Wentworth Defeat Pushes Australia’s Prime Minister Into Minority Government
Posted October 20, 2018 2:45 p.m. EDT
SYDNEY, Australia — The district of Wentworth in suburban Sydney has been a conservative bastion for the governing Liberal Party and its predecessors for more than a century. Its representatives in Parliament have gone on to become attorneys general, opposition leaders and, most recently, prime minister.
But Saturday, those decades of tradition came to an abrupt halt when an independent candidate, Dr. Kerryn Phelps, won victory in the by-election called to fill the void left by former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, according to election analysts. Turnbull quit Parliament after being ousted from the leadership in a Liberal Party backroom coup in August.
The upset has cost Prime Minister Scott Morrison his single-seat majority in Parliament. Now he will have to negotiate with independents and the opposition to pass every piece of legislation between now and the next federal election, which is expected in May, though Morrison can call one sooner.
Phelps, who was the first woman and first lesbian to be elected president of the Australian Medical Association, ran a campaign that highlighted her decades of living and working in Wentworth, her commitment to addressing climate change and her position as, simply, an alternative to the status quo.
“This has been a David and Goliath struggle,” Phelps said in her victory speech Saturday night. She added: “This is a great moment for Australian democracy. This win tonight should signal a return of decency, integrity and humanity.”
Her victory undoubtedly had much to do with Wentworth voters’ frustration over how the Liberals had treated Turnbull, whose ouster was the latest turn in what has become a revolving door at the top of Australian politics in recent years.
“I’m just sick of this shuffling of prime ministers,” said Sheridan Kennedy, 50, an artist voting in the Bondi area. “It’s silly. Can we have some real leadership, please?”
But having a minority government in Australia also could be part of a global trend, said Sam Roggeveen of the Lowy Institute in Sydney.
He pointed to the election this past week in Bavaria that shook Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government in Germany, as voters shifted their allegiance away from her conservative allies toward the progressive, pro-refugee Greens.
“Australians are disconnected from politics as a whole, and that also reflects a broader trend in Western politics,” Roggeveen said, adding that “center-left and center-right parties were created out of social and economic conditions that just don’t exist anymore.”
Australia’s opposition Labor Party, for instance, had its roots in organized labor, and “people don’t join unions anymore,” Roggeveen said. From a conservative perspective, he said, “if the union is no longer a threat, there’s far less reason for Liberals to win support among that group of people.”
One result of such tectonic changes, Roggeveen argued, is that major parties become inward-looking and turn to cultural issues to attract voters.
George Megalogenis, an author and political commentator, said that kind of disconnect could help explain Morrison’s scattershot attempts to woo Wentworth’s wavering Liberal voters in the weeks before the election.
Morrison was “throwing haymakers, hoping something will connect,” Megalogenis said. “You have to wonder what their instincts are, if they’re in denial about the socioeconomic makeup of the society. You can’t explain it any other way.”
As he tried to persuade Wentworth voters to support David Sharma, the party’s candidate, Morrison pledged government money to local surf clubs and even said he might consider moving Australia’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, following President Donald Trump’s lead. That would have broken with decades of policy, and the proposal drew scorn as a transparent bid for votes from Wentworth’s sizable Jewish community.
“They were all racing for the silver-bullet solution; the Jerusalem thing is classic craziness,” Megalogenis said.
The prime minister’s statement upset the country’s majority-Muslim neighbor Indonesia, which said it might reconsider a major trade agreement with Australia it had been expected to sign this year.
The Wentworth campaign was also marked by last-minute dirty tricks, which the candidates disavowed. A fake email sent out under Phelps’ name claimed she was withdrawing from the race because she had HIV and said her supporters should vote for Sharma. Both Sharma and Morrison were quick to denounce it. On the day before the election, Morrison acknowledged that victory in Wentworth looked unlikely, but he expressed hope that the threat of a hung Parliament would persuade disaffected Liberal voters to stick with the party.
“I think what we’ve got to get used to is we’re going to get more and more minority governments with coalitions working together,” Roggeveen said. “It can be done. Probably the biggest barrier to it being successful is whether the Liberal Party can hold itself together.”
Megalogenis said the loss raised the possibility that Morrison could be the victim of yet another party coup before the national election.
“You’d think, this government is toast and he should know that. What’s he going to change to bring it back into the contest?” Megalogenis said. “You’d think they wouldn’t be crazy enough to roll him and get another leader. But somebody somewhere’s going to ask the question of whether they should.”