I Live In Wentworth And Saw Firsthand Why Voters Ditched The Libs

It was the “Where’s Malcolm?” life-sized cut out that was the star attraction at the Watsons Bay polling booth in Wentworth last weekend, where I volunteered for the Independent candidate Dr Kerryn Phelps.

Too small for a sausage sizzle and at the edge of the electorate before it drops into the ocean, voting at the Watsons Bay booth had its moments. The local with a sign accusing the Liberal candidate Sharma of supporting Israel was moved outside the fence, before another man, dressed as a superhero with a plea to “put liberals last” provided some colour in what was generally a civilised day of democracy.

The cut-out Malcolm, however, was something everyone wanted a part of. The punchy young Labor canvassers, the Greens and all sorts of random voters wanted a selfie with our former Prime Minister and there was heated competition to score a take-home Malcolm.

Competition for a take away Turnbull was fierce. (Image: Supplied)

I live in Watsons Bay,  or the “barrister end” of Wentworth ( according to the ABC’s election guru Antony Green) as opposed to the “barista” end of Darlinghurst and Kings Cross. I moved here 10 years ago which makes me a blow-in,  though in other pockets like Bondi, Paddington and all those baristas who find they can no longer afford Darlinghurst, the population is quite transient.

In the last 10 years in Wentworth,  it hasn’t mattered how I vote because the Liberals will always win. I'm what they used to call a swinging voter, not rusted on anything, not part of a political tribe and I vote on the merits of each candidate.

It was only three days before the by-election that I volunteered to help Phelps and found myself crammed into a temporary campaign office with more than 60 other booth captains to be briefed on regulations of the Australian Election Commission and the campaign rules of conduct. The key message from campaign chair Wendy McCarthy, riffing on Michelle Obama was:  "When they go low, we go high”.

I met most of the Wentworth candidates in person, including Kerryn Phelps, running a local campaign to save South Head from a function centre in the National Park under consideration by the State Government.  We leveraged the national spotlight on the by-election to get the major candidates to oppose the development.

Phelps was one of the Wentworth candidates to  visit activists during a local campaign to save South Head from a function centre. (Image: Supplied)

It was a perfect process for a swing voter --  as we took the different candidates around South Head to show them the plans, I got to figure out what they were about. Dave Sharma (Liberal), Tim Murray (Labor), Dominic Wy Kanak (Greens), Licia Heath (Independent) and Dr Kerryn Phelps (Independent) were all professional, engaged and the sort of people you would want to have a drink with.

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Wentworth by-election candidates Dave Sharma, Dr Kerryn Phelps, Tim Murray, Dominic Wy Kanak, and Licia Heath. (Image: AAP)

Kerryn Phelps stood out, she took notes, phone numbers and names, asked about all the issues and said she wanted to find out more and revisit the site before opposing the development.

It was two weeks before the election when one of my friends in her 70s mentioned that she and her husband were not voting Liberal for the first time ever in favour of Phelps, that I thought something might be going on.

Still plenty of other Wentworthians I came across remained rusted on Liberals. One called Phelps “that dreadful woman” and another told me what we really needed was more coal-fired power plants. I stopped discussing politics unless someone else brought it up .

In the final week before the by-election when I heard that Phelps’ posters had been removed for a third time, I decided to volunteer. I don’t like bullies and the Liberals were getting skittish: proposing the movement of the Israeli embassy to Jerusalem, voting it was OK to be white,  throwing money at Bronte and North Bondi surf club -- but not at the crumbling Tamarama which has the Labor candidate Tim Murray as President.

Phelps however stayed the course and even when a crazy email was released claiming she had HIV and was quitting the campaign, she maintained grace under pressure.

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I knew Phelps could shake things up, but with a Liberal margin of 17.7 percent, I didn’t think she could win. The Liberal Party obviously knew differently.

We were flooded with anti-Phelps leaflets in the mail box, my social feeds and browser were interrupted with Liberal ads everywhere from YouTube pre-rolls to ads on the Australian Financial Review. I received automated phone calls from Julie Bishop, John Howard and texts and calls from the candidate Dave Sharma -- including an interactive town hall where I could ask questions.

Even when the Liberal party stated publicly that the by-election was 50:50 in the last few days of campaigning, I thought it was posturing.

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Phelps though was winning over voters:

“I am 58 years old, and I have voted Liberal my whole life, I am angry about the instability in the Liberal party,” one voter who met Phelps told me. “

But I was also so impressed with Phelps’ approach to understanding local and national issues when I met her. When she talks about refugees or climate change -- she is not just saying it because she wants to win votes. She really wants to make a change and I would be proud to have her representing us in Wentworth.”

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When Phelps visited us at the Watsons Bay booth on Saturday afternoon, posing with Malcolm’s cut- out and the enormous attack posters telling voters not to “risk it” with Phelps, it still seemed a stretch to me that she could win.

Throughout the day, we had voters refusing Phelps’ how to vote cards, muttering that she was a “Labor stooge” or that she was “just a Liberal”.

Kerryn Phelps handed out how to vote cards, which some voters refused, despite the huge voter swing away from the Liberal party. (Image: AAP)

But there were also those who took on the Liberal campaigners: “You need to get your act together,” one older man shouted angrily. Others told the Liberal campaigners that no climate change policy meant they had lost their vote.

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Phelps claimed victory on Saturday and now she has to wait for the final count. It is looking likely she will make history and the swing in our little Watsons Bay booth was significant at last count.

Meanwhile, I have possession of the Malcolm cut-out, I promised to keep it for Colin from Collaroy who was so impressed with Dr Phelps, he cycled over to Watsons Bay to volunteer.

Malcolm Turnbull  and Tony Abbott doppelgangers gate crash the Wentworth by-election.  (Image: AAP)

Maybe he wants to use it when Tony Abbott contests Warringah come May’s general election?