The Weekly Notebook – a vote for Phelps is a vote for the Liberals

Why a vote for Kerryn Phelps is a vote for the Liberal Party in Wentworth by-election

Kerryn Phelps, past president of the Australian Medical Association (AMA), is an “independent” candidate at the by-election in Wentworth, Australia’s wealthiest per capita electorate on Saturday, October 20.

Who wins the seat, previously held by ousted prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, aka “Mr Goldman Sachs” or “Mr Smarty Pants”, is critical. On the result hangs the survival of Australia’s newest Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, and probably of the Liberal Party itself.

Voting for Phelps, who lists herself as an “independent”, became a vote for the Liberal Party when she surprised her supporters by declaring her optional first preference vote would go to the Liberal Party.

That is as good as saying, “If you vote for me, you will also be voting Liberal. That is my preference and it will be yours too.”

I’ve seen the evolution of faux independents during my long career as a political journalist. Fake independents were an invention of the NSW Labor Party during the 1990s.

A younger Scott Morrison: eyes on Sussex St

One of the keenest students of this era is Scott Morrison. When he chose a political career, Morrison studied Sussex Street, the headquarters of State Labor, and decided that its “whatever it takes” approach should be adopted by the Liberals.

Morrison and his acolytes believe that electoral politics is what matters and that the “end justifies the means”. Their models are Graham “Robespierre” Richardson, John Della Bosca, Eric Roozendaal and Paul Keating.

Policy is necessary, they aver, but only as a tool to unify their own troops and pick up popularity in the polls and among voters. For them, politics is a game of immense hypocrisy in which the main goal is survival.

In truth, Morrison and his right-wing friends have one overriding objective: to shift the nation to the dark corners of free market conservatism.

How NSW Labor invented “independents”

In his autobiographical work, Setting the Record Straight, published in 2017, former NSW Cabinet minister and failed premier aspirant, Carl Scully, described Labor’s “independent” MP strategy with remarkable honesty.

Former Labor minister Carl Scully

It began in the early 1990s when Sussex Street was alerted to the popularity of Richard Torbay, mayor of Armidale and chair of the Country Mayors’ Association. Torbay was a former Labor man who publicly tore up his party card to become an independent and win the local mayoralty.

Armidale, a city in the state seat of New England, was safely held at that time by Ray Chappell, a dyed-in-the-wool National who was a rough and ready critic of Labor.

After private talks with Labor “big wigs” it was decided that Labor would run Torbay against Chappell in the 1999 State Election.

“Torbay and I then discussed a course of action,” wrote Scully, “and I gave him a green light to rip into me as much as possible.

“At the same time, I gave Chappell a whack in Parliament and his local paper ran with it on its front page: ‘Chappell a Bozo says Minister’. Torbay and I thought that it was terrific although I am sure Mr Chappell did not enjoy it.”

Richard Torbay, right, with local mayors

In another publicity-driven wheeze, Scully flew a Torbay-led delegation to Sydney and offered to reopen a work depot to guarantee local jobs which were being axed.

On his return to Armidale, Torbay stood with the other mayors on the steps of the plane giving the thumbs-up. It was a piece of pure showmanship and Scully wrote: “Torbay came out looking strong, effective and dogged for his community and most importantly had come across as an independent who could work with a Labor Government in getting results for his community.”

At the election, Torbay gained a decisive victory, winning a two-party preferred vote of 59.37% while Chappell’s primary vote crashed by 18%. After his humiliation, Chappell quit politics.

Tony McGrane, another ALP “independent”

Torbay wasn’t the only “fake” independent at the 1999 State Election. In the western Sydney seat of Dubbo, local publican Tony McGrane fancied his chances to replace the retiring National Party veteran, Gerry Peacocke.

Scully wrote: “He (McGrane) sought my advice and I was typically blunt: ‘Tony, there is no way the Dubbo community will ever vote for an ALP candidate even if their lives depended on it. They just won’t. If you want to be an MP, then you have to do what Torbay did. Tear up your ALP membership ticket and run as an independent.’

“McGrane took advice from others and then duly ran as an independent but not before doing the Torbay stunt with his ALP membership ticket. He won the seat at the 1999 election by a mere 14 votes. I think I got that one right.

“To be part of taking two safe National Party seats from right under their noses and see them vested successfully in Labor ‘independents’ gave me great pleasure.”

Scott Morrison is an avid student of Labor’s strategy. Just think of the enormous pleasure it will give him to have a Liberal-leaning female in Wentworth. It will shore up his majority (of one!) in the House of Representatives, allow him to vanquish Turnbull’s favoured candidate (Sharma) and press ahead with his right-wing political agenda with safety in numbers.

