A few minutes before the close of polls on Saturday evening, a storm rolled into Sydney’s eastern suburbs from the north-west. A proper Sydney storm, complete with ominous cloud front, torrential rain and Hollywood-style forked lightning and booming thunder. And a pretty apt metaphor for what was about to happen to the Liberals in Wentworth, because there was no surprise about the storm — you could watch the front on radar coming in for hours beforehand.
In the event, the climatic theatrics only last 20 minutes, before petering out and giving way to a steady drizzle, which might have seemed a more promising metaphor for the Liberals, who woke to thoughts of an improbable victory yesterday morning on the back of postal votes. By last night, however, Kerryn Phelps had extended her lead. As you were: the angry recriminations within the right could continue. Those of us who thought that, at 18%, the Liberal margin in Wentworth was simply too big to conquer are left to eat a delicious serving of humble pastry from Sonoma.
The constant in all the narratives, from moderate Trent Zimmerman, who took one for the team by going on the ABC’s coverage, to the froth-mouthed rantings of the far right on Sky and 2GB, was that the losing candidate, Dave Sharma, bore none of the blame. Certainly — when he was finally and belatedly allowed to speak for himself in a richly symbolic concession speech — he was gracious in defeat and magnanimous to Phelps. But to absolve him of blame is a worrying sign for next year.
Sharma, who was parachuted in from outside the electorate and who presented poorly at electorate events (those he bothered to attend), managed to alienate even rusted-on Liberal voters. With his background as a ministerial staffer and his links to the likes of Woodside, Sharma is a politics-as-usual Liberal candidate at a time when the electorate is furious about politics as usual. He represents the perpetuation of the Liberal Party of recent years, the party that is focused on looking after corporations, influential lobby groups and powerful donors rather than looking after the national interest.
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That’s where Sharma’s personal failings as a candidate intersect with the larger problems of the Liberal Party, which is locked into a cycle in which it places special interests above the national interest. On climate, by looking after the fossil fuel industry. On financial services, by looking after banks. On tax, by looking after business. On animal welfare, by looking after animal torturers. On Murray-Darling, by looking after irrigators. The list goes on — and on.
That’s why Scott Morrison’s absurdly combative “concession” speech on Saturday night was so badly wrong. Bustling in ahead of the candidate himself and invoking the Invictus Games as a metaphor for his party — thanks for politicising that, PM — he declared that nothing would change in the government’s approach. He and Frydenberg backed that up — or “backed that in”, to use Morrison’s weird phrase — yesterday by insisting there’d be no change of climate policy. After all, why would there be when we’re going to meet our Paris targets “in a canter”?
Labor would have been chuffed at that: its opponent committing to keep on doing what had just delivered one of the biggest ever swings against a federal government.
At least Morrison has a strategy, however flawed. The mouth-frothers at the Oz, 2GB and the fascist half of Sky News are in denial. Wentworth, a hitherto-impregnable Liberal seat, is suddenly irrelevant to the rest of country and to be dismissed as a clutch of hipsters-with-yachts. How will they feel if other Liberal seats are threatened by high-profile independents? What about Tony Abbott’s Warringah? Will that, too, be cut adrift if voters dump him? And what about Wagga, the state seat that only a few weeks back elected a local independent? Bit harder to dismiss the folk of Wagga as wealthy elites sipping their vegan pumpkin lattes in their BMWs on Edgecliff Road, eh?
Call it the Black Knight approach: the reactionaries who caused this mess with their destruction of Turnbull will happily see various limbs lopped off and continue to insist they’ll wipe out Labor. “Just a flesh wound,” they’ll insist, as seat after seat falls. But voters aren’t laughing.