Bid to end Coalition row over farm visas
The contest for Malcolm Turnbull’s seat has been far from smooth sailing
Scott Morrison has attempted to water down a push by the Nationals and farmers for new agricultural visas, launching an initiative to move local workers into farm jobs. “This is about doing everything … to ensure Australian jobs are being filled by Australians,” he said.
Liberal Party polling has the race for Wentworth at 50-50 in a worrying sign for Scott Morrison’s majority, as close allies of Malcolm Turnbull claimed yesterday that Alex Turnbull had gone rogue in his Facebook message urging a vote against the Liberals in next Saturday’s by-election.
The Weekend Australian understands that Liberal polling has independent Kerryn Phelps a fraction of a percentage point ahead of the Liberals but that the situation is not as dire for the government as a “Voter Choice” poll published yesterday that had Dr Phelps on 55 per cent of the twoparty-preferred vote.
The race may still come down to who finishes second behind the Liberals in the seat. The government is hoping that with the Greens recommending preferences go to Labor ahead of Dr Phelps, Labor finishes second and Dr Phelps, who preferences the Liberals, gets eliminated.
One senior Liberal source said yesterday it now appeared “likely” Ms Phelps would finish second and the two-party-preferred race would be boxed out between her and Liberal candidate Dave Sharma.
At polling booths in recent days, Labor candidate Tim Murray has been photographed without a single assisting Labor campaign worker in sight, as the party manoeuvres to finish third in the seat. With parliament sitting next week, any move by the Prime Minister and other ministers to conduct a last-minute campaigning blitzkrieg is expected to happen later in the week.
Supporters of former prime minister Mr Turnbull and Mr Morrison moved yesterday to distance Mr Turnbull from his son’s posting on Facebook and Twitter on Thursday where he argued for a vote against the Liberal Party.
A professional investor based in Singapore, the younger Turnbull said in his video message that a general election was due next year anyway, providing an opportunity for voters in Wentworth to “send a signal about which way the Liberal Party is going and your displeasure at where it is going’’, adding that the party had been taken over by “extremists”.
Right-wing Liberal MP Connie Fierravanti-Wells had her own message on Twitter for Turnbull Jr yesterday,: “@alexbhturnbull you forget that despite all the stacking, Daddy still needed conservative votes (incl monarchists) to get him over the line in his 2004 preselection battle against [Peter] King! Suggest you stick to wealth management & stop acting the fool! #auspol.”
Mr Sharma told The Weekend Australian yesterday: “I really appreciate the support and advice I’ve had from Malcolm throughout this campaign and if elected, I hope to follow through on many of his policy priorities.”
Mr Turnbull’s friend, former minister and the member for Reid, Craig Laundy, said: “I have had many conversations with Malcolm over the last few weeks since Sharma’s been preselected; he genuinely likes the bloke.
“He and Lucy genuinely like Sharma. They absolutely want him to win.”
Mr Morrison said yesterday: “What I know is Malcolm Turnbull wants people in Wentworth to be voting for the Liberal Party and for Dave Sharma.
“Alex is his own man.”
When Malcolm Turnbull realised he was finished as prime minister two months ago, he played for time to allow Scott Morrison to amass enough votes to win the Liberal leadership.
Turnbull then resigned from Wentworth, the seat in Sydney’s eastern suburbs he’d held since 2004, saying former prime ministers were “best out of parliament”.
A week before the Wentworth by-election to choose his successor, it has become clear Turnbull could have done Morrison a further favour by hanging on — at least until the election.
Although Turnbull scored a 62 per cent primary vote at the 2016 election, making Wentworth one of the safest Liberal strongholds, the party is on edge. The seat could fall to high-profile independent Kerryn Phelps next Saturday. The stakes are high because losing Wentworth would cost the Coalition its one-seat majority in parliament. Even if the government held on with the support of Queensland’s Bob Katter, Victorian independent Cathy McGowan and possibly Phelps, a hung parliament is bad news for Morrison.
Morrison has quickly established a personal lead over Bill Shorten as preferred prime minister, but Labor remains comfortably ahead in Newspoll. Defeat in Wentworth would hand Shorten ammunition to argue that the new Prime Minister had failed his first electoral test and the government was illegitimate.
