Liberal preselectors for the blue ribbon seat of Wentworth are furious about the withdrawal of front-runner Andrew Bragg just three days before Thursday’s vote, throwing the party into fresh turmoil.
“He had the numbers, now it’s a reset,” one senior Liberal told Crikey. Losing the seat will reduce the government’s majority to the speaker’s casting vote.
Whether true or not, Bragg, 32, who quit his job at the Business Council of Australia to run and then just as suddenly pulled out three days ahead of the vote, claimed that he pulled his candidacy because he thought a woman should run.
The brief days of Bragg’s candidacy coincided with the women of the Liberal party shining a light on the Coalition’s “woman problem” — shrinking representation in parliament and multiple accusations of bullying during Turnbull ousting.
“I have seen and witnessed some appalling behaviour, that in a law firm I would never have accepted but in Parliament, it’s the norm,” recently departed foreign minister Julie Bishop said after stepping down from the front bench, calling for a “much broader debate about workplace culture”. At the same time she noted Australia’s ranking for the percentage of women parliamentarians had plunged in recent years.
Bishop’s timing, appeared squarely directed at her party’s 210 preselectors for Wentworth.
Meanwhile, Bragg was shown polling that a Liberal bloke in Wentworth would struggle to hold onto the seat — and he may well have decided that it could be political death to lose it.
The same polling claimed that a woman stood a far greater chance. But, ultimately, as good as the message that selecting more women sends, it has to be the right woman. The question is, would the gamble pay off for the Libs in Wentworth?
Top of mind for Liberals will be the state party’s stunning byelection loss in Wagga Wagga last weekend. Their candidate, Julia Ham fell to independent Joe McGirr in a seat the party has held for 60 years, as it has Wentworth. The swing against the Libs was an eye-watering 29%. There were multiple factors at play, but Ham was certainly one. Polling has shown the federal leadership change was another.
Unfortunately, Liberal Party insiders admit that none of the three women who have put their hats in the ring for Wentworth are star candidates either.
Woollahra councillor Mary-Lou Jarvis was seen as an early second favorite after Bragg, but that appears to have changed. Now, Katherine O’Regan, president of the NSW Liberal Women’s Council and the Sydney East Business Chamber, appears to have the momentum. This is due to her backing by Liberal Party moderate powerbroker Michael Photios, who, with Turnbull himself, had been backing Bragg. The other woman bidding for the party’s endorsement is rheumatologist and provocative blogger Maxine Szramka.
All have little name recognition outside party and council circles and face the prospect of looking like also-rans next to former Australian Medical Association chief and local GP Kerryn Phelps, who is expected to run as an independent. Labor candidate Tim Murray, a political moderate and successful businessman, had already launched his campaign and has the backing of Turnbull’s son Alex.
The Liberal women line up against Dave Sharma, former ambassador to Israel, who, despite being parachuted in from the North Shore, appears to be the preferred candidate. Then there’s former member Peter King, 64, a barrister who was rolled for preselection by Turnbull in 2004. King, in turn had rolled the previous sitting member Andrew Thomson in 2001, and King rather oddly launched his comeback bid with the help of disgraced former Premier Barry O’Farrell.
Rounding out the field are personable public relations player Carrington Brigham, surgeon Michael Feneley and another Woollahra councilor, Richard Shields.
On the backfoot, with polling too close for comfort, do the Liberals roll the dice with O’Reagan — said by some to be a so-so campaigner — or pick a more polished player like Sharma? Or does a dark horse come through the crowded field?
Whoever wins, it’s unlikely they will want Scott Morrison to make much of an appearance (if any at all), given his no vote for gay marriage, evangelical Christianity and possible role in Turnbull’s demise.
As Malcolm and Lucy Turnbull relax in whichever swank noshery in whatever glamorous, faraway place they happen to be in, one can only think they will be soaking up a reassuring sense of schadenfreude.