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. 97 Bluebottle: always count back 33 days and start on a you do. So for 24/11 its 22/10 but with the caveat that since the State Governors have 2 sign the writs expect an announcement on Thurs/Fri 18/19th Oct.
    The above is to have the shortest possible campaign. Howard could also extend the campaign period by a week or more

  2. Wentworth while is a marginal on the TPP, but when you look at the primary figure the Libs have 42 to ALP 26, I’m not from Sydney but I would imagine that it’s similar to Higgins which is held by 8 percent.

    I think we ought to forget about King factor’s for the last election was three years ago and this time around the issues are totally different, the poll numbers are totally different the only sameness is Howard is still PM.

    We have discussed the ALP possibly winning Kooyong and Goldstein, may I suggest if they can’t win Wentworth then I can’t see them winning the others.

    I’m tipping Turnbull to hold Wentworth but at this stage I wouldn’t be making any firm predictions of the margin.

  3. I live just a few hundred metres from Wentworth (in Kingsford-Smith), and my gut feeling is that Labor will get a swing here well below the State average, which may or may not be enough to win. I’d imagine that Wentworth will go to preferences, but that in the end Turnbull may well be saved by pre-poll and postal votes.

    However, I’m involved in a street-meet for George Newhouse’s campaign in Rose Bay on Sunday, after which I’ll have a better feel for the vibe on the ground. If the harbourside suburbs swing to Labor (no matter by how much – don’t forget the booths from Darling Point to Vaucluse are home to some of the safest Liberal booths in the country), then Malcolm is rooted, because I would imagine the booths closer to me (Bondi, Randwick and Bronte) along with those in Darlinghurst and Potts Point will vote vote overwhelmingly for Labor

  4. The calm b4 the storm.

    Things have gone eerily quiet – no startling polls published, no leadership wobbles, no hats and no rabbits. There’s just the waiting and the anticipation. The waiting is like wanting the clouds to break open over Katherine at this time of year. The eyes, the ears, the skin, the mouth are all open, waiting. The whole country feels clumsy and parched and dreary, the way you can feel when you have not slept well enough.

    Surely it cannot be long now.

  5. [ whats the latest date JWH can go to the GG or nominee for a Nov 24 election ? ]

    The last day writs can be issued for a Nov 24th election is 22nd October.

  6. What does everyone think is Howard’s biggest fear for not calling the election???

    Could it be that so called safe liberal seat such as this may not be so safe and he is running scared.

  7. I have mixed feelings about Turnbull loosing Wentworth. On the one hand he is about the only person that has a chance of dragging the Libs back to the centre and thus making them electable, on the other I think Wentworth is a seat that Labor has to win, regardless of what people say, because if Labor can’t convince the electorate’s gays, greenies and wealthy small l liberals that it deserves to run the country, then what chance do they have anywhere else? In any case, I doubt that Turnbull is ready to leave Parliament and I suspect that if Ruddock vacates Berowra (assuming the Libs lose) Turnbull will stand for Berowra.

  8. #110 What does everyone think is Howard’s biggest fear for not calling the election???

    Telling Hyacinth they are moving back to their old stomping ground.

  9. [ #110 What does everyone think is Howard’s biggest fear for not calling the election??? ]

    What does he say to George B? He’d be a bride without a dowry if he loses the election.

  10. Blindoptimist.

    I hope it is isn’t long now.

    If I read Shane’s formula right (@103), Howard could wait until Thu 11 or Fri 12 of October to call a Nov 17 election (minimum 33 days) or could call it this Thu 4 or Fri 5 for an Nov 17 election with a week ‘extension’.

    That is , the earliest possible election date now is Nov 17th.

    At the other end of the scale, he could wait until Thu 25 or Fri 26 October to call a Dec 1 election (minimum 33 days).

    There remains 8 possible scenario’s open to JWH for Nov 17 (2), Nov 24 (3) or Dec 1 (3) if you including minimum, one week and two week extension options available.

    I must be bored waiting, working this out. Hope I got it right.