So it’s no surprise that the thrust of Liberal campaigning in Wentworth, with party candidate Dave Sharma, has been to argue the big consequences of a Phelps victory: bringing the nation closer to a Shorten-led Labor government. The Liberals’ anti-Phelps scare campaign also alleges she is a faux Labor candidate while the ALP “runs dead” with its own Wentworth hopeful, Tim Murray.
There are 16 candidates in the battle for Wentworth and a lot of questions: the local hero has gone for reasons not entirely clear. Here is the rare opportunity for a strong independent to cause a major upset in a seat formerly held by not only a prime minister but Australia’s major conservative party since Federation.
The campaign’s intensity has sparked spectacular personal spats and exposed the curious inner workings of political networks.
Phelps has wanted a national political career since early prominence as president of the Australian Medical Association in the late 1990s. She has served on the City of Sydney Council, including a brief stint as deputy mayor that ended badly last year. Phelps accused Lord Mayor Clover Moore of lacking transparency on council expenses. Relations are now poisonous.
Backed in Wentworth by Moore, independent candidate Licia Heath is a local resident who started out campaigning for a new school. Phelps vented with this tweet: “Any candidate associated with @CloverMoore has no hope of being independent.”
Liberal suspicions about Phelps’s own independence date back to 2004 when then federal Labor leader Mark Latham was looking to recruit “celebrity” candidates. Latham picked Peter Garrett. Phelps never stood for Labor preselection but The Sydney Morning Herald reported at the time: “Phelps has been in discussions with Labor officials for months about joining the Latham team.” Latham confirms Phelps “entered into talks” to be Labor’s candidate in Wentworth. “Was keen but then backed out,” he said on Twitter.
Phelps worked well with fellow City of Sydney councillor Christine Forster, but another relationship fell to bits when Phelps announced last month she would run as an independent against the Liberals’ Sharma.
Forster, a Liberal who’d flagged her own interest in Wentworth before dropping out, possibly because of the unfortunate attention it would attract as Tony Abbott’s sister running in Turnbull’s seat, attacked Phelps on Twitter. “Kerryn, I’ve seen you maintain your independence from the Clover Party & you know I respect you for it,” she wrote. “But you can’t claim independence when you’re backed by Labor & direct your supporters to preference Liberal last. That’s party politics right there.”
The alleged Labor backing was Darrin Barnett, who is working for Phelps. Barnett was an ALP member, experienced Labor operative and former adviser to Julia Gillard. Only two months earlier, Barnett was the ALP’s point-man for the Braddon by-election. His day job remains spokesman for the ALP-affiliated Maritime Union of Australia.
Phelps hit back at Forster: “Chris, you have sat at the table with me at @cityofsydney for 2 years and you know what I have gone through to maintain political independence. A vote for @drkerrynphelps is a vote for community representation #WentworthVotes.”
The last say came from Forster, this time a tweet referencing candid yet benign comments from Labor’s Wentworth candidate, Murray, in The Australian.
“Labor candidate for Wentworth @Timpmurray tells it like it is: a vote for @drkerrynphelps is a vote for Labor #Auspol#WentworthVotes,” Forster said.
Not quite. I’d asked for Murray’s thoughts on how a Labor operative was in the Phelps camp, not his, and how he rated his own prospects.
Murray said he didn’t know Barnett. Some mischief could be happening without him knowing, but he was campaigning hard, receiving no financial support from party head office, and he was “fine” with that. “A Kerryn Phelps win would be good for the Labor Party,” Murray said.
Indeed it would. Labor’s candidate revealed no party secrets but niggling from Forster and the Liberal campaign got a reaction. Phelps switched from “put the Libs last” to preferencing the Liberals ahead of Labor.
Endorsed as Labor’s Wentworth candidate three months before anyone contemplated Turnbull’s early exit, Murray is a local businessman new to politics. In yet another twist, he has the backing of Alex Turnbull, the deposed Prime Minister’s son. But Murray is contesting a seat he cannot reasonably win when Labor’s primary vote was 17.7 per cent in 2016.
