Seat of the week: Wentworth

The historic blue-ribbon Sydney seat of Wentworth was starting to look dicey for the Liberals at the time Malcolm Turnbull came to it in 2004, but he has since built up a formidable margin on the back of his local personal vote.

Malcolm Turnbull’s electorate of Wentworth encompasses the southern side of the mouth of Sydney Harbour, including the harbour shore from Vaucluse to Potts Point, a stretch of coast running south through Bondi to Clovelly, and the northern part of Randwick. The recently published draft redistribution proposes the cession of around 9500 voters at the western end of the electorate to Sydney, accounting for Woolloomooloo, Darlinghurst and Paddington south of Oxford Street, with little impact on the margin.




The wealth of the harbourside suburbs have long made Wentworth a classic blue-ribbon seat, with conservatives of one kind or another holding it since it was created at federation. Recent former members have included Robert Ellicott (1974 to 1981), the Shadow Attorney-General who played a crucial tactical role in the 1975 supply crisis; Peter Coleman (1981 to 1987), conservative intellectual and father-in-law of Peter Costello; and John Hewson (1987 to 1996), federal Opposition Leader from 1990 to 1994. Hewson’s departure in 1995 marked the start of a turbulent period in which two successive members, Andrew Thomson and Peter King, were deposed in preselection challenges. King lasted one term after unseating Andrew Thomson at the 2001 election, before running into the juggernaut of Malcolm Turnbull in 2004.

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. His profile rose still further when he chaired the Australian Republican Movement leading into the 1999 referendum. In the meantime, he made his fortune firstly in legal partnership with Gough Whitlam’s son Nicholas, and later as a merchant banker. His move against Peter King in 2004 won at least tacit support from John Howard, despite any lingering resentment over their hostilities during the republic campaign. After a vigorous local party recruitment war, Turnbull prevailed in the preselection vote by 88 votes to 70. King attempted to retain the seat at the election as an independent, but finished well behind Labor in third place with 18.0% of the vote.

Turnbull’s parliamentary career began with two years of dues-paying as a back bencher and parliamentary secretary, before he was promoted to cabinet as Environment and Water Minister in January 2007. Peter Costello’s decision not to contest the leadership after the 2007 election defeat had many expecting the position to go to Turnbull, but Brendan Nelson defeated him in the party room vote by 45 votes to 42. Turnbull instead served as Shadow Treasurer until September 2008, when he toppled Nelson in a leadership challenge by 45 votes to 41. His first tenure as Liberal leader lasted 15 months, before his determination to support the Rudd government’s emissions trading scheme provoked a party revolt. A leadership vote on December 1, 2009 pitted both Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey against Turnbull, with the former prevailing by 42 votes to 41 after the latter unexpectedly finished third.

Turnbull returned to the back bench after his defeat and announced he would not seek re-election the following April, but he reversed the decision less than a month later. After the 2010 election he returned to the front bench as Shadow Communications Minister, and retained the portfolio when the Abbott government came to power in September 2013. This gave him oversight of the National Broadband Network rollout amid a progressively deteriorating political environment for Tony Abbott and his government. Turnbull indicated that he might put his name forward for the leadership if the spill motion against Tony Abbott in February 2015 succeeded, but it fell short of doing so by a margin of 61 votes to 39. However, momentum continued to gather behind Turnbull as the Coalition’s polling worsened again towards the middle of the year, and on September 14 he defeated Abbott in a leadership ballot by 54 votes to 44.

Turnbull’s political successes have been reflected in his strong electoral performance in Wentworth, a seat that might otherwise be developing into a problem for the Liberals. The Liberal margin slipped from 7.9% to 5.5% amid the discord that surrounded Turnbull’s preselection putsch, and it was then pared back a further 2.9% when the redistribution added territory was at the city end. However, Turnbull went on to enjoy the only swing against Labor of any Coalition candidate outside of Western Australia at the 2007 election, and he has since emphatically secured his hold with successive swings of 10.9% in 2010 and 2.9% in 2013.

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.

7 comments on “Seat of the week: Wentworth”

  1. About 10 years ago, there was a theory with Wentworth, which went like this – because it is hard up against water to the north and east, in any redistribution where voters are added to the seat, it will be pushed further to marginal, the voters to the south and east (Coogee, Randwick, Surry Hills, Darlinghurst) leaning ALP. All true at that time.

    But what has happened over the last decade is that those four suburbs have themselves become much more “gentrified”, and lean ALP a bit less than they used to. I also think the 2004 Peter King/Geoff Cousins election was a one off, giving a misleading picture of the electorate. Even though Turnbull would now have a high personal vote, it would take a very strange set of circumstances for Wentworth to return a non-Liberal.

  2. Older subscribers will recall how a Left Winger Jesse Street almost won Wentworth in 1946 with an intensive letterboxing for her by rain drenched Communist Party members that gave Sir Eric Harrison a fright.
    In 1949 the A.L.P. Officers wouldn’t back Jesse, who was an A.L.P. member, for Phillip which was formed using our area from the seat of Wentworth, and went instead for a nice bloke I knew, one of my neighbours called Joe Fitzgerald.
    We often wondered which way politics might have gone had Jesse been allowed to run for Phillip.

  3. @2

    You are seeing a similar thing happen to Kingsford-Smith now. Used to be a mega-safe Labor seat, and even a decade ago it still had a comfortable margin. Now it’s a very marginal seat that Labor is at genuine risk of losing at a poor election.

  4. Norman @ 3

    Sorry to correct you but it was 1943 where Jessie Street gave Harrison a fright. The conservative vote was split by W.C.Wentworth (Billy Wentworth) running as an independent and getting approx 20% of the vote – there was preference leakage to Street but not enough to get her over the line. In 1946, there was a swing to the Libs and Harrison was returned comfortably. Thanks to Psephos for the above info.

  5. 3

    I think that Street would have had a better chance of gaining ALP preselection for Phillip if she had won Wentworth in 1943.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *