Seat du jour: Wentworth

After a century as one of the nation’s most predictable seats, Wentworth entered the national spotlight in 2004 and again looms as one of the most intriguing contests of the coming election. Created at federation, Wentworth originally covered the entire coast from Port Jackson to Botany Bay, before assuming more familiar dimensions in 1913. It now takes in the mouth of Sydney Harbour and its southern shore from Watsons Bay and Vaucluse west to Potts Point, along with a stretch of coast running south through Bondi to Clovelly, and the northern part of Randwick. The wealth of the harbourside suburbs has made this a classic blue-ribbon seat, which has been held by conservatives of one kind or another since federation. Recent Liberal members have included Robert Ellicott (1974 to 1981), the Shadow Attorney-General who played a crucial tactical role in the Whitlam dismissal; Peter Coleman (1981 to 1987), conservative intellectual and father-in-law of Peter Costello; John Hewson (1987 to 1996), disappointing Liberal Opposition Leader; and Andrew Thomson (1996 to 2001), disappointing member for Wentworth.

Thomson was defeated for preselection ahead of the 2001 election by barrister Peter King, who in turn died by the sword in 2004 when Malcolm Turnbull (right) marshalled his considerable resources against him. Turnbull had been spoken of as a potential prime minister since coming to fame as a young lawyer in the early 1980s, when he succeeded in blocking the British government’s attempts to suppress former MI5 agent Peter Wright’s memoirs in the Spycatcher trial. In the 1990s he emerged as the chairman of the Australian Republican Movement, adding conservative leavening to a favoured project of the then Labor Prime Minister. He meanwhile made his fortune firstly in legal partnership with Gough Whitlam’s son Nicholas and later as a merchant banker, establishing business connections that contributed to his fundraising success as Liberal Party federal treasurer from 2002. Despite lingering resentment over Turnbull’s description of John Howard as “the man who broke the nation’s heart” on the night of the republic referendum, Turnbull’s move against King won at least the tacit support of the Prime Minister, who in normal circumstances could be relied upon to support sitting members. Wayne Errington and Peter van Onselen’s recent biography reports that Howard “believed that a failed preselection bid for Wentworth held the distinct possibility that Turnbull would quit party politics altogether and step down as treasurer, deterring donors from putting their hands in their pockets”. After much “recruitment” to local party branches by both sides, Turnbull won the preselection vote by 88 votes to 70.

Booth-level two-party vote from 2004, with colour coding showing suburban average weekly household income. The electorate-wide average household income figure is $1609, compared with a national average of $1027. The only suburb below the national average is Rushcutters Bay, immediately west of Darling Point.

King subsequently refused to rule out running as an independent, eventually announcing he would do so at a press conference on Bondi Beach in the first week of the campaign. Despite vigorous campaigning attended by intense publicity, King recorded only 18.0 per cent of the vote and finished well behind Labor’s David Patch on 26.3 per cent. While Turnbull’s 41.8 per cent was well down on the 52.1 per cent King recorded as Liberal candidate in 2001, it converted into an unembarrassing 2.3 per cent two-party swing after distribution of King’s preferences. The swing nonetheless contributed to a long-term trend in the seat which made it appear of dubious long-term worth to Turnbull even before the recent redistribution. As noted in an analysis by former Labor staffer Shane Easson, the electorate was going through a relative population decline that had forced it to expand in area at six successive redistributions since 1955 (the most significant change coming in 1993 with the abolition of Phillip, which previously separated Wentworth from Kingsford-Smith). There were only two directions in which it could grow: into safe Labor Kingsford-Smith to the south, or even safer Labor Sydney to the west. Furthermore, the latter would be the more obviously appealing option for the boundaries commissioners, as Kingsford-Smith was shaped by the constraints of the ocean and Botany Bay. When the latest population calculations dictated that New South Wales lose a seat at the coming election, the result was predictable: Wentworth shouldered its share of the burden by absorbing an inner-city area noted for post-materialism and a high gay population. This area, which included the balance of Paddington, the harbour shore around Potts Point and most of Woolloomooloo and Darlinghurst, sliced the Liberal margin from 5.6 per cent to a decidedly uncomfortable 2.6 per cent.

Like no other electorate bar Bennelong, Wentworth has seen national issues assume local significance in recent months. Turnbull won promotion first to parliamentary secretary with responsibility for water in September 2006 and then to Environment and Water Resources Minister four months later, confronting him with issues of great sensitivity in his own seat. The most significant example has been the recent controversy surrounding Gunns Limited’s proposed Tamar Valley pulp mill in northern Tasmania, which was contentiously fast-tracked by Paul Lennon’s state Labor government. A campaign for Turnbull to intervene has won the support of celebrities including Cate Blanchett, Bryan Brown and Rebecca Gibney, along with businessman and prime ministerial confidant Geoffrey Cousins. In mid-September, Cousins embarrassed Turnbull by taking out advertisements in the local Wentworth Courier which asked: “Is Mr Turnbull the Minister For the Environment or the Minister Against the Environment?” Turnbull has said he will reach his verdict this week, and that he will follow the recommendation of the government’s chief scientist.

Turnbull’s other major source of publicity in recent weeks has been his role in the recent burst of leadership speculation. On September 11, Sky News reported that both Turnbull and Alexander Downer believed John Howard should no longer lead the Liberal Party. Amid speculation that Howard might be about to stand aside, Kerry-Anne Walsh of the Sun-Herald wrote of a “wild scenario doing the rounds” in which Turnbull would take the job if Costello proved reluctant to do so within weeks of an election. Subsequent reports spoke of Turnbull persuading a majority of Cabinet members that Howard should go, but of the idea meeting firm resistance from both the party room and the Prime Minister himself. Later in the day, Howard could be seen apparently chastising Turnbull on the floor of parliament. Two weeks later Turnbull was forced to rule out a future challenge to Peter Costello for the Liberal leadership, after earlier refusing to answer questions on the issue.

Booth-level two-party swings from 2004, with colour coding showing suburbs’ percentage of dwellings being purchased. All suburbs are below the national average of 32.2 per cent on the latter count.

While Turnbull will be in real trouble if the anti-government swing is as much as current opinion polls indicate, there is reason to believe he has more padding than the notional margin suggests. In his aforementioned study, Shane Easson calculates an effective Liberal margin of 4.5 per cent after allowing for such influences as the “Peter King effect” and “potential Turnbull personal vote”. Figures from the 2004 election exaggerate the Liberals’ weakness in the newly added areas, due to the party’s lack of effort here at previous elections. In an electorate such as Sydney, the optimal strategy for the Liberals is to “play dead” in the hope that they might finish behind the Greens, who could then potentially defeat Labor with their preferences. This time around, these areas will be facing the full force of Turnbull’s well-oiled campaign machine. Furthermore, as noted by Russell Skelton of The Age, the electorate is not suffering the soft housing prices that are biting in more suburban seats like Bennelong. Some sources have suggested the party has greater fears for Howard’s seat than Turnbull’s, although reports of internal polling have painted a mixed picture. In August, Labor was variously said to have a lead on the primary vote of 47-42 and 44-42. Neither gels with a September report from the Sydney Morning Herald which had sources from both major parties speaking of 20 per cent support for the Greens (who have nominated mental health nurse Susan Jarnason). Conversely, The Australian quoted a “senior Liberal source” in late September saying Turnbull was “not in trouble”, and should thus approve the Tamar Valley pulp mill to shore up the Liberal member in Bass.

Labor’s candidate is George Newhouse (left), human rights lawyer and until recently mayor of Waverley. Newhouse’s legal clients have included Cornelia Rau and Vivian Solon, the victims of high-profile Department of Immigration bungles that respectively saw them deported and detained for nearly a year. He is also a figurehead of the electorate’s prominent Jewish community, which accounts for 14.1 per cent of its population against 0.4 per cent nationally. The community is particularly concentrated in the electorate’s north-east, accounting for 49.4 per cent of residents of Dover Heights. Newhouse was head-hunted by Kevin Rudd and installed as candidate by the party’s national executive, after the April national conference empowered it to avert faction-driven preselection stoushes by directly choosing candidates for 25 sensitive seats.

