turnbull’s critics predictably are
intensifying their attack on him – firstly for jumping ship ahead of
the election and secondly for his failure to intervene to help Sharma.
Both Morrison and Sharma appealed personally to Turnbull to come to
the aid of the party.
Turnbull can say he made it clear he would quit parliament if rolled,
and that ex-PMs shouldn’t hang about. The former prime minister can
argue that weighing into the campaign would have been viewed cynically
and thus counterproductive.
If, however, Sharma misses out by a relatively modest margin, the
question will hang in the air: might Turnbull have swung a few votes?
His decisions will seen even by some of his supporters on the
negative side of his legacy ledger.