Bondi beach Wentworth division
Photo by Laura Cros on Unsplash

The timing couldn’t be worse if you’ve hitched your wagon to the Liberal Party and standing for Malcolm Turnbull’s old seat of Wentworth in Sydney’s east. Against you is the most alarming report yet on climate, a prime minister who’s sticking to coal against all the odds, a string of decisions by the state government that are testing notions of democracy and an electorate that’s hopping with fury in the streets and meetings everywhere.

OPINION: For the first time in more than three decades as an eastern suburbs resident, people in this area have become politically animated as the fight for Wentworth, the federal seat held by debunked prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, intensifies ahead of the 20 October by-election.

In an almost perfect storm of controversy, there are heart-to-hearts with neighbours in the street, posters on every pole – there’s even sabotage; some have been removed in the dead of night – nasty flyers in letter boxes and more meetings than one can possibly go to.

There’s been a house meeting where independent candidate Kerryn Phelps has been invited to explain her position on giving preferences to the Liberals, which some people find hard to understand. There’s door-knocking in the streets (where the houses don’t have intercoms), and I’ve been delighted to be accosted in the street by earnest people handing out anti-Adani promotional material.

Without being too self-important, we are, this time, at the heart of things – the canary in the coal mine. If the Libs lose Wentworth it could trigger a minority government in Canberra with independents such as Andrew Wilkie and Rebekah Sharkie making it clear they won’t necessarily guarantee supply.

It’s all about reading the mood right now. There’s a sense among the chattering classes, even those with Liberal leanings who I’ve come in contact with, of a shattering of complacency, that things have gone too far, that we cannot lurch much further to the right, in the direction of America’s presidency, that PM Scott Morrison’s rejection of environmental science does not have our best interests, or those of our children, at heart.

And that’s without the flashpoint of outrage over the Alan Jones and Opera House advertising, and premier Gladys Berejiklian’s acquiescence to his wishes, within the hour, of his savaging of Opera House boss Louise Herron.

And then of course there’s fury at the knocking down of the perfectly good Allianz Stadium, which seems a done deal – senseless, snuck in before any change of government. Why? Construction waste is one of the leading causes of our environmental problems and this can be about nothing except pleasing big business.

And then there’s Watsons Bay/South Head, a long-simmering issue over development proposals to create a commercial wedding venue/function centre using pristine public land and six historic buildings stretching across Sydney’s South Head. The lease will run for 40 years.

Environment, both natural and built, has become the key issue. In a suburb with Australia’s most expensive real estate, it’s even become impossible to find a site for a new high school, the government having sold off and closed a number of schools in recent decades.

The one co-ed government school in the electorate is short of resources and bursting at the seams, and even those with children at neighbouring, fee-charging, schools are a bit nonplussed by the $4.6 billion Morrison gifted them as one of his first acts as PM.

It’s an embarrassment of riches.

Jane Caro, who last month won a Walkley award (journalism’s highest accolade) has described Morrison and the Liberals as actually hostile to public education. Australia is already “far and away the biggest public spender on private schools of any advanced economy,” and that was before Morrison’s cash injection.

But according to sustainability advocate Michael Mobbs environment is the standout issue locally. Mobbs has lived for decades in a totally off-the-grid inner city terrace house, complete with noisy clucking chooks laying eggs, but in June he serendipitously moved to Bondi where he has thrown himself into local politics.

According to Mobbs, at a full-to-capacity Waverley precinct meeting on Monday night, all candidates, except Liberal candidate Dave Sharma who was “unavailable”, said environment was the burning issue, especially with the release of the very dire IPCC special report this week. This, at the same time as the PM is in climate denial.

“The importance of this election has been exploded,” Mobbs said. “It will tell us whether people are really putting climate first.”

Even though Mobbs has never previously aligned himself with a political party (he was an independent city councillor in the 80s) and says Labor is far from perfect, he’s endorsed Labor candidate Tim Murray for Wentworth because he’s “the only one who has power in parliament to affect legislation this year or next.”

“This time I’m throwing my hat in because I’m 68 and it’s time to choose someone who can achieve politically in the next 12 years. I think everyone at the meeting – all the candidates – was genuine on the environment but anyone who can put the Libs above Labor, which Kerryn Phelps has done, is actually voting against earth’s future. She had no answers as to how she could give her preferences to a party without a position on climate change. When asked, she replied only that it was a numbers game, but earth’s future is not a numbers game. Earth can’t do deals.”

At the meeting, he said, each candidate spoke for four minutes before questions from the floor.

“There were some outbreaks of fury and raw democracy [by which he means cries of ‘shame’] when someone talked about reducing company tax and when Kerryn spoke about her preference distribution,” Mobbs reported.

“The chair had to ask for no interruptions. “But the thing that stood out for me is that each candidate said it was essential to turn up for the sake of democracy – in a dig at Sharma – and the mood was for action. It was a huge night, there’s a real sense of alarm about climate change.

“There were searching questions on refugees and the only one who could give us a specific answer was Murray, who said the ALP had an agreement to bring 300 to New Zealand in the first three weeks of office. He said that he would also fight for Australia to accept refugees.

“He’s very clear where he doesn’t agree with party policy. He’s been very clear on the Opera House and the stadium and South Head as well.” Labor is not perfect, Mobbs said, but at this juncture, they represent the only real option on the table in terms of climate.”

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  1. Thank you The Fifth Estate for exploring some of the heat in the current by-election in Wentworth, the federal electorate of the former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

    Voting is Saturday week, 20 October.

    It’s turning into a vote on which path we choose on climate breakdown. With the warning from Earth’s scientists that we have only 12 years left to stop climate fully collapsing Earth needs all the love we can show her at the ballot box.

    The Wentworth by-election has become curious.

    GetUp warns on its website about preferences.

    In the Wentworth by-election GetUp says it opposes Adani, coal but supports a candidate whose preferences go to the Liberal candidate whose party supports Adani and coal.

    Which is it, GetUp? Heed your own warning.

    The Liberal Party or Earth?