kerryn phelps wentworth

OPINION: Wentworth was not a by-election to win; it was one to force defeat. The people furious with this government’s climate policy and disgusted by its stance on refugees made sure of this. They ditched normal loyalties, hired psephologists, did complex preferences deals barely anyone understood, and risked alienating their friends and allies by siding with and voting for a woman who more than a few viewed with suspicion.

Anger erupted in these pages, in person and on twitter. When we called the strategists and spokespeople we encountered barely controlled fury at the position people felt themselves to be in and how it would make them look. Managing the optics of all this complexity was not easy when most people stop reading and thinking after the headlines. Luckily Wentworth is probably the most privileged electorate in the country and the good people there felt their weighty obligations and discharged them admirably.

Some people said they voted for the winner Kerryn Phelps reluctantly, but for the greater good.

It was Realpolitiks in action. No trace of the purer than pure politics of the Greens that 10 years ago stopped the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme because it wasn’t good enough. Thereby levering open a fissure in united global momentum on climate action that ended up letting in the tsunami of the crazy Abbott years and his American funders.

Lesson learnt.

GetUp! offered four different options on Saturday, all sending preferences to Phelps, in vast contrast to the clear and singular messaging it normally uses to thump its opponents in election campaigns.

It wanted Phelps to win because nobody else could win other than her or the Liberal candidate Dave Sharma.

That much everyone agreed on.

The Greens and Labor preferenced Phelps.

You have to hand it to this coalition of climate supporters – they knew exactly what they were doing.

Having no alternative will do that.

Hearing the IPCC call an urgent warning will do that. A government hell bent on refusing to take action on climate – any action – will do that.

So will having a prime minister who can’t stop smirking and has virtually laughed in our faces with his coal juggling tricks in parliament.

Good. Job well done.

But don’t sheath your swords yet.

Despite the undoubted pain and humiliation of losing the jewel in the crown at Wentworth, the federal leadership was on Monday and Tuesday urging the party faithful to hold their ground. To understand that policies that trash the planet and appeal to the hip pocket could still win a general election.

By Tuesday afternoon the moderates in the Liberal Party were urging some return to sanity. They said that $1 billion should be allocated to the Emissions Reduction Fund, for direct action (as if it will do more than wave a feather in the direction of the oncoming climate hurricane).

With any luck the moderates will build momentum and gather support outside of Wentworth.

On Saturday the signs were good.

The Fifth Estate visited a smattering of polling booths on Saturday and decided to ask the Lib foot soldiers supporting the generally well liked Dave Sharma how they felt about climate, and how they felt about their party’s attitude to climate policy.

The response?

Foot shuffling and embarrassment. From all. One said, he was working, so had no time to talk (the irony that his work was to talk about the issues you’d think). Another said to come back to him on Monday “after all this is over.” He was a major sustainability fan himself and his family grew 80 per cent of their vegetables. Yes, yes, we responded, but what about Libs policy on climate and sustainability? Groans from he and his companions.

That was at the more progressive North Bondi booth.

But even at a far more conservative booth hung the unmistakable tinge of disappointment and regret. They were still loyal to their party. Sure. But sad to be so. The sacking of Malcolm Turnbull (the former PM which caused the by-election) was dreadful they said, and on climate, of course they cared. Things will change, they said as they looked wistfully to the harbour below and joked that at least at this height, you’d be safe for a few years yet. Waterfront, not so much.

In Canberra these people’s leaders had learnt nothing.

No need to change policy on climate, the PM said. No need for a review of energy policy, the Treasurer said.

What to expect of Kerryn Phelps?

There is no doubt she’s unknown quantity – Liberal by background, yet keen to be seen as moderate these days: socially progressive, spouting all the right policies and positions on climate and refugees, naming herself a sensible centrist.

On QandA on Monday night, when asked whether she would vote against the government on a motion of no confidence on refugees, she said she preferred to use persuasion.

(That’s worked a treat so far, hasn’t it?)

On Saturday we asked her a similar question on video:

on what issues would she vote against the government?

We got a similar noncommittal response. She’d look at the legislation and judge it on its merit.

Will the climate supporters be disappointed? What’s her mandate?

We’re about to find out.

Anything is possible.

One possibility is that the government loses its right to govern if the independents form a block and challenge the government to grow up and think of more than its mates.

Another is the raft of elections coming up. We’ve got

Victoria on 24 November, NSW in March and the latest the federal election can be is May.

Our view? How about we do a job lot and get them all over and done with at one sitting.

It would show all these pollies the same respect they are showing us.

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  1. Whilst I agree with Ian’s sentiment, most of these votes would be wasted – we should all vote strategically for whoever stands a credible chance of winning and says the right things on climate action. Neither the Coal ition or ALP can be trusted so I’m hoping for a slew of high profile independents like Kerryn to vote for like Jane Caro in Warringah getting rid of Abbotts toxic influence.

  2. At our polling booth, one of the Liberal Party leaflet distributors called my wife dear, as in, “Do you realise that if you vote for Keryn, dear, you could cause a hung parliament.”

    I think he summed up the problem with the Liberal Party in one sentence.