This candidate’s poster is not like any other, missing one big thing that his opponent says is a sign he’s not the real deal. Now, he explains.
Dave Sharma is running for the seat of Wentworth for a second time in seven months, but that quick turnaround didn’t stop him from printing brand new, redesigned campaign material.
During last year’s by-election race, hundreds of his campaign signs that filled the inner-Sydney electorate proudly displayed the Liberal Party logo.
Mr Sharma’s upset loss to independent Kerryn Phelps — viewed as a protest about the dumping of Malcolm Turnbull, a hugely popular local member — is perhaps why a stack of replacement posters were ordered with one big difference.
Instead of the traditional Liberal logo and navy blue scheme, which dominated his signs last time, his campaign has opted for a minimal look and the simple tagline “A modern Liberal”.
What exactly is a modern Liberal?
“It’s about who I am as a person,” Mr Sharma explains over coffee at a Rose Bay cafe on a busy Friday afternoon.
Handily, it’s also a subtle nod to his more progressive leanings — a world away from the Liberal Party’s hard-right faction, which led the coup against Mr Turnbull.
“I wouldn’t put it that way,” Mr Sharma says of the suggestion, smirking ever so slightly. “It’s about saying who I am, rather than who I’m not.”
He describes himself as “forward-looking, interested in the challenges and problems of today, not the debates and disagreements of yesterday, and pragmatic”.
While he sees a need to tackle major problems — from climate change to affordable energy and border security — Mr Sharma stresses that the approach should be responsible.
“A lot of people tell me cost of living, cost of housing, childcare, the tax rate … those are the real issues for them,” he adds.
“I’m a working dad with a working wife, with three young kids, both parents working, juggling family and home. I understand all of those pressures. My wife and I struggle with childcare expenses, pick-up and drop-off, school holidays, the mortgage, all of that stuff.”
A few suburbs away in the electorate office she has occupied since sweeping to power, Kerryn Phelps chuckles at her opponent’s attempt to distance himself from the forces that locals so definitively voted against mere months ago.
“If Malcolm Turnbull couldn’t keep the hard-right under control, no Liberal candidate could,” Dr Phelps says.
The medical professional has barely managed to get her feet wet in Canberra, but says she has a number of achievements under her belt to be proud of.
Her proudest is the passage of the so-called medevac legislation, which ensured doctors on the ground in immigration detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru had the final say on whether refugees should be sent to the mainland for urgent treatment, not the government.
“It’s already working. The obstructions to people being evacuated on medical advice has been lifted. People aren’t being dragged through courts to have their medical transfers delayed,” Dr Phelps said.
As an independent local member, Dr Phelps became part of the crossbench in the dying months of the last parliament.
“I think the most functional part of the parliament was the crossbench. There were no political party games being played, no posturing. It was about good, solid legislative responsibility.
“You had people who are independents or from minor parties, right across the political spectrum and from regional, suburban and urban areas, who shared a determination to do the right thing by their constituents.”
But it’s this feature that Mr Sharma argues will see him win back support from voters, who see his part of a major political party as giving him a stronger ability to get things done.
“I don’t want to be too negative on my opponent, but an independent is like a bit of a sugar hit. They can make you feel good … but to actually get thing done, you need to have good relationships with state and local counterparts,” he says.
“This member is not a (local-focused) independent. She’s a national profile independent and I think people have realised that they don’t have a voice in things. They’ve got someone who can do a press conference but can’t actually deliver.”
Mr Sharma also believes that the anger in the community around how Mr Turnbull was treated by his own party has subsided.
“The mood has changed. Last time, there was a pretty strong protest vote and people were understandably angry about the by-election,” he says.
“A popular local member was no longer in parliament and a prime minister they liked had been toppled in a party room coup. That anger has really dissipated a lot. I’ve had a lot of people say to me that they protested last time but they’ve got it out of their system.
“The other change is that it’s a general election and the context is different. People are now voting for who’s going to be Prime Minister and who’s going to be in government.
“I think that’s focusing minds now.”
But, like during the by-election, don’t expect to see Mr Turnbull hitting the hustings with the Liberal candidate.