David Sharma, Liberal candidate

Just as NSW Labor wanted to secure New England and Dubbo to deny seats to the Coalition in 1999, Morrison wants to stop Wentworth falling to Labor on October 20. A Labor victory would destroy his legitimacy as PM and deprive him of a majority in Parliament; and Sharma’s victory would resurrect the ghost of Malcolm Turnbull in Sydney’s blue ribbon seat. It may not look nice, but if Kerryn Phelps emerges as the winner it will give Morrison a pyrrhic victory – an extra woman in parliament (he may make her a junior minister!) and a Liberal-supporting crossbencher.

What happened in Wagga Wagga

Joe McGirr, an independent with dynastic connections to the NSW Labor Party, won the Wagga Wagga by-election on September 8.

McGirr snatched the seat from the Liberals who had held it for the past 60 years. Premier Gladys Berejiklian toured the wreckage and blamed her Liberal colleagues in Canberra for the catastrophic result.

McGirr, who formerly ran the emergency service at the local hospital, shares some of Anthony Albanese’s core beliefs: he is a committed Roman Catholic and supports the South Sydney Rabbitohs.

James McGirr, the 28th Premier of NSW from 1947 to 1952 and MP for Bankstown and then Liverpool, was his great uncle while his grandfather and another great uncle were ministers in Labor governments in the 1920s.

His great aunt Trixie Gardner, now 92, is a Tory member of England’s House of Lords, the only Australian woman to be elevated to a life peerage as Baroness Gardner of Parkes.

Dr Joe McGirr, State MP for Wagga Wagga

Joe’s brother is author and former Jesuit priest Michael McGirr who was a little surprised by Joe’s late career change from GP to politician. But he admits that politics “was always part of the family conversation” growing up in Cammeray on Sydney’s lower North Shore where their mother was secretary of the Willoughby branch of the ALP and their father followed the DLP, the Catholic-dominated Democratic Labor Party.

Since the election, Joe McGirr has said he rejected a move by the NSW Nationals to co-opt him as their candidate. He said that a few weeks before the vote he was approached by a couple of (unnamed) friends who invited him to stand as an independent and they would back him.

How Phelps became a candidate

It is well documented that when Malcolm Turnbull resigned as MP for Wentworth, his successor as PM, Scott Morrison, wanted a female MP elected in Wentworth.

Morrison’s motives were clear: he needed to appeal to women voters across the country with a demonstration that he was a keen supporter of women’s rights.

In the Liberal Party pre-selection battle his supporters made clear that his primary support was for Katherine O’Regan, former deputy mayor of Woollahra Council. If she failed, then his second choice was another female, Mary Lou-Jarvis, a Woollahra councillor. Both were eliminated in the early rounds of voting.

The winner, Dave Sharma, was Turnbull’s preferred candidate, not Morrison’s. Sharma, who lives on the North Shore, is a former staffer for Alexander Downer, the ex-Foreign Minister, ex-Liberal Party leader and ex-Australian High Commissioner in London.

Sharma was appointed Australian ambassador to Israel in 2013 by then Foreign Minister Senator Bob Carr as a favour to two of his personal friends, Malcolm Turnbull and Alexander Downer.

Media reports claimed that Morrison supporters privately asked Sharma to withdraw from the pre-selection contest but, if such suggestions were made, Sharma ignored them.

On September 14 in congratulating Sharma for his victory, Morrison tweeted a significant reservation: “Of course, I want to see more Liberal women in Parliament.”

The Trump-like communiqué was a call to action. Within days, Kerryn Phelps’ name started to appear in Sydney papers as a “surprise” independent candidate. She received additional firepower from an unexpected quarter – Andrew Bragg, former acting Federal Director of the Liberal Party and current executive at the Business Council of Australia, the business profession’s trade union. Bragg pulled out of the contest on September 10 claiming he wanted to see a female candidate representing Wentworth but “insiders” suspected he declined to stand for other reasons which were deeply personal and nothing to do with his self-professed “feminism”.

Clover Moore: no Phelps supporter

But despite her strong standing among white middle- and upper-class women in the Harbourside sector of Wentworth, Phelps faced other obstacles. Clover Moore, Sydney’s longest serving independent, declined to support Phelps’ candidacy. As a lifelong genuine independent, Moore presumably can spot the dodgy ones travelling under false colours. Moore has publicly backed another genuine independent in the race, Licia Heath, a community activist with an impressive record of supporting women’s rights, public schooling and environmental issues. Backed by independent State MP for Sydney, Alex Greenwich, Licia Heath’s candidacy will fracture the independent vote, especially in the Paddington, Waverley and Bondi Junction sector of the electorate where Phelps is virtually unknown.