Phelps insists she is an independent and would have stood for preselection if she wanted to run as a Labor candidate. Nonetheless, there are unusual aspects to her campaign that fuel claims she has unwittingly or otherwise received a Labor helping hand.
The first was Barnett. How did he suddenly pop up with Phelps, especially when ALP rules state party members cannot campaign for anyone standing against an endorsed Labor candidate?
The answer is Sydney businesswoman and former ABC deputy chairwoman Wendy McCarthy, a Phelps friend chairing her Wentworth campaign: McCarthy brought Barnett on board. As The Australian’s Margin Call column put it, McCarthy has “impeccable Labor connections”. She is also close to Quentin Bryce, the former governor-general and Shorten’s mother-in-law. Shorten’s wife, Chloe, described McCarthy as “a mentor and friend” in a book she wrote about stepfamilies.
Initially, Barnett told The Australian the NSW ALP’s head office was “fine” with him working for Phelps. Then later he texted he’d been “suspended” from the party. Labor sources said NSW ALP boss Kaila Murnain had told Barnett, “he can’t be a party member and work for Phelps”. Was this a retrofitted narrative?
A second Labor campaigner turned up with Phelps: Sofia Madden, a member of the NSW ALP’s digital campaign team for the 2015 state election, created Phelps’s website and launch video.
With her business partner, Daniel Stone, Madden runs Principle Co, a Sydney-based digital campaigning company that lists among its chief clients the federal ALP, the NSW ALP, individual ALP candidates, unions including Barnett’s employer, the MUA, and the activist group GetUp.
Ho hum, said the spokesman for Murnain. Who else in this town could build Phelps’s website? Furthermore, the NSW ALP denied Madden was a Labor member. She was an unknown junior. Never heard of her.
If this was a jigsaw, more pieces slotted into place when it became clear Madden’s business partner, Stone, had worked with her on Labor’s NSW digital team for the 2015 state election campaign. He was the team leader and they shared desks inside the ALP’s head office. They were photographed together wearing party T-shirts. Madden also handed out Labor how-to-vote cards. She’d posed with Gillard and wrote pro-Labor blogs. Madden and Stone continue to have numerous dealings with Labor through their company, Principle Co. Stone is an ALP member, active in Labor’s Chifley Research Centre think tank, and coincidentally has been a board member of the GetUp activist group for the past 12 months.
GetUp, meanwhile, is campaigning in Wentworth too. While claiming its focus is climate change, not candidates, the group’s efforts are directed at preventing a Liberal win. A phone polling script for GetUp campaigners in Wentworth rebuts voter objections to Phelps, but not other candidates. It gives advice on how to vote only for Phelps.
GetUp denies any conflict of interest but has refused to say if Stone disclosed his company’s commercial interest in the Phelps campaign while he serves on the GetUp board and it campaigns in Wentworth. GetUp also won’t say if Stone played a role in the Wentworth phone polling script. So far Stone has not answered requests for comment.
The Liberals allege murky conflicts of interest. They cannot pretend to be pure but questions about GetUp’s partiality would seem reasonable when Labor’s Murray, the Greens’ Dominic Wy Kanak, Sustainable Australia’s Kay Dunne, the Science Party’s Andrea Leong and independent Heath have policies on climate change equivalent to those of Phelps — yet fail to hit GetUp’s excitement button.
Phelps has run a smart campaign, tapping into local ill-feeling about climate change and the treatment of asylum-seekers. She is known for her role in the samesex marriage campaign.
Phelps also has the benefit of help from former Liberal leader John Hewson, these days a political maverick, renewable energy advocate and executive chairman of solar technology company Solastor. While professing not to back any candidate, Hewson advised Phelps on formulating her sixpoint climate change policy. He advocates a “protest vote” against the government’s inaction on climate change.
A ReachTEL poll last week suggested the Liberals’ primary vote in Wentworth had sunk to 38 per cent. If Phelps wins it will be a victory from second place, luring votes from disenchanted Liberals and then boosted by preferences.
History suggests Sharma, a former ambassador to Israel rated highly by his own party, will win. But the combination of a volatile electorate and uncertainty about how preferences will flow is making Liberal HQ very nervous.
Phelps has wanted a national political career since early prominence as president of the Australian Medical Association in the late 1990s