After all the trouble the party went through recently in the name of restoring favour with its “base”, it’s curious that the Liberal Party should have emerged from its leadership crisis with question marks hanging over some of its most historically loyal seats.
In the immediate spotlight are the seats of the two most recently minted ex-prime ministers, courtesy of the Wentworth byelection and rumblings against Tony Abbott in Warringah. These seats have remained with the party and its predecessors through its lowest ebbs, going all the way back to federation.
Clearly the coup plotters had a less conventional view of the word in mind, making direct appeals to a Trump-era aggregation of nativists and social conservatives. But those types of voters have little presence in the fashionable suburbs that furnish the party with its “blue ribbon” seats.
To the extent that a fig leaf of electoral justification could be provided for Turnbull’s demise, it’s that such voters have the potential to tip the balance in the outer suburban and regional seats where elections are won and lost, whereas the wealthy areas of the big cities can be left to look after themselves.
But at a time when the primary vote for both the Coalition and Labor looks to be marooned in the 30s, it’s scarcely an exaggeration to say there is no longer any such a thing as a safe seat, and that taking any constituency for granted is a recipe for an independent or minor party rebellion.
The Liberals have been tempting fate on this score lately in any number of well-heeled, socially liberal electorates, creating a dangerously extensive roll call of seats that have the potential to swell the ranks of the crossbenches at the next election, if not sooner.
Her campaign may be off to a bumpy start, but Kerryn Phelps’ independent candidacy remains a perfect storm for the Liberals as they struggle to placate voters still seething over the circumstances of Malcolm Turnbull’s departure.
As well as having a high profile as a Sydney councillor and former president of the Australian Medical Association, Phelps scores well on the identity politics front. She is a convert to Judaism in the most Jewish electorate in the land, she is a married gay woman in the seat that returned the nation’s fourth-highest Yes vote for marriage equality, and a woman at a time when the Liberals’ male dominance is a flashpoint issue.
If she can convert that to victory on October 20, the Liberals will likely to have to await her retirement before they can hope for the seat to return to the fold.
As was plainly illustrated the weekend before last, Tony Abbott’s hard-right convictions are an awkward fit for his electorate. A third of the local Liberal membership voted for the proverbial empty chair rather than re-endorse him as their candidate.
Now there are suggestions the wealthy voters of Manly and its surrounds could follow those of Wentworth in backing an independent challenger — specifically local mayor Michael Regan, who has coyly declined to rule out running.
Should Julie Bishop decide to seek greener pastures, the Liberals will face another electorate where they have alienated voters through their treatment of their outgoing member.
While no prospective independent is immediately in the frame, this is an area that has form in voting for independents at both state and federal level.
When Bishop first came to parliament in 1998, she did so by unseating independent incumbent Allan Rocher, who had retained the seat in 1996 through a direct appeal to voters after losing Liberal preselection.
Another exhibit in the Liberal gender wars is the demise of Jane Prentice in the party’s safest seat in Brisbane. The moderate Turnbull supporter was dumped for preselection in favour of the young conservative Julian Simmonds.
The Liberals may be thankful that Prentice herself does not appear of a mind to ask her constituents to overturn the party’s verdict at the election, but her departure creates a potential opening for a suitably credentialled independent, should one emerge.
Conservative warrior Nicolle Flint probably has more to fear from Labor than an independent. She holds her Adelaide seat on a post-redistribution margin of 2.9%.
Nonetheless, her enthusiasm for Peter Dutton’s leadership bid — shared by previous few marginal seat MPs outside Queensland — placed her at odds with prevailing opinion in the beachside suburbs that have consistently kept the seat in the Liberal column, and was plainly a case of putting sentiment ahead of electoral self-interest.