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wentworth byelection
Independent candidate for Wentworth Kerryn Phelps. Image credit: Dean Lewins/AAP

Spend any time on the hustings for the Wentworth byelection and one thing becomes clear: the voters have well and truly made up their minds. Opinion polls indicate that only 2% of the electorate is still undecided, borne out by the behaviour of the voters I saw on Thursday.

At the Waverley pre-polling station with Dr Kerryn Phelps, I spotted many people waving away the how-to-votes on the way in, saying “I know how I’m voting.” Phelps, the independent who is widely tipped to win the seat, said this has been a common reaction this week. “People go past and just give a thumbs-up or a smile. They’re not stopping to discuss issues.”

Wentworth has always been held by the Liberal Party and if it loses the seat at Saturday’s byelection, this will be the end of Morrison’s one-seat majority in Parliament.

Asked about her own polling, Phelps laughs, saying that as polls cost $14,000 each, she can’t afford it. What the campaign does have is bodies — I counted twice as many Phelps volunteers as the Liberals.

Former NSW MP Paul Pearce was there handing out how-to-votes for the very good Labor candidate, Tim Murray. An economist, Murray lived in China for 20 years and speaks fluent Mandarin; he’s like Kevin Rudd with a personality.

However, Labor is running a low-key campaign because it knows it can’t win and needs to come third so that the preferences flow up to Phelps, pushing her above the Liberals.

Independent candidate, former banker Licia Heath has run an excellent campaign focused on the need for a new public high school, better homelessness support and a national anti-corruption commission. She is one to watch in the future.

Speaking to the Wentworth voters at a series of events this week, many seemed absolutely ropable about the brutal removal of former member Malcolm Turnbull by the party’s right-wing faction.

The residents of one of Sydney’s most educated and most progressive electorates are incandescent with fury that their man was ousted by what they perceive as a happy-clapper from the Shire. Many people told me that they would be not be voting Liberal for the first time in their lives.

One of party’s biggest problems is that up until the byelection, Sharma had lived in Turramurra in Sydney’s upper North Shore; he is seen as a “blow-in” who doesn’t belong. The former diplomat has avoided many of the community debates, but on Tuesday night went to a candidates’ forum organised by the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies.

It’s thought that he was pre-selected — reportedly at the behest of John Howard — because his former ambassadorship to Israel would attract Wentworth’s so-called Jewish vote (about 13% of the electorate). But the reactions of the 300-strong audience at the forum showed up my preconceptions about the Jewish community and how they vote.

Most of the attendees appeared to be cynical about Morrison’s proposal to move the embassy to Jerusalem, regarding it as a political stunt. When Phelps said it was a “politically motivated decision” that “should not have been raised in the context of a byelection for the purpose of trying to gain support for a Liberal candidate,” she was loudly applauded.

Phelps converted to Judaism when she met her partner, Jackie Stricker-Phelps, 20 years ago. Yesterday, she told me that the Jewish community trusts her because she is an active member and in fact got married in January at Woollahra’s Temple Emanuel when marriage equality became legal.

The Liberals know that Phelps is attracting strong support from the gay community and the Jewish community and are running the line that voting for her promotes “instability” — something which just makes her laugh, incredulously.

After Tuesday’s debate, I debriefed with a friend at the Woollahra Hotel, known by the locals as “Jurassic Park”. We agreed that the voters of Wentworth are lucky — most of us are forced to choose between the one-time mayor of Porpoise Spit and some IPA reject who’s never had a real job. But many of these political candidates reflect the Wentworth voters — tolerant, inclusive and focused on the bigger picture. Scott Morrison should be worried.

Does Kerryn Phelps have what it takes to win? Write to [email protected] and let us know.

Peter Fray

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