Bid to end Coali­tion row over farm visas

The con­test for Mal­colm Turnbull’s seat has been far from smooth sail­ing

The Weekend Australian - - FRONT PAGE - AN­DREW CLENNELL NSW PO­LIT­I­CAL ED­I­TOR

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

Phelps

Sharma

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