So it has come to pass. Wentworth has been lost by the Liberals with the biggest by-election swing against a government since Federation.
In so decisively rejecting an excellent Liberal candidate in Dave Sharma, the voters of Wentworth have elected a fruitcake instead of buying one at the polling booth cake stall. So angry were they at the Keystone Kops behaviour of their government, that they turned their blue-ribbon seat into a fratricidal battlefield, the Philippi of the Liberal party.
As the Bass by-election was the harbinger of doom for the Whitlam government in 1975, in the absence of a miracle so is Wentworth for the Morrison government in 2018.
JFK once said ‘victory has a thousand fathers but defeat is an orphan’. So it will be after Wentworth. But this debacle has many fathers, and they must acknowledge their paternity.
First among them is Malcolm Turnbull. He will never admit it, but he was the principal author of his and his party’s undoing that led to the Saturday Night Massacre.
It was Turnbull’s unshakeable belief that his destiny was the prime ministership that led ultimately to his deposition in August and his bailing from Wentworth. Had he an ounce of political nous to match his ambition, he would have had a plan for the leadership when he usurped it in September 2015. Indeed, he instead would have supported Tony Abbott’s leadership instead of white-anting him at every turn, and his turn almost certainly would have come by now.
As prime minister, he would have destroyed the hollow and ethically questionable Bill Shorten in the 2016 election that needlessly was a double dissolution, instead of gifting him Mediscare and razing the government’s landslide majority to just one seat. He would have not framed July’s Super Saturday by-elections as a referendum on Shorten, only for his candidates to be trounced after being out-campaigned by Labor. Instead of isolating and denigrating his vanquished predecessor, Abbott, Turnbull would have sought to bring him into the tent, just as Abbott did with him in 2010. He will never concede it, but over years Turnbull was the author of his own political demise, and his petulant and selfish behaviour since his overthrow has diminished him.
And an honourable but understandably gutted Turnbull would have, like the equally-humiliated Julie Bishop, stayed in parliament after the mass Kool-Aid drinking of August, to be certain of preserving the government’s precarious one-seat majority – a majority their inept 2016 election campaign created – until the general election next year. But no, Turnbull in a huff scarpered to New York, failed to lift a finger to support publicly Liberal candidate Sharma, and allowed his son Alex to be a surrogate for his determination to revenge himself on those he saw as betraying him. That he was equally as disloyal to Abbott was lost on his injured self-esteem: his legacy will suffer for what he did in his adversity.
As for Alex Turnbull, his astute headline-grabbing use of social media to undermine his father’s party was brilliant if half-mad, and it was no surprise the ABC and Fairfax so readily gave him a platform. Young Turnbull, an expatriate ‘investment manager’ – a parasite industry that thrives on other people’s money and industry – was determined to bring down the Liberal party for what it did to dear old Dad, but surely in September 2015 he had no such qualms in rejoicing in his father’s own disloyalty and overthrow of Abbott. Politically, he is lower than a snake’s duodenum.
But it is not just team Turnbull that must shoulder the blame for this debacle.
Scott Morrison has been doing his best to mop up the blood of August, but his struggle to quell discontent and reset the government’s values and agenda told. Yet it was his extraordinary doorstop the day before the by-election, that sought underdog status but effectively conceded the by-election was lost, which did much to ensure a Liberal rout over an honourable loss. So absolute was his Friday concession that any wavering Liberal voter could feel justified in voting fruitcake without guilt. If even ScoMo could say it, they will have thought, so can I.
And his creating the impression of making expedient policy on the run compounded the problem. Moving Australia’s Israel embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is very sound policy, but it looked too much like appeasing Wentworth’s huge Jewish vote and its implications not thought through before it was announced.
But Morrison was not alone. Who else?
The Senate leadership team who directed a vote for Pauline Hanson’s farcical ‘it’s ok to be white’ motion on Monday, failing to anticipate its explosive gift to their political enemies, and how it would be spun by those enemies to the trendy lefties and small ‘l’ Liberals of Wentworth.
The government’s collective failure to get their act together over a raft of issues at the business end of the campaign – the selective leaking of convenient awkward bits of the Ruddock report on religious freedom about gay students, the Australian Medical Association’s self-righteous grandstanding on medical treatment for unauthorised arrival children detained on Nauru, and the fallout over the Hanson motion.
Yes, these hand grenades were thrown by the government’s enemies, especially the ‘love media’, but they could have been anticipated in a campaign for one of the gayest and socially liberal constituencies in Australia.
Peter Dutton, for not only gravely miscalculating in lighting the fuse in Leadership Week but blowing himself and the government up, and whose tactical ineptitude once he lit that fuse not only allowed Turnbull to control the manner of his going and buy time for an anyone but Dutton candidacy, but to desert the badly damaged ship and create that unnecessary by-election.
John Hewson, another deposed leader and former member for Wentworth who vomited over all his former party had done for him, and whose own political ineptness once lost him and the Coalition an unloseable election. His enthusiastically trashing the Liberals on climate policy, giving the love media even more copy to damage Sharma in this most Gaia-worshipping of seats, was a calculated act of bastardry and ingratitude.
Those in the Liberal party room who believe that being true to themselves is more important than working for the team.
The whole Liberal party room and their senior staffer henchmen and women, whether Turnbull fanbois and girls, Abbott conservative or Christopher Pyne ‘winner’s circle’, whose ineptitude in government and belief that they, MPs and senators, are the only Liberals who matter.
Their missteps, misjudgements and infighting since defeating Labor in 2013 has spat in the faces of Liberal grass-roots members, supporters and donors: people too many of the political elite see as insignificant pawns, despite their support and commitment being so essential to politicians’ bums being planted on the green and red leather. Those of them, who have since voluntarily or involuntarily left parliament to become pundits and commentators, cannot now dodge their share of responsibility, nor spin it away.
And last but not least, the Liberal factional warlords inside and outside the parliament, who treat the party as their personal plaything, who stack branches with their supporters, and treat Liberal seats as pocket boroughs.
But the collective damage has been done. All that is left is for the Morrison government to absorb the lessons of Wentworth and do everything possible to be a good government, focused on the people and not itself, in whatever time remaining to it in this term. For if it is to have any hope of being competitive at the polls let alone win the looming election, the government must prove itself worthy by the quality of its decisions, leadership and policy.
It cannot spend its way back into contention: the situation’s gone way beyond that. But it can yet recover lost ground by doing what is right, not merely what is popular. Showing up Shorten Labor’s profligate populism and its moral vacuum, and showing voters that the lessons of Wentworth are being learned by a humiliated and contrite government, is its best and probably only hope.
The Wentworth debacle was a team effort, from a team that for years has been anything but. If the Liberals try to on pin it entirely in Turnbull they will salvage nothing from this shipwreck. At least in sharing Sharma’s public concession on Saturday night and taking this catastrophic defeat like a man, Morrison showed a grace and humility in acknowledging the electorate’s anger that reflects well on him.
But whether that’s enough is very doubtful.
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