It’s a mild Wednesday evening at Bondi Beach, right before Easter. Homeless people are settling in for the night at the rear of the iconic, now shabby, Pavilion. Out the front, however, local MP Kerryn Phelps is holding a pre-election Politics In The Pub gathering in a bar and restaurant called Bucket List.
By normal political logic, Phelps shouldn’t be MP for Wentworth, the bluest of blue-ribbon Liberal seats. But she seized it last October, powered by the rage of local Liberals in the aftermath of the ousting of Malcolm Turnbull. Now, the conventional wisdom goes, business-as-usual will reassert itself. The angry Liberals of last October will return to the fold, and Dave Sharma will take his rightful place in Canberra.
This time around, admittedly, Phelps will have a postal vote campaign; her standing start last year meant that she went into the contest without any postal vote organisation, a key reason Sharma almost snatched victory with a potent showing in pre-polls. That will lift Phelps’ vote, but so strong was the swing that got her across the line last October that even a mild tilt back toward political normality will end her time in parliament fairly early on the night of May 18.
There are maybe 60 or 70 people present, with a strong family feel. A little girl in a ballerina dress will ask at least two questions during the course of the evening, as well as twirl in boredom next to Phelps while she speaks. This is very much Phelps territory — the southern part of Wentworth, where incomes are lower (though not low), which until 1993 was in the more marginal seat of Phillip.
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Around here, Phelps out-polled Sharma easily on primary votes last October. The questions to Phelps reflect the nature of the community — the focus is on climate change, Adani, the environment, Indigenous recognition, and electric cars. Phelps answers them all smoothly, adeptly, though without a great deal of specificity, while the rest of us peck at Bucket List’s rather excellent snacks. A question on healthcare costs is an intriguing moment for a politics-watcher. Phelps has lived and breathed the issue professionally for decades but knows she can’t offer a lecture on health economics; her detailed answer skirts the line between trying to explain how complex and nuanced the issue is and offering something satisfactory to the audience.
She speaks like a politician, despite her insurgent credentials — understandably, given she’s be in politics of one kind or another for 20 years and an accomplished media performer for 30. Or, more accurately, she speaks like a politician who hasn’t been trained to resolutely stay on message, because she has no party line to toe, no script to follow beyond that she’s devised for herself. She’s polished but authentic, she looks professional but presents as a community activist. This isn’t merely about image: her role in the passage of the medivac bill on arrival in Canberra demonstrated a capacity to immediately get results against government resistance.
Phelps is one kind of answer to the conundrum of 21st-century politics in Australia: our traditional dislike of politicians has given way to a deep disaffection toward the entire political class, a resentment that they are disconnected from the community and are only looking after the powerful and themselves. But the apparent political alternatives to this are deeply unsatisfying. They’re either extremists like One Nation, or house-trained versions of Hanson, like Jacqui Lambie. Or they’re representatives of a widespread phenomena across the West: members of the elite exploiting disaffection for their own ends, posing as outsiders to a system of which they are a purebred product (think Clive Palmer). Or they’re Ricky Muir types — ordinary people who fluke their way in and actually grow into the role demanded of them by parliament, but who lack the name recognition to keep their place.
Phelps is none of these: she has name recognition, she has no corporate barrow to push, she’s pretty much right in the political centre, and she has basic political skills that have propelled her from the AMA to Sydney Council to federal parliament.
It’s noteworthy, then, that in this contest her opponent is the embodiment of politics-as-usual, a symbol of an out-of-touch political class. The following day, Sharma will join Foreign Minister Marise Payne at the more salubrious confines of the Pullman Hyde Park to launch a report he has been commissioned to write by taxpayer-funded security think tank ASPI. It’s on DFAT’s “digital diplomacy”, with Sharma handed the gig presumably on the basis that he tweeted a bit while ambassador to Israel. The establishment looks after those who serve it faithfully, and Sharma has served it diligently and enthusiastically.
It’s not really a campaign event, but in every way it’s perfect for Sharma, for he is a man who has sided with those in the governing elite. It was Sharma who was Alexander Downer’s legal adviser when ASIS was, at Downer’s request, bugging the Timor-Leste cabinet to ensure we screwed over the new microstate on resources. It was Sharma who aligned himself with the Netanyahu government while ambassador to Israel, who supports the work of extremist Israeli smear group NGO Monitor. Sharma’s glittering career has illustrated how power is used to serve corporate and elite interests, how the powerful dictate to the powerless. He’s the perfect product of a profoundly imperfect system.
He is, in other words, the ideal candidate for the way power works in Australia, an exemplar of how our power system clones, perpetuates and extends itself. Phelps’ brand of polished authenticity and moderate centrism is up against something far more powerful than locals upset about climate change or angry pro-Turnbull Liberals.