    Meantime, I hope he calls it this Thursday for a 40 day campaign {1 week extension} and put us out of our misery on Nov 17th , please !!

  11. Antony Green, please if you are around, would you provide a quick brief on how or where one would learn where the parties have or will direct their preferences?

    Please refer me to elsewhere if you have already provided same.


    Thanks, William, off topic.

  12. The real issue for Howard is does he want to have another parliamentary sitting on 14 October? He can pass his drought bills and anything else he likes, and try to beat up on Rudd in QT some more – not that the last round did him much good. On the other hand the issue of “why doesn’t he call the bloody election?” will have become acute by then and will give Rudd lots of ammunition. It also means exposing Hockey to more questioning when he is clearly out of his depth.

  13. Turnball will get back in, probably with a swing to him.

    Whether he becomes an effective leader of the liberals will depend on the seats lost at the election. A large loss should see the liberals regain control of their party and the feral right wing extremists ejected.

    A narrow defeat will see the looney right maintain control and keep the libs in opposition at state and federal level for years, just as the looney left kept state labor out of power in Victoria and the ACT.

  14. Our very own dear Anthony sz:

    I’m having a tough week trying to get all the election night graphics to work correctly.

    Jeez mate I thought you usually started that job only at about 6:29 pm on election day

  15. I think something to be considered is that Turnbull is a minister/frontbencher.

    People are choosing between a minister who can attract all kinds of goodies to protect his seat, and a nobody who won’t be able to attract anything.

  16. I hope Turnbull hangs around and takes over a ‘safe’ seat post election if the wave of dissent apparent in NSW polling accounts for his Wentworth seat by pure mathematics if nothing else.

    The Gunns Pulp Mill decision will probably draw a polarised response in his own electorate where it matters most to his survival. The Greens are not going to support him anyway and the gay community are not keen on the Coalition’s attitude to same sex relationships and legal rights/status either.

    At least he isn’t an extreme right wing lunatic of the Abbott type.

  17. i think Labor will win…or more correctly, the Coalition will lose…in a landslide . In this scenario then Wentworth should fall.

    But my gut tells me Turnbull will be saved from the massive swing.


    Because he is a front bencher and his politics are not the politics the swingers and “wet” Libs are rebelling against. The Howard hating Lib supporters in Wentworth will hold their noses and vote Coalition in the hope of a Turnbull win and a Coalition or Howard loss.

  18. Hows this for a scenario ?

    Howard survives in Bennelong but loses the big one, Turnbull loses but takes over that awful Ruddock’s seat and Costello loses in Higgins. Beaudiful !!!

    I want the Abbott and the Hockey player to survive so they can sit on the Opposition benches and step up to the plate with their ‘slow-uh-the-uh-minister-uh for-uh’ {Abbott} ‘naughty unions’ {Hockey} diatribe can drive them to another election defeat next time around.

    Brough and Turnbull should sort the mess out, later.

  19. Thommo sez

    I think Turnbull will be returned with a swing to him. He has a much higher profile this time round.

    How could he have a higher profile? Think:

    – Spycatcher
    – Ozemail
    – Lucy
    – Republic

    and that’s without looking anything up.

    What I don’t get is why he had to “stack” branches in that funny sort of Liberal way and spend 500k last time around.

    Anywho he releases the Gunns decision tomorrow. Thereby I feel hangs his fate.

  20. If there is a statewide swing in NSW then Turnbull will lose.

    Recent Newspoll quarterly figures, and recent Nielsen state breakdowns, don’t augur well for the Liberals.

    Turnbull may be in more trouble than we think.

  21. I’ll go off topic. Crikey Whitey, you can’t find out where parties will be directing their preferences, though you can guess. That’s because as yet there is no election, therefore no candidates and therefore no preference tickets to peruse. Wait until after the close of nominations, which is three weeks out from polling day (normally). Then the Senate tickets will be published, and parties will publish their House how-to-votes on their websites. To assess how tight those lower house preferences will be, consult the AEC’s website for preferences from the previous election.