Author: William Bowe

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, has existed in one form or another since 2004, and is one of the most heavily trafficked websites on Australian politics.

160 comments on “Seat du jour: Wentworth”

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  1. My mention of Potts Point was based on the colour key and the map of the area Mr Bowe. Perhaps I read it incorrectly. In hindsight there are a lot of elderly residents still in the Ruchcutter’s Bay and surrounding areas which may also explain the income levels. Apologies for my hasty analysis.

    As for Turnbull’s chances, he certainly has a lot of fanatical supporters in the area. A friend of mine ran a campaign against him at the previous election and the ensuing attempts by Turnbull’s staff and supporters to sabotage our efforts reminded me of the worst that University politics has to offer. They tore down our posters and made up ridiculous slanders that were so transparent as to be laughable. Mr Pooly you are so wrong. There is nothing noble or idealisitc about our Malcolm.

    The comments about Turnbull being a better PM than Howard are very flattering of Malcolm T. Mr Turnbull reminds me of the term “all show and no go” I think his leadership would be so poll driven as to make Howard seem like a real leader in comparison. Imagine having a vain, ingratiating used car salesman as a PM and that’s Turnbull. I actually think Costello would be a better PM than he.

  2. Turnbull’s fate will be decided at a press conferance 10:30am today,
    when he makes a decision on th Pulp Mill in Tasmanin.
    The fate of the Liberal Party’s future could also be hanging on his decision.
    Thats a lot of preasure.

    And where is George Newhouse, is he still running in Wentworth?
    Ditto where is the great green saviour Peter Garrett?
    All is quite on the ALP frount.

  3. In my experience, gay people do not vote according to that aspect of their identity. Turnbull will get his “fair share” of the gay vote simply because gay people vote mostly Liberal and Labor (but favour slightly Labor/Greens).

  4. Along with Serfchoice, the Tanmanian Pulp Mill has symbolised the very bad years of the Liberal Party disaster on Australia(not to mention the rest of the world) Now Turnbull’s decision has sealed the fate of the Menziesque Dark Ages.
    Looks like Turnbull has positioned himself for a place in the ALP, after the Liberals find themselves in the dustbin of history and never to gain power again, where is a borne to rule millionair going to go?—

  5. Hmm, nice to catch up with this next-door-to-my-seat thread (after having no connection for 2 days). Couple of comments: the Eastern Suburbs Your Rights @ Work launch will be tonight at the Bondi Junction-Waverley RSL. That campaign is now leafletting Wenworth. All the coreflutes re Cape York and landclearing are still on poles on the way into Bondi Junction so people can’t say they haven’t heard about that campaign. The pulp mill issues has certainly been canvassed in the Southern Courier (which is Kingsford Smith) and as far as I know in the Wentworth Courier, so todays announcement will get more coverage, with both Greens candidates visiting the mill site last week and doning media concerning it. In some respects Turnbull has trumped Garrett with his “world’s best practice” report (and various recommendations). This is what Garrett had said he would support – does he now do so (and lose by credibility over support a Liberal Minister) or does he attack the decision (and contradict himself).

    With respect to a “Jewish vote” – these characterisations are always dubious, but there are some pretty strong networks in the area. Turnbull has tried to work them, but Newhouse has one over him on this.

  6. I always thought that Wentworth would swing much less than the rest of NSW, and Labor would only win if it was a real landslide across Sydney. Never saw it as anywhere near as likely to fall as Bennelong.

    However, I do think there is a real chance that the Pulp Mill issue will bite, and for all the fact that Turnbull’s position is effectively identical to Labor, he could end up carrying the can in a protest vote that could see him tipped out.

    The claim that he needed to endorse the Mill in order to save the candidate for Bass shows just how out of touch some politicians are. It seems pretty clear that the majority of people in Bass oppose the Mill, and with increasing strength. Some might resent national intervention, but blocking the Mill would be the only way the Libs could have hoped to save Bass. Turnbull may have cost them two seats with this decision (unless of course Gunns suddenly announces the restrictions are too severe and pulls out, in which case Turnbull will be hailed as a hero).

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