A Melbourne Cup field of 16 candidates are standing, but the only contenders with a real chance are Dave Sharma who starts with a Liberal two-party-preferred majority of 67.75% , Kerryn Phelps, the “independent” Liberal and Labor’s grass roots candidate, “Mr Nobody”.

Labor’s accidental candidate

When Labor candidate, Tim Murray, won Wentworth pre-selection back in May he thought that he would be fighting Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull who was the sitting MP.

But everything changed on August 24 when Turnbull was overthrown by his own MPs and Murray is now facing a contest with Liberal candidate Dave Sharma.

Murray is an interesting character. He speaks Mandarin fluently and worked in China for 20 years. He is a born and bred local; a member of the ALP’s Bronte/Waverley branch and Tamarama Surf Club manager.

His business, J Capital Research, looks at the performance of big companies, particularly in the mining, gas and commodities sector. Most of the big companies don’t enjoy his prying research and scribblers for The Australian owned by Rupert Murdoch have been especially critical.

Sussex Street has offered no financial or administrative support for his candidacy. The gnomes of Sussex Street are saving all the cash they can raise for the election of federal leader Bill Shorten. In fact, you could say that Murray is an embarrassment to the Labor machine; they would much prefer if he simply went away.

Murray is supported by a large network of activists from Young Labor and the trade unions. They wear his T-shirts, door-knock the electorate, hand out leaflets and talk to voters. They use the device of “crowd funding” to raise money for his campaign and when I last checked they had almost $50,000.

Tim Murray, Labor candidate

Murray has named his policy priorities and they all find an electoral resonance among voters who live as far apart as Potts Point and Watsons Bay on Sydney Harbour and Bronte on the oceanfront in the south.

He lists climate change, education, affordable housing and greater TAFE spending as his major concerns. “Everyone deserves to have a publicly funded school education and that is not something we currently offer the voters of Wentworth,” he declared.

Tim Murray needs to score a higher primary vote than Kerryn Phelps in the first round. When preferences are considered he will have to win a majority from the Greens, the Voluntary Euthanasia Party, the Animal Justice Party, Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party, the Arts Party and the Science Party.

While Murray and his local supporters believe they have a “fighting chance” to defeat the Liberals, their optimism is not shared by the upper echelons of the ALP. Indeed, they are anxious to dismiss his candidacy.

When I asked why Labor seemed reluctant to inflict a major electoral blow on Morrison at the start of his prime ministership, I was told: “We want to do him slowly.”

The response was an echo of PM Paul Keating’s derisory reference to Liberal leader John “Fightback” Hewson in Parliament in 1992: “I want to do you slowly.”

Race to the bottom

The main players in the political class and the media class (think Fairfax, News Ltd and ABC) know that Phelps is a “Liberal independent” and they are pulling out the stops to send her to Canberra. They are desperate to keep the Canberra melodrama on the road because it assists their falling sales, circulation and ratings.

They are selling the delusion that a vote for Phelps will put an “independent woman” in Federal Parliament. In fact, if she wins, Phelps has stated openly she will support Morrison’s Government with her vote and assure his Coalition of a continued majority on the floor of the House of Representatives.

Down the track, many women voters will realise that they have been dudded and this will lead to massive disillusion in politics by women voters who honestly believed that they were “making a difference”. They weren’t; a vote for Phelps is a vote to maintain Canberra’s “zombie” status quo.

Unhappily for Phelps, her most vocal supporters are social media trolls,  ABC presenters and Fairfax Media (“Independent.Always”) columnists who don’t live in the Wentworth electorate and therefore won’t have a vote. Many of them live in Canberra, inner-Sydney and inner-Melbourne, Sydney’s North Shore and other plush metropolitan suburbs.

The by-election frontrunner remains Davanand “Dave” Sharma, born in Canada, the grandson of a Brahmin priest. But the Liberal Party’s greatest fear is that the Liberal collapse in the State seat of Wagga Wagga may be repeated in the Federal seat of Wentworth.

Their other fear is that Wentworth’s hardline Zionists won’t vote for him while liberal-minded Jews are split: some will support Phelps while others are determined to vote Labor or Green.

The third candidate to watch is today’s rank outsider, Labor’s Tim Murray. His chances will improve if 1) there is a Wagga Wagga-type crash in the Liberal vote, or 2) Voters reject the careerist blandishments of Kerryn Phelps. (“Phelps seeks ban on fossil fuel donors”,  by Peter Hannam and Latika Bourke, SMH, 2 October 2018).

Cancel everything on Saturday night, October 20, phone for a takeaway meal and watch the by-election story of the decade.

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