Eye of the storm. Image by Webdiary artist Martin Davies
I knew first hand that there was an election on when Tony Abbott – rubbing hands, big smile – strolled into the Sydney Morning Herald’s Canberra Bureau yesterday to ask anyone who cared to answer: “Now what can I do for you?”
The SMH is the preferred paper of Liberal voters in blue ribbon Liberal seats in Sydney’s North Shore and Eastern suburbs. These seats are also at the epicentre of ex Liberal Party President John Valder’s “Not Happy, John” campaign to unseat Howard in Bennelong.
So after the initial surprise of Abbott venturing into the den which led the way in exposing his deceit over his “honest politics trust”, it was no surprise that Abbott asked, “What do you think Peter King is going to do?”
I know what King – who is set to announce his candidacy as an independent Liberal in Wentworth late this week – HAS to do to give himself a chance to win the seat, and it’s not a pretty thought for the likes of Abbott.
I’ve had two types of Liberal Party polling spruiked to me recently. One is said to have polled Wentworth voters on who they’d vote for in a three horse race between the Liberal candidate Malcolm Turnbull, the current Liberal MP Peter King, and Labor’s David Patch. The result: Turnbull 35 percent, Patch 40 percent, King 25 percent.
In another poll, where the question was the big three, other and undecided, Patch was at 20 percent, and Turnbull and King level on 25 percent. That’s 30 percent of Wentworth voters who’ll give their first preference to the Greens or Democrats candidates, or who haven’t made up their minds.
What I take from this is that if King stands as an “in-house” loyal Liberal who just happens to be standing as an independent, he could deliver the seat to Patch or to Turnbull on King preferences.
The last thing Labor’s candidate for the blue ribbon inner Sydney seat of Wentworth wants is for the disendorsed Liberal Peter King to stand as the ‘Not happy, John!’ candidate. If he did, he might just take the seat from Malcolm Turnbull and cruel Labor’s ever-increasing chances of stealing the seat.
Labor polling shows the biggest swings against Howard’s regime are coming in some of its safest seats. It’s no accident that Turnbull recently told a community meeting that invading Iraq was ‘an unadulterated error’ just after King finally spoke out about Howard’s abandonment of two Australian citizens in Guantanamo Bay.
The Liberal heartland is at last in revolt. It’s in the heartland that the Government’s grotesque response to the call for truth in government by 43 retired senior public servants, diplomats and defence chiefs hurt most, as did the proof that Howard lied his way to power in 2001 over ‘children overboard’.
The people of Wentworth live in what’s close to being Australia’s richest seat, but lots of other people live there too, especially in Bondi. It’s a water-front based Eastern Suburbs seat. The people of Wentworth – who voted for a Republic, support reconciliation and their ABC, and think that invading Iraq was wrong-headed and that every Australian has fundamental rights as citizens – oppose Howard’s anti-democratic regime and did not like how Malcolm Turnbull beat King for pre-selection through an unprecedented branch-stack by his rich and powerful friends backed by paid radio advertising. It is a small “l” Liberal seat and small “l” Liberals have been progressively disenfranchised under John Howard. The fact that the only One Nation federal politician, Senator Len Harris, said this week that he hoped the Liberals won the election is a straw in that wind.
In my travels promoting my book “Not Happy John” I spoke to several Liberals in Wentworth, and several in the North Shore Liberal heartland too. Some were hostile to Howard and would prefer a Liberal Government without him, and all of these named Costello as the man they put their faith in to right the balance in the Party. The others had already decided to cast their vote against the Liberals. And on a recent Sunday program, a Sydney Liberal establishment figure involved with Australian refugee support groups, Renata Caldor, said of the choice between a Howard Liberal or Latham Labor Government at this election:
I would ideally like to have a Liberal government without John Howard as the leader. If you’re asking me the lesser of two evils, if I had my choice, I’ve got to say, after a lot of thought, I would prefer to have a Labor Party in power, at least for three years, and I think probably – perhaps – [that would] be enough. I think the damage perhaps that a Latham government would do to the country economically, to my mind, wouldn’t be quite as harmful as the damage to the social fabric that’s happened under the John Howard leadership.
