Electoral Form Guide: Wentworth
Margin: Liberal 3.9%
Location: Eastern Sydney, New South Wales
In a nutshell: Between Malcolm Turnbull’s preselection offensive in 2004 and the threat of his defeat by Labor in 2007, Wentworth has generated a remarkable number of column inches for a seat that has never been held by Labor. Turnbull’s retirement announcement in April 2009 proved to be greatly exaggerated.
Electorate analysis: After a century as one of the nation’s most stable and predictable seats, Wentworth entered the national spotlight in 2004 and has remained a headline-grabber ever since. Created at federation, Wentworth originally covered the entire coast from Port Jackson to Botany Bay, before assuming more familiar dimensions in 1913. It now takes in the mouth of Sydney Harbour and its southern shore from Watsons Bay and Vaucluse west to Potts Point, along with a stretch of coast running south through Bondi to Clovelly, and the northern part of Randwick. The wealth of the harbourside suburbs have made this a classic blue-ribbon seat, which has been held by conservatives of one kind or another since federation. Recent Liberal members have included Robert Ellicott (1974 to 1981), the Shadow Attorney-General who played a crucial tactical role in the Whitlam dismissal; Peter Coleman (1981 to 1987), conservative intellectual and father-in-law of Peter Costello; John Hewson (1987 to 1996), disappointing Liberal Opposition Leader; and Andrew Thomson (1996 to 2001), disappointing member for Wentworth.
Thomson was defeated for preselection ahead of the 2001 election by barrister Peter King, who in turn died by the sword in 2004 when Malcolm Turnbull marshalled his considerable resources against him. Turnbull had been spoken of as a potential prime minister since coming to fame as a young lawyer in the early 1980s, when he succeeded in blocking the British government’s attempts to suppress former MI5 agent Peter Wright’s memoirs in the Spycatcher trial. In the 1990s he emerged as the chairman of the Australian Republican Movement, adding conservative leavening to a favoured project of the then Labor Prime Minister. He meanwhile made his fortune firstly in legal partnership with Gough Whitlam’s son Nicholas and later as a merchant banker, establishing business connections that contributed to his fundraising success as Liberal Party federal treasurer from 2002. Despite lingering resentment over Turnbull’s description of John Howard as “the man who broke the nation’s heart” on the night of the republic referendum, Turnbull’s move against King won at least the tacit support of John Howard, who in normal circumstances could be relied upon to support sitting members (Wayne Errington and Peter van Onselen’s Howard biography suggested he was influenced by Turnbull’s capacity to generate campaign donations). After a vigorous recruitment war, Turnbull prevailed in the preselection vote by 88 votes to 70.
King announced at the start of the election campaign he would attempt to retain the seat as an independent, but he polled only 18.0 per cent and finished well behind Labor’s David Patch on 26.3 per cent. While Turnbull’s 41.8 per cent was well down on the 52.1 per cent King recorded as Liberal candidate in 2001, it converted into a manageable 2.3 per cent two-party swing in two-party terms. The swing nonetheless contributed to a long-term trend against the Liberals, with former Labor staffer Shane Easson noting its stable population was repeatedly requiring expansion into Labor-voting areas distant from the exclusive suburbs near the mouth of the harbour. The electorate has nonetheless been kept intact at the latest redistribution, standing Turnbull in good stead following his strong performance at the 2007 election, at which he picked up 10.1 per cent of the primary vote in King’s absence and a 1.3 per cent swing on two-party preferred: one of only four seats in the country which swung to the Liberals, and the only one on the eastern seaboard. He may have been assisted by difficulties facing Labor candidate George Newhouse, with questions about the timeliness of his resignation from public bodies raising doubts about his eligibility as a candidate.
Turnbull won promotion first to parliamentary secretary in September 2006 and then to Environment and Water Resources Minister in January 2007, confronting him with issues of great sensitivity in his own seat. Turnbull’s other major source of publicity in his time as minister was his role in the burst of leadership speculation at the time of the APEC meeting. Peter Costello’s decision not to contest the leadership after the 2007 election had many expecting the position to go to turnbull, but Brendan Nelson defeated him in the ensuing leadership ballot 45 votes to 42. After serving as Shadow Treasurer for 10 months, Turnbull successfully challenged Nelson for the leadership, prevailing by 45 votes to 41. His tenure lasted only 15 monts, ending when his determination to support the government’s emissions trading scheme provoked a party revolt. A leadership vote on December 1 saw Turnbull challenged by Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey, the former prevailing 42 votes to 41 after the latter unexpectedly finished third.
After his defeat Turnbull returned to the back bench, and in April 2009 he announced he would not contest the next election. This provoked a flurry of speculation about candidates for the succession, prominent among whom was former John Howard chief-of-staff Arthur Sinodinos. This come to end a month later when Turnbull reversed his decision to retire, amid improving prospects for the Coalition. His Labor opponent is Steven Lewis, lawyer and Jewish Board of Deputies member (the Jewish community accounting for 14.1 per cent of the electorate’ss population against 0.4 per cent nationally, with particular concentrations in the electorate’s north-east). Imre Salusinszky of The Australian wrote that Lewis had lost the support of NSW Treasurer and party power-broker Eric Roozendaal after barrister Robin Margo put herself forward, but Margo got cold feet after Malcolm Turnbull rescinded his decision to retire.
Analysis written by William Bowe. Read Bowe’s blog, The Poll Bludger.