Humanity on show in Wentworth aftermath



The epochal Wentworth by-election has come and gone, without noticeable effect on magpies breeding in the parks, horses converging on Flemington, people selling houses in the capital cities or iron ore trains heading to Western Australian ports.

Dr Kerryn Phelps dances and celebrates on the night of the Wentworth by-election (Cole Bennetts/Getty Images)Election night, however, did offer a glimpse of the human side of politics: the faces of people who care enough about their parties to hand out cards and to gather as the results come in. We could also see the faces of candidates and their political masters as they responded to impending victory or defeat. This, not the calculating and plotting more often reported in the media, is the real face of politics as politics. It spoke much of Australian public life.

On election night the television cameras switched to the post-election parties of Kerryn Phelps and Dave Sharma when the result appeared certain. The scene in the Phelps camp was festive, colourful and chaotic. Filled with young women, the hall become a dance floor. Phelps led the celebrations and the dancing, and reporters were caught up in the crush.

This was politics in its amateur form, a celebration of spontaneity, of independence, of inclusive sisterhood and of success beyond imagining. In her speech, flanked by her partner, she paid tribute to volunteers, donors, organisers and doorknockers, and demanded a purer politics, and action to deal with the pressing needs of the environment and refugees. It all spoke of enthusiasm and boundless hope.

The scene in the Liberal camp was naturally less exuberant and its public response to impending defeat was more formal. It was dominated by men in dark suits and ties: Prime Minister Morrison, Treasurer Frydenberg and candidate Sharma. Auxiliary staff and well-wishers were heard but not seen.

Sