Tony Abbott’s sudden quest to reduce congestion, to fix tunnels and toilets is, in one way, a miniature version of an extremely Abbottonian trait, one in its fullest display since he was ditched as prime minister.
He has a great sense of the weight and movements of history, and a total disinterest in his own past. Remember the surreal peak of his constant sniping at Malcolm Turnbull; Abbott’s “five-point plan” manifesto for fixing the Liberal Party, which led senior government minister Christopher Pyne to point out the ways in which the Abbott government had failed. The Abbott government in which Pyne had also been a senior minister.
So it is, in miniature now — he’s demanding his constituents are better served by a public transport system his government ceased to fund, and of course his sudden belief in climate change became roughly the 18th position he’s taken since people started asking him about it, and was soon superseded again. The Northern Tunnel he’s making a big deal out of relies on the federal government for less than 1% of its funding.
Uncharacteristically, though, he’s also made himself a small media target, “I’d lead the party again” gaffe aside. He’s been favoring social media and solo appearances over candidate debates, and largely talking to the Manly Daily, rather than taking advantage of his access to traditional media — the best of any candidate in Warringah.
As we alluded in the first piece of the series, he’s going full local candidate this time because he’s facing a genuine challenger — and the early polling was terrible for him.
Two polls from Warringah are in public circulation, both conducted by uComms/ReachTEL for GetUp! The first came in October, and found over half the electorate’s voters were receptive to the idea of supporting an independent; the second, conducted in February shortly after Zali Steggall entered the race, credited her with a thumping lead of 57-43.
While it’s true that seat polling has a less than stellar record, its errors are rarely on the scale of 7% — and the result clearly wasn’t far off what has been showing up in the internal research of the Liberal Party, who are making no secret of their view that Tony Abbott has a mountain to climb if Warringah isn’t to go the same way as Wentworth.
For all their similarities, Warringah and Wentworth are not peas in a pod — Warringah lacks Wentworth’s distinctive Jewish and gay communities and leans a little older in its age profile, the prevalent cohort being the forties rather than the thirties. What they do have in common is wealth, sharing the honour of being Australia’s richest electorate with neighbouring North Sydney, with the order depending on which measure you use.
Wealth has certainly had the effect of making all three electorates anti-Labor, but that hasn’t always made them pro-Liberal as such. Two decades before Kerryn Phelps’ win in Wentworth, North Sydney was held for two terms by independent Ted Mack, a local mayor who had earlier had a spell as an independent in the corresponding state seat of North Shore. If Warringah has never quite followed suit, it’s certainly not the case that its voters have proved shy of voting for independents.
The state seat of Manly, which lies at Warringah’s heart, was held successively by two independents from 1991 to 2007 — the first of whom, Peter MacDonald, gave Tony Abbott something to think about when he ran against him in 2001 and polled 28% of the primary vote. Like much of the 2001 election, MacDonald’s challenge falls into the category of things that might have been very different without the intervention of September 11 and the Tampa incident.
Manly especially embodies the spirit of the eastern suburbs rebellion against post-Turnbull Liberalism, boasting a distinctive beachside culture with a strong environmental streak — so much so that Abbott lost the Manly Central booth in 2016 to the Greens. Descending Darley Road, the main artery that runs from North Head to the Corso, one sees worrying signs (literally) for Abbott — those yard signs and bumper stickers which don’t specifically back Steggall, do specifically oppose Abbott. It’s also in Manly that the “Vote Tony Out” movement formed. If this is anything to go by, it’s this part of the electorate that looms as Abbott’s biggest danger.
Conversely, Steggall is likely to have a harder time of it in the more suburban areas around Forestville in the north, whose residents are more likely to identify as religious (and correspondingly less likely to support the Greens) and on the other side of the Spit Bridge in Mosman, which is more of a piece with the harbourside booths that stayed true to the Liberals in Wentworth.
It is the financial fears of those groups that Abbott seems to be hoping to exploit. Apart from the billboards that promise “a vote for Zali Steggall is a vote for Bill Shorten” Abbott is sending his constituents letters like the following, targeting the financial implications of a Labor government and ending:
Charlie Lewis is reporting from our special Warringah bureau for the length of the election campaign. Follow his coverage here.