Senior Liberals say the party faithful in Wentworth have healed after Malcolm Turnbull’s political assassination and are leading a “targeted grassroots” campaign to help Dave Sharma win the eastern suburbs electorate.
The Liberals are “not taking anything for granted” in Wentworth but admit the anti-Liberal sentiment following Mr Turnbull’s dumping has gone and Mr Sharma is in a “strong position”.
Party members who stayed clear of the October byelection, which saw the once blue-ribbon seat fall to independent Kerryn Phelps, have re-emerged to volunteer on Mr Sharma’s campaign.
Mr Sharma, a former ambassador to Israel, needs to claw back about 900 votes to unseat Dr Phelps, which the Liberals are “quietly confident” can be done given the low turn-out in the byelection.
Only 78 per cent of voters turned out to vote in the byelection and a senior Liberal source said it was likely that many of those who did not cast a ballot were angry Liberals.
“The protest sentiment over Malcolm has washed through and the Liberal Party faithful are back,” a senior Liberal said.
“Liberal party members and supporters in the community are helping volunteer [with] letter-boxing, pre-poll and on election day. These are the people disenchanted at the byelection.”
Mr Sharma said there was “much less of a protest sentiment” in the electorate.
“I have people saying to me ‘we didn’t vote for you last time but we are coming back to the Liberal Party this time’,” Mr Sharma said.
“There is a also a strong sense that they voted in protest last time but can’t take that risk this time”.
Mr Sharma said climate change was still an issue for voters, but the focus had shifted to taxes and housing affordability.
Dr Phelps, a local GP and a former federal Australian Medical Association president, said the mood was “polarised” in Wentworth.
“There are people who are very excited to be able to vote for an independent who has been able to achieve things in parliament but on the other side, you have Liberals who are angy that their seat was taken away from them and they want it back,” Dr Phelps said.
Dr Phelps said she had an army of about 500 people helping on her campaign and had definitely sensed a “momentum shift” in the past week.
“Early on in pre-polling, people were taking Liberal how-to-vote cards but I have sensed that momentum shifting. I don’t know if that will be enough to get past the strong big-spending Liberal Party but there is definitely excitment around our campaign,” Dr Phelps said.
While the byelection campaign was run by Liberal Party headquarters, Mr Sharma has this time shaped his campaign, along with his team headed by Young Liberal president Harry Stutchbury.
His posters describe him as a “modern Liberal” and are localised, with slogans such as “Dave Sharma for Clovelly”. He is also campaigning on local issues, such as more public school places.
“The profile and branding is clear, Dave is strong on economics as well as having a modern social outlook,” a Liberal operative said.
Another Liberal close to the campaign said: “I think the byelection [result] was a shock to a lot of Liberals. Also, people in the byelection didn’t know Dave but that has also changed.
“He is a local now. He has bought a house here, he has moved his family here and his kids are in school here. Dave is here to stay no matter what happens.”
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