The Wentworth by-election, aside from being a whirlwind personal experience, was also a by-election with national dimensions and repercussions. The lessons Liberals draw from it will inform the approach we subsequently take to national politics, so it’s important we draw the right ones. Though the final result is yet to come in, it is clear the Liberals suffered a swing against us in the order of 18 percentage points on a two-party preferred basis. If replicated nationally at the next election, a swing of this size would lead to an electoral wipe-out.
While any swing this large should serve as a wake-up call, it is not necessarily a harbinger of doom. There were some unique factors and circumstances at work in Wentworth. And to the extent the result signals dissatisfaction with the government, there is time to turn things around.
The Wentworth by-election came about in unique circumstances because of the ousting of Malcolm Turnbull — a highly regarded local member — in an internal party manoeuvre that was deeply resented by the electorate. This, more than any other single factor, explains the size of the swing. I lost count of the number of traditional Liberal voters who told me that they could not bring themselves to vote Liberal this time around, and would instead be exercising a protest vote. If there is one enduring lesson from Wentworth — indeed, one enduring lesson from Australian politics over the past decade — it is that the public has no tolerance for leadership musical chairs.
Political instability in Canberra over the past 10 years has eroded public trust in politics, made it harder to develop good long-term policy and even diminished our international credibility
The public has shown it will rightly punish political parties who practise parlour games rather than governing. The by-election also contained an unusual dynamic, with a strong independent candidate in the race. A high-profile independent can shake things up and make seemingly safe seats turn marginal.
The last time a strong independent ran in Wentworth, in 2004 at the height of the Howard government’s popularity, the Liberals managed a primary vote of 42 per cent and held on to the seat 52-48 on a two-party preferred basis. This time around the Liberals secured 43 per cent of the primary vote but will probably lose the seat about 49-51 two-party preferred. When viewed against the result in 2004, the Wentworth result is perhaps not as stark as it first appears.
As electorates go, Wentworth is one of the more economically successful and socially progressive electorates, with median incomes at the upper end and more than 80 per cent voting Yes in last year’s same-sex marriage survey. The number of people in Wentworth who care deeply about issues such as climate change, the treatment of asylum-seekers and live animal exports is probably higher than in many other electorates around Australia. But in their desire to see pragmatic — as opposed to ideological — solutions to these problems, their approach is firmly within the Australian mainstream.
This is another lesson worth drawing from Wentworth that has national relevance: that Australians want their politicians to go about methodically addressing challenges and crafting pragmatic solutions, rather than engaging in needless ideological warfare for the sake of sharpening differences.
Take climate change, for instance. Like most Australians, I accept the evidence for man-made climate change. And I would argue that those who do not wholly accept the evidence should nonetheless consider it prudent to act — just in case they are wrong. The question is what to do about it, and where climate change should sit within the hierarchy of other national priorities. Sure, climate change is a tough policy challenge. But it should not have been able to paralyse Australian politics as it has for the better part of a decade.
Australia should play its part in reducing global CO2 emissions, but our approach needs to be informed by realism and pragmatism. Australia alone cannot alter the trajectory of global emissions — atmospheric CO2 concentrations will largely be determined by the actions of other major actors. And if we are to keep the broad public consensus needed to address this properly, we should move in a way that ensures electricity prices are kept affordable and supply reliable. A steady transition to greater renewable energy sources is feasible and practical — but an overnight switch is not.
Technology will help us achieve all three — lower emissions, lower prices and higher reliability — if we just provide it with the pathway. But unfortunately, this is an area of policy that has been captured by ideological extremes on all sides, with the pragmatic centre ground getting drowned out. Australia’s border protection policy is another area prone to capture by ideological forces. Australia should remain a country that is generous to migrants and those seeking our protection. But we can be this welcoming and generous country only if we keep control of our borders, welcome people to Australia in a regulated fashion and maintain public confidence in our systems and processes.
I’m keen to see people on Manus and Nauru resettled as soon as possible, provided it can be done in a way that maintains the deterrent we have established — at considerable effort — against people-smugglers. We have undone our border protection policies carelessly once before, in 2007 when the Rudd Labor government was elected, and the result was a disaster. Again, what I believe voters want to see here is sensible and pragmatic policy: compassionate but not naive, hard-headed but not hard-hearted.
The disconnect between politics and Australia’s future challenges is growing wider, leading to a sense — especially pronounced among the under-40s — that politics is increasingly irrelevant. This is causing a slow but steady drift away from the major parties and towards minor parties, independents, and, for some, the politics of protest. How do we ensure the next generation of Australians enjoys the opportunities we did? How do we maintain our independence and freedom of action in a neighbourhood that is increasingly contested and uncertain and an era in which the global order is undergoing profound change?
How do we prepare our workforce and our economy to create the industries of the future that will create jobs and maintain our prosperity? How do we manage the impact of revolutionary new technologies on our lives and maintain the fabric of our society? Politics should be about preparing our nation for the sorts of challenges that lie ahead. If we can help shift the political discussion to focus more on these challenges and less on the stale divisions of the past, then perhaps we can help re-engage people in the political process.