    Someone asked for some reason why the election had not already called. My suggestion would be indecision by the government, just putting off the date because all polling is bad. The longer the election is put off, the greater the chance some miracle will drift accross the path of the election. I personally don’t believe any newspaper report that suggests delay is a strategy. I just reckon it is indecision.

  22. Wastepaper bin is already filling with letters and mailouts from our federal member Turnbull

    BrissyRod – he definitely will not be buying my vote

    Another factor against Turnbull – many legal eagles live in his electorate, there is strong disquiet re: Ruddock & Andrews.

    William -Great blog

    Fellow psephs have you seen possum pollytics?

  23. Many people are attracted to the idea of MT leading the Libs but remember one thing, the hard core of the Victorian branch still believe that they are the natural core of the party. I am willing to bet that the next Lib leader will be from Victoria.

  24. Malcolm Turnbull was interviewed by Laurie Oakes on the Sunday program last Sunday… I wonder if many in his electorate would have seen it… he looked anything but competent, … “I haven’t seen Labor’s — Labor hasn’t proposed a clean energy target of this kind. I don’t – I’m not aware of that.” and I went to the transcript to check that I had heard him correctly at the time.

    I used to think that he was one minister who did have it all over his opponent shadow minister, now I think that they might both be weak links.

    I think that one thing that Mr Howard has been waiting for is a favorable reaction (a post budget bounce) to the substantial increases in pensions for some people, and newly won eligibility for pensions for other people, that were announced in the budget, but which only became effective about a week ago. This may still have an effect, but its size can only be guessed at.

  25. Those are the four dominant issues, along with the underlying feeling that Howard has been around too long and that Rudd is a fresh face. But IR is the big vote-flipper in the key marginals, where the working-class vote which Howard stole from Labor 1996 is now going back to Labor on the basic class issue of fairness in the workplace. The other three are middle-class issues (sorry, lefties) which are eroding the Lib vote in their safe seats. Whether they will actually win any seats for Labor remains to be seen. Wentworth will be the big test of that. I doubt IR will turn many votes in Double Bay – climate change etc might.

  26. I wonder what Howard was thinking, giving Turnbull the poisoned chalice of the Environmental portfolio, in a party that lags badly on this issue. When Turnbull got the job, people assumed it was a fast-track to a more senior role in the Cabinet, but surely it’s the worst possible gig for a guy with an environmentally-aware electorate.

  27. [When Turnbull got the job, people assumed it was a fast-track to a more senior role in the Cabinet, but surely it’s the worst possible gig for a guy with an environmentally-aware electorate.]

    Maybe that’s why Howard did it, to thwart Turnbull’s leadership aspirations! Better to have him in a controversial portfolio, rather than biding his time planning a leadership tilt from the backbench.

  28. As a Kings Cross resident, Malcolm hasn’t made much of an effort in the Kings Cross area, although he’s opened an office in Victoria St, Darlinghurst. Last weekend there was one Malcolm supporter with an A-frame in a poor location kind of near the Coke sign. Unfortunately for him, very few people took his leaflets.

    A few weeks ago, there were three Malcolm volunteers giving out material at the weekend markets near the El Alamein fountain. But they weren’t popular.

    Malcolm did direct-post a personalised letter and glossy colour leaflet (displayed in Parliament a fortnight ago) to voters in the Kings Cross area, but there’s been little else.

    While money is essential in an election campaign, it isn’t necessarily the case that that whomever has it will win. People living outside the eastern suburbs shouldn’t assume that Malcolm will definitely win – for possibly the first time in a very long time, Labor has a real chance of winning Wentworth, especially if there is a substantial national swing.

  29. [William, I wouldnt be so eager to keep things ‘on topic’, after the election it will be just you and the tumbleweeds, enjoy it.]

    Until early next year, when the U.S. primaries start! 😛

  30. William

    The ACT election is just an LGA election in reality. The NSW LGA elections are on in Aug ’08 and I think the electorate in Blacktown is bigger than that of the ACT although I could be wrong there.

    And of course is St. Kev gets up in ’07 we could have a DD in late ’08.

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