It’s possible the Liberals Dave Sharma, could lose the Wentworth by-election to Kerryn Phelps.The epicentre of n politics has shifted to Sydney’s eastern suburbs where the tight by-election battle for Wentworth has thrown climate and even foreign policy into the spotlight as the government stares down the barrel of a historic defeat.
The Liberals or their predecessors have held Wentworth since federation, but polling suggests its socially progressive voters are set to punish the government over climate policy and for knifing their elected member – former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.
Despite Mr Turnbull having won Wentworth with a 17 per cent margin at the last election, leaked Liberal polling suggests that buffer has all but evaporated with independent Kerryn Phelps likely to wrestle the blue-ribbon seat from the federal government.
The internal polling published by The n this week suggests Dr Phelps has surged ahead of Liberal candidate Dave Sharma with 55 per cent of the two-party preferred vote.
Dr Phelps, a former n Medical Association president and marriage equality advocate, has centred her campaign around climate change and what she argues is the government’s poor response to it. She’s also focused on the treatment of refugees, live animal exports and the independence of the ABC.
Mr Sharma emerged victorious from a party preselection process dominated by a debate over gender quotas and a push for more female representation in the Liberal Party.
The former ambassador to Israel didn’t even have the support of new Prime Minister Scott Morrison who reportedly backed former Woollahra deputy mayor Katherine O’Regan.
Since then, however, Mr Sharma has been marketed as a cabinet-ready candidate, who already has the prime minister’s ear on a potential Middle Eastern embassy move.
Party elder John Howard was wheeled out this week to campaign for Mr Sharma and describe him as “first class”.
Mr Morrison on Tuesday announced he was considering moving the n embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and credited Mr Sharma with putting the case.
The major foreign policy shift came just days out from Saturday’s by-election in a seat where 12.5 per cent of voters are Jewish. The federal opposition immediately accused Mr Morrison of using the issue to try and win votes.
A senior Liberal source described the thought bubble to AAP as “the biggest own goal of all time” pointing out many of the electorate’s Jewish voters would have backed Mr Sharma regardless.
Despite the long campaign – Mr Turnbull resigned in August – both Dr Phelps and Labor’s Tim Murray believe the anger at his knifing hasn’t subsided.
“I thought as the campaign was a very long campaign that the anger would not be maintained through to election day … but people have continued to be angry,” Mr Murray told AAP.
Dr Phelps believes the government’s “thought bubble diplomacy” over the Israeli embassy paired with recent Liberal Party dysfunction has fuelled voter discontent.
“People are still annoyed and they’re very upset about the chaos in the Liberal Party at the moment,” Dr Phelps told AAP this week.
In recent days she capitalised on talk of a Nationals leadership spill in Canberra to argue the coalition was lurching from “confusion to chaos” and her chances of victory weren’t hurt when an anonymous email was circulated falsely suggesting she’d pulled out of the race after being diagnosed with HIV.
Mr Sharma, the PM and even Mr Howard, when he joined the campaign in Mr Turnbull’s absence, all denounced the “vile” email and insisted the Liberals had nothing to do with it. But the incident added to a feeling the party couldn’t buy a trick in Wentworth.
Mr Morrison on Friday said: “I know there’s been a lot of instability and uncertainty, but voting for an independent will only make that worse.”