The Iraq war and other so-called “elite” issues are hitting much harder in Liberal seats like Wentworth than in marginal Liberal seats. It is no accident that King recently protested against Howard’s abandonment of our citizens in Guantanamo Bay, quickly followed by Turnbull’s pronouncement at a community meeting at Bondi Beach that the war was “an unadulterated error”. The difference between the two is that Turnbull had to put out a statement denying his own statement, while King did not. King has since endorsed Tony Kevin’s book on SIEV-X as a thoughtful read raising questions the Government was obliged to answer (see Liberal voter rumblings mean second front for Howard).
Wentworth voters are suddenly and unexpectedly Australia’s equivalent of voters in the New Hampshire Primaries in the United States. They’re phoned constantly for their views and they’re accosted on street corners by the candidates. After living in a forever safe seat where politics was all but ignored during an election campaign, they’re now being asked – individually – to examine their values and make a very big decision about who they want to represent them in Canberra. And they’re being asked to make this decision in circumstances where they have a real choice – as Liberals.
I received this email from Webdiarist Jonathan Nolan in Bondi Beach yesterday:
I don’t want John Howard as PM, but apparently being in Wentworth I can still vote Liberal and not worry. A worker for Malcolm Turnbull (outside Bondi Beach Post Office last Saturday) told me that a vote for Turnbull is NOT a vote for Howard. I was amused and slightly baffled so they got Malcolm himself to speak to me. After confirming this point he added two more reasons to give him my anti-Howard vote: 1. Get the Liberals back in and you’ll only have Howard for two years, and 2. He was only one to go up against Howard on the war in Iraq. He added that the monarchists would be rubbing their hands in glee if he doesn’t get in. Now I know that definitely includes John Howard. (And yes, I am willing to take a lie detector test.)
This is where the Costello problem comes in. Many true Liberals blame John Howard personally for what’s gone wrong with the Government. They would like a Liberal Government led by Peter Costello. This means Labor has a wedge to insert. The swinging voters in marginal seats which Howard is trying to tie down don’t like Costello. That’s why Costello had to endure yet further humiliation from Howard yesterday by appearing with his tormentor to rule out challenging for the leadership at any time in the next term if Howard is re-elected.
The downside? This pledge removes the last remaining zone of comfort for disenfranchised small “l” Liberals. They cannot now pretend that a vote for the Liberal Party is OK because liberalism will be revived in the Liberal Party soon enough under a Costello leadership. Unless Howard pledges a handover at this election, he’ll be there until he gets his ideological soul mate Tony Abbott to take over the reins, perhaps after another term!
Coincidentally, voters in Wentworth have just received a letter from the Prime Minister telling them that if Peter King stands he will destroy the Liberal Party and Labor’s David Patch could win it. How desperate can he get here? It’s a last ditch stand to convince supporters of King and King himself to back down and thus deny Liberal voters in Wentworth a real choice. The truth is the opposite if King dares to stand as a “Not Happy, John” candidate, and that’s why Howard is scared stiff.
If King bites the bullet he’ll give himself a serious chance to win back the seat, and thus deny the bloke who knocked him off. But he would also be a serious national embarrassment to the Liberal Party’s election campaign. Like Hanson was in 1996, except from a totally different quarter.
Being a Not Happy, John! candidate means that King stands under John Valder’s Not Happy John banner as an independent true Liberal pledged to publicly stand up and argue for Liberalism. He would guarantee to support a minority Liberal government if required on condition that Howard resigned as leader – and to guarantee not to bring down the government by blocking supply. That has to be tempting to disaffected Liberals. It would be an extremely serious warning to Howard and the Party that they had to give voice to Liberalism, and obey its core principles, or they could have Labor’s “Greens” problem on their hands. It’s called making your vote count when it really matters to our nation’s future.
I’d like to keep a close eye on Wentworth during the campaign and to publish on-the-ground reports from voters in Wentworth.
This will be an election like no other. Every thinking voter knows the stakes are the highest they can be – the nature of Australia’s democracy and thus our very identity. So let’s settle in for a long and utterly fascinating campaign.