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Liberals could face tough fight to retain Malcolm Turnbull's seat

The Guardian logo The Guardian 24/08/2018 Anne Davies

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Malcolm Turnbull has said he will quit parliament '“not before too long”, triggering a byelection that could make one of the Liberal party’s safest seats, Wentworth, marginal.

While superficially the seat in Sydney’s east appears to be a Liberal bastion – Turnbull won it with 67.7% two-party preferred at the 2016 election – it is one with widely differing communities and a history of liberal views and independent thinking.

In the marriage equality vote, Wentworth recorded one of the highest yes votes, with four out of five people supporting it. The seat also has a large Jewish population who have traditionally been supportive of immigration and critical of conservative moves to abolish s18C that protects against racial vilification.

Part of that healthy margin is due to Turnbull himself, who enjoys enormous personal popularity, though that was not always the case.

In 2004, after ousting the sitting Liberal Peter King following a bruising pre-selection battle, Turnbull won with just 55.5% two-party preferred. King ran as an independent and picked up 18%. His preferences split, turning the once-safe seat into a marginal one.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and wife Lucy Turnbull vote in Double Bay in their own electorate of Wentworth on July 2, 2016 in Sydney. © Ryan Pierse/Getty Images Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and wife Lucy Turnbull vote in Double Bay in their own electorate of Wentworth on July 2, 2016 in Sydney. Times have moved on, but history shows Wentworth is potentially volatile, especially when its well-educated Liberal voters are angry.

It’s also a seat of many parts. As well as millionaires’ enclaves such as Point Piper, Vaucluse and Bronte, it includes high-density areas of rental apartments, beachside suburbs that were once Labor enclaves, and inner city areas.

The parts of the seat closer to the city have elected an independent, Alex Greenwich to state parliament, and in the last federal election the Greens polled 14.9%, only a few percentage points behind the Labor vote.

The Liberals are still to preselect a candidate, so the choice of candidate, as well as choice of leader, will be crucial.

The front runner is David Sharma, a former ambassador to Israel between 2013 and 2017 who now works in government affairs for the accountancy firm Kelly and Partners. Sharma is understood to have the backing of the Liberals moderate faction which controls the majority of Wentworth branches. He formerly worked for Alexander Downer as a legal adviser.

Other people said to be interested are Turnbull’s son-in-law, James Brown, a former army officer who is married to Turnbull’s daughter, Daisy. He is president of the Liberal party’s Paddington branch and is director of research at the University of Sydney’s US Studies Centre.

Whether the voters of Wentworth would embrace dynastic politics or recoil from it, remains to be seen.

Andrew Bragg, the former acting federal director of the Liberal party, now an executive at the Business Council of Australia, has also been mentioned as a possible contender, as has Christine Forster, a City of Sydney councillor, gay rights campaigner and Tony Abbott’s sister -- though she may be hampered by her brother’s role in Turnbull’s demise.

This time Labor has selected Tim Murray, a businessman and entrepreneur, who was born in Waverley and who chairs the Tamarama Surf Club.

Murray, an economist and commodities expert who spent 20 years living in China, returned to live in Wentworth five years ago and joined the Labor party. The experience of living in a one-party state is said to have sparked his interest in taking an active role in democratic politics.

Sources said the ALP’s polling has indicated indicated that the Liberals’ primary vote could fall to 45% from the current 62.3% without Turnbull in the seat.

That’s before the identities of candidates and any independents are known.

The state independent MP for Sydney Alex Greenwich told Guardian Australia he has been approached to consider running in Wentworth as an independent in the event Turnbull resigned.

“I’m sticking with my job in New South Wales parliament but a good independent could win,” he said.

The Greens are planning to run Dominic Wy Kanak, Waverley’s deputy mayor, who enjoys a high profile in Bondi.

Pictures: Malcolm Turnbulls career in photos

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