On election night last year, a shell-shocked Mr Sharma stood on stage beside Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg to speak to party supporters.
It was a sobering moment, as the realisation that Wentworth had been lost began to sink in.
“It was tough,” Mr Sharma reflects. “I was more composed than I thought.
“Voters’ views were heard. It was a bit of a shock to lose Wentworth for the first time since Federation. They delivered a big shock.”
There was a moment of hesitation about whether Mr Sharma would run again at this election, he admits.
“Look, a little. I think if the result hadn’t been as close as it was in the end, I would’ve been a bit more hesitant. I was only of the view that I should only run again if people still thought I was the right person to win it back.
“Most people thought I was the right candidate to run again … I felt duty-bound to try again. We have to win this seat back.”
It’s not the first time in our 45-minute interview that Mr Sharma says those words — “we have to win” — and it shows how much pressure is on him to perform.
His approach is to introduce himself to locals and it seems his charm is winning people over. While we chat, Mr Sharma is regularly mobbed by diners at the quaint cafe, encouraging him to keep going and wishing him luck.
Back at Dr Phelps’ office, she has just wrapped a meeting with a cohort of local teachers and parents who are concerned about the state of schooling in Wentworth.
The electorate has just one public high school that’s at capacity and will be inundated in coming years with hundreds of new students.
At one primary school alone — Bondi Public — there are currently 600 students, where about a decade ago there were 60.
A second public high school is critical, Dr Phelps says, given the alternative for parents is one of the high-priced private colleges that dot the Harbour front.
“If there’s no choice of public schooling, parents have to factor in private school fees. If you live in an electorate with adequate and well-resourced public schools, parents wouldn’t have to think about spending $35,000 a year per child for an education.”
Should she win and secure a full three-year term, Dr Phelps says her priorities will be action on climate change, local education services, a more effective investment in health services and a national integrity and anti-corruption commission.
“I think people are fed up with hearing scandal after scandal and not having anywhere for those concerns to be properly investigated,” she says. “Events of recent weeks drive home how important that is.”
She’s referring to the controversial $80 million water buyback pushed through by the Coalition Government, which Energy Minister Angus Taylor has been linked to.
Mr Sharma says his first priority is simple — to be a “good, effective and full-time local representative”.
“This is the only job I’ll do and I’ll do it full-time,” he adds, in a not-so-subtle dig at Dr Phelps.
A favourite attack of the Liberal Party on the incumbent surrounds the fact that she has continued to see patients since being elected.
“They’ve been trying to intimidate me with that since I nominated,” Dr Phelps says.
“I see some of my old patients. I have a commitment to continuity of care, particularly for more complex patients that I’ve been seeing for a long time. I’m not going to dump my responsibilities.
“There is a long and proud history of doctors being elected to parliament and continuing to do some practice.
“There are a lot of rural MPs who run family farms. They spend some time managing those farms.”
She also takes a subtle swipe at her opponent, saying that she has lived and worked in the Wentworth electorate for more than 20 years, while Mr Sharma has spent much of that time overseas.
And for her, Dr Phelps says politics is about giving back and being of service — not a career move.
“I understand the community very well,” she says. “I have been embedded in this community and contributing to this community for the last 20 years, when others standing as candidates have been living overseas for 20 years.
“I have very strong connections to the community. My daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren live here, Jackie’s father and brother and sister-in-law live here. My daughter was head girl at one of the schools in our area. Jackie (her wife) taught here for more than 20 years. I’ve been a GP in the area for 20 years.
“If people want somebody who is committed to the community, who is (running) to be of service to the community and not as a career move, then vote for me.”
Ahead of Election Night, neither candidate is taking anything for granted, knowing that the outcome is far from certain.
Mr Sharma says there’s much more riding on winning Wentworth than what occupies his time for the next three years.
“If we want to remain a viable political force, we need to be able to win and hold seats like this — inner-city metropolitan, socially progressive, economically conservative and wealthy seats … we have to win,” he says.
“I think we can do it. It won’t be easy and it could be quite close.”
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