If World War III breaks out tomorrow, the hard right of the Liberal Party, Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones, will try to blame Malcolm Turnbull for it. They would unleash a slew of unfounded accusations and conspiracy theories to prove that World War III would not have begun if Turnbull had not replaced Tony Abbott as leader, and how only a return to the latter as Prime Minister would solve this issue. Such was the case on Saturday, 20th October, when the Liberals witnessed a crash in support and experienced a tidal wave swing against them at the Wentworth by-election. As expected, the anti-Malcolm brigade was out in full force to try and blame the loss entirely on him, despite him being nearly 10,000 miles away in New York.
This whole skirmish began nearly two months ago, when the Liberals imprudently booted Turnbull out of the party leadership and the Prime Ministership over factional disputes. Despite the Turnbull government performing to a high standard, a certain contingent of the party decided that self-interest was more important than serving their constituents. The embarrassing charade went on for a week, right in front of a bewildered Australian public. The mutiny by the hard-right faction of the Liberal Party, led by Abbott and Peter Dutton, sparked the dire consequences that were felt at Saturday’s by-election. For Abbott, his bloodthirsty obsession with revenge on Turnbull had been complete, but his attempt to tear his own government down in pursuit of this has almost certainly delivered Bill Shorten the keys to the Lodge. After the ordeal took place, Turnbull resigned from parliament, which triggered the by-election in his electorate of Wentworth in the eastern suburbs of Sydney. While the insurgents were not rewarded for their seditious behaviour, and Scott Morrison prevailed successful, the Australian public have seemingly made up their mind about the current government.
It is unfortunate and disappointing that a Prime Minister of Scott Morrison’s calibre may only be in office for less than a year. Despite his popularity, shrewd economic insight and visionary approach to governing, the polls, consolidated by the results of the Wentworth by-election, indicate that Morrison’s term will be short-lived. It is also unfortunate that a candidate like Dave Sharma, who looks set to lose the by-election, may not enter parliament. Sharma defies the current and disturbing trend of political hacks with no life experience outside of politics being preselected by the major parties, and going on to be parliamentarians and sometimes even senior Cabinet ministers. His exemplary diplomatic career, including being the Australian Ambassador to Israel at the age of 37, would have equipped him to be an outstanding politician and potentially a future leader.
At the centre of controversy surrounding the by-election was Turnbull, who decided to spend his well-earned break in New York rather than campaigning in his old seat. While it was disappointing that Turnbull failed to publicly endorse Sharma, his frustration and dismay is understandable. It is extremely disingenuous to accuse someone who has been murdered of disloyalty when they refuse to clean up the mess caused by their own murder. Given the nature of the anti-Turnbull forces, it would not be surprising if they criticised him even if he chose to do the opposite and campaign in the electorate rather than leave for New York. Unfortunately, Turnbull lives under a cloud of criticism and every action he takes, good or bad, will be spun into a negative narrative. It is also hypocritical of the Abbott cheerleading squad, including Sky News commentators like his former Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin, and Andrew Bolt, to accuse Turnbull of treachery when this whole mess was created by Abbott and his factional allies. From day one, they have pursued this vendetta against Turnbull. They argued that bad polling was a valid reason to remove him, despite the Turnbull government still polling at a winnable 49-51 percent margin. On the other hand, when Abbott’s numbers were catastrophic and the Coalition was headed towards a Paul Keating style election massacre, they were delusional and backed him. In reality, the Coalition’s best chance of reelection was under Turnbull, yet they chose to discard their best asset.
Although the by-election result has not been officially called yet, the results suggest that Kerryn Phelps will scrape through over Dave Sharma by a couple hundred votes. The main cause for the backlash against the Liberal Party seems to be the chaos associated with knifing Turnbull as Prime Minister, and Sharma was an unfortunate victim of the circumstances. Another issue that was cited was Coalition’s lack of climate change policies. Leading members of the moderate faction of the Liberal Party, such as Trent Zimmerman, the member for North Sydney, have argued that the government needs to do more to appeal to the moderate base by acting on climate change. Another moderate MP, former cabinet minister Craig Laundy, has also claimed the Liberal Party has more than one base, and that the hard right of the party is kowtowing to the conservative base while ignoring the moderate voters. If the government wants to win back swing voters in the centre, they need to listen to the moderate base of the party more actively. The road ahead to reelection for the Morrison government is a tough and uphill climb, but it is not impossible. The Liberals desperately need to regroup after the results of the Wentworth by-election, and stand together as a united front. Without doing so, the worrying prospect of Bill Shorten becoming Prime Minister will become a reality.