Among the weights in the Liberal Party’s saddlebags as it fights to retain its parliamentary majority at the October 20 Wentworth byelection, the party’s problem with women is perhaps exceeded only by the circumstances of Malcolm Turnbull’s departure.
In a socially progressive electorate that votes Liberal for economic reasons, the recent double whammy of bullying claims and controversy around parliamentary gender balance reinforces a sense that today’s party represents a brand of conservatism out of step with its own values.
This is further compounded by Wentworth’s demographic claim to the nation’s third-highest proportion of females among its population.
Distinctions in gender balance among electorates are not vast, but they are enough to be significant at the outer ends of the scale, with the split in Wentworth being over 52-48 in favour of females.
As indicated by the table below, a disproportionately female population is a feature of conservative electorates, while those at the other end of the scale are an electorally mixed bag of mostly far-flung electorates with large mining workforces.
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In the case of seats like McPherson on the Gold Coast and Fairfax on the Sunshine Coast, a high female population reflects a preponderance of retirees and the natural tendency of women to stick around longer than men.
But it’s a very different story in inner city seats like Kooyong (held by Josh Frydenberg), Goldstein (Tim Wilson) and Wentworth, where the dominant age cohorts are the 20s and 30s.
As is the case in inner-city seats on the other side of the political divide, such electorates are presenting the traditionally dominant party with a newly challenging environment in which much depends on judicious selection of candidates.
After losing Melbourne and sundry state seats to the Greens, Labor showed they had learned their lesson when they cast aside David Feeney in favour of Ged Kearney for the Batman by-election in March, which they duly won with an increased their majority.
However, the Liberals appear slower to recognise that they no longer have the luxury of prioritising considerations other than the immediate electoral situation.
What was clearly wanted in Wentworth was a locally well-connected woman, so as to minimise the impact of loss of Turnbull’s personal vote and negate the sense of a party beholden to the hyper-aggressive ideological clique that had seen off Turnbull.
What they have instead is Dave Sharma, who until last week lived 25 kilometres away in Turramurra — and who, some confusion surrounding his first name notwithstanding, is without question a Dave.
As if to demonstrate nature’s abhorrence of a vacuum, a candidate of the ideal type has emerged in the shape of Kerryn Phelps, who must be rated a strong chance of seizing a seat that has been held by the Liberal Party for as long as there has been such a thing, and in doing so reducing the Coalition to the ignominy of minority government.