Seven months after Dr Kerryn Phelps rode a wave of climate change and refugee anger to win Wentworth, internal Liberal polling shows the economy is now the biggest issue there.
- Liberal insiders say the anger about former PM Malcolm Turnbull’s ousting has dissipated
- But Dr Phelps says it’s still there, but is now more about the Liberals’ “move to the right”
- The electorate is ultra-marginal, and includes Australia’s most affluent suburbs
The numbers are a boost for Liberal candidate Dave Sharma, who will this Saturday attempt to win the seat back for the Liberals, after he fell 1,850 votes short in October’s by-election.
Until last year, Wentworth — home to Australia’s most affluent suburbs — had been held by the Liberals or its predecessors since federation.
According to Liberal insiders, about 8,500 Wentworth voters have self-managed super funds, while thousands have investment properties.
“I think they [voters] will do anything to keep Labor and its taxes out,” one Liberal insider told the ABC.
During the by-election, Independent candidate Dr Phelps initially instructed voters to “put the Liberals last” but then preferenced them higher than Labor on how-to-vote cards.
She has decided not to direct preferences this Saturday.
Party insiders also believe voter anger about the former Wentworth MP Malcolm Turnbull’s dumping as prime minister has largely dissipated.
Internal Liberal polling suggests housing affordability, cost-of-living and climate change follow the economy, in that order, as topics of concern.
While Wentworth is seen as a two-horse race, the role of Labor candidate Tim Murray and the Green’s Dominic Wy Kanak — who both fought the by-election — could prove critical.
Mr Murray gained 8,777 primary votes last time, while Wy Kanak got 6,543, with preferences flowing strongly to Dr Phelps.
Mr Sharma, though confident, said he was not taking anything for granted this Saturday.
“It’s quite a different context this time around,” he said.
“It’s much less about protest, it’s more about policy and people have got to know me a little bit better.
Mr Sharma said he became the Wentworth candidate in sudden circumstances.
“I wasn’t well known — that’s different now.”
While the Liberal polling has buoyed the blue team, there’s still plenty of support for Dr Phelps.
It was standing room only as the MP addressed the crowd at Bondi’s iconic Hotel Ravesis last week, at an event hosted by the action group One Million Women (OMW) to discuss climate change — her primary policy platform.
“She is a climate warrior,” OMW founder Natalie Isaacs told the audience.
“Climate is at the very top of her agenda and it is my very great pleasure to introduce you to Dr Kerryn Phelps,” she said as applause and whoops filled the room.
Dr Phelps told the crowd that Australia had “the opportunity to become a true leader” in the fight against climate change.
“But the political will must be there … it makes absolute sense, both economically and for the future of our planet.”
Later, during a question-and-answer session, she vowed to “stop Adani, stop any new coal projects in this country”.
Later, as Dr Phelps mingled amongst the crowd, Ben, a volunteer for the MP, told the ABC he came tonight for one simple reason.
“We believe in Kerryn,” he said.
“We believe in what she stands for and what she is trying to achieve.”
‘I reckon he’ll s**t it in’
Mr Sharma has also been working Wentworth’s watering holes.
Last Friday, at an event hosted by the Bellevue Hotel in leafy Paddington, a well-heeled crowd discussed preference deals, foreign policy and franking credits.
Mr Sharma worked the room, shaking hands, answering questions, and even had a beer.
“I think that’s one of our strengths,” he said to one supporter when asked about the economy.
“I’m glad you brought that up,” he replied to another, wanting to discuss foreign investment.
The “Drinks with Dave” event was one of several Mr Sharma held around the electorate in the lead-up to Saturday’s federal vote.
Despite being open to the public, the crowd was dominated by Liberal Party supporters and members.
There was an air of confidence in the room with many believing Mr Sharma would become their next MP.
“I reckon he’ll s**t it in,” Bellevue Hotel co-owner and Peter Tate said, using slang to indicate Mr Sharma would win easily.
“In the [by-election] there was a lot of backlash against Malcolm [Turnbull] getting dumped.
“I don’t reckon that’s there anymore.”
Candidates split on climate
If there is one issue that, according to voters, truly parts the two candidates it is climate change.
Mr Sharma said he and the Liberal Party were “taking it seriously” and voting for a major party was the only way to settle the agenda on the issue.
Dr Phelps said the Liberal Party’s “inaction” on the issue spoke for itself.
The Wentworth MP pointed to the United Nations’ former climate change czar Christiana Figueres’ endorsement of her candidacy last week as evidence of how she will help promote change in Canberra.
Dr Phelps said that in her brief time in Federal Parliament, she “delivered on her promises” — namely the Medevac legislation for refugees on Manus Island and Nauru — and had one attribute her main party rivals do not: “authenticity”.
She said the anger in Wentworth was still there, but it was more about the Liberal Party’s “move to the right”, rather than the ousting of Malcolm Turnbull.
“There are some people who are very keen to support me and what I represent, and there are others who are devoted Liberal Party voters,” she said.
“It’s hard to say where the pendulum will swing on the 18th of May.”
Many in the electorate feel the same.
At Mr Sharma’s Bellevue Hotel event, “rusted on” Liberal Party supporter and now-retired business consultant Carlie Poulden said she hoped Mr Sharma would win.
“But I honestly don’t know — I don’t know what the people out there are thinking.”