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If you thought that Australian politics could not get more bizarre, it’s time to think again. The race is on for one of the Liberal Party’s blue chip seats withh the official retirement of Malcolm Turnbull, the Member for Wentworth.

As he huffs off overseas shortly, Turnbull will reportedly not be in Australia during the byelection and will not campaign for his successor for the seat. A growing list of independents are putting their hands up or considering running. The latest is that the Labor Party has a credible candidate in Tim Murray, who was preselected three months ago.

The Liberals have held the seat for 60 years but Turnbull’s absence and early polling suggest that, even with a big margin, it’s losable.

Turnbull has built up a huge personal vote in the liberally minded seat of wealthy middle-ground voters, widening the margin in Wentworth. He ousted then-sitting member Sydney barrister Peter King (who had not made it into any of John Howard’s ministries) for preselection in a bitter battle, and won the seat in the 2004 election by 5% when King ran against him. Since then, his margin against all comers has climbed steadily to reach 17% at the last election.

Now, not long after Turnbull was ousted, his son Alex has announced that he could easily cast a vote for Murray, and has even been encouraging voters to do the sameWho the hell — even the sharpest political watchers were thinking — is Tim Murray?

He’s the low-key Labor candidate for the seat, and president of the Tamarama Surf Life Saving Club. He speaks fluent Mandarin and is a successful businessman in his own right. With Turnbull Jnr’s comments and the general embarrassing disarray that the federal Liberals find themselves in, Murray has been hit squarely on the arse by a rainbow.

While Murray, 50, has not been permitted to speak to the media, he is well known to Crikey, having provided commentary on the Chinese economy to this publications in recent years. He studied the Chinese political economy at Macquarie University and won an Australia-China Council scholarship to the storied Johns Hopkins University in the US.

One the way he stopped into Beijing to practice his Mandarin in a summer job and wound up in the Australian embassy researching food imports into China and ended up working for Austrade for two years and opening its office in the north-east Chinese port city of Dalain.

Following that he worked for Foster’s in China and started City Weekend magazine with his now business partner Anne Stevenson Yang. They sold the publication to Swiss media multinational Ringier where Murray sat on the new media board for a decade, taking him in and out of Europe and into a job minding former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder on his regular China visits, giving him access to high-level government officials in China.

Murray was seen at a fundraiser for Neil Pharaoh, the openly gay Labor Party candidate, for the federal Melbourne seat of Prahran this week, burnishing his credentials with a community whose support may be crucial in Wentworth.

He will face either another former diplomat (former ambassador to Israel Dave Sharma) or Liberal Party Paddington branch chief Andrew Bragg (who last week quit a job at the Business Council of Australia) as the Liberal candidate. While Tony Abbott’s sister Christine Forster, currently the public relations chief at oil and gas giant Woodside, has also indicated she wants to run for the Liberals, for all her qualities, one has to think that the Wentworth preselectors are not utterly suicidal.

First Nations advocate Dominic Wy Kanak, deputy mayor of Waverley Council will be the Greens candidate. “It’s time for a fresh start for Wentworth,” he said in a statement. “I know residents here care about action on climate change, Aboriginal justice and tackling the excessive power corporate interests have on national policy.”

A raft of very credible independents have announced or are gearing up for a run, according to various reports. These include former AMA chief and local GP Kerryn Phelps, and well-liked schools campaigner Licia Heath. Sydney Councillor Angela Vithoulkas, who is also running as an independent, is part of a class action of business owners suing the state government over the inner city’s intrusive and delayed light rail project.

Murray’s nature is that he would prefer see them as allies rather than opponents so the smart money would be on preference swaps. Far from being a referendum on Bill Shorten’s leadership, Wentworth is shaping up as one on Scott Morrison’s nascent premiership — and he should be very, very concerned.

With the independent vote being split, one has to think that Murray and Labor stand a chance, a possibility that, before the Liberal implosion, looked like very long odds.

Do you think Labor has a chance in Wentworth? Let us know at [email protected]

Peter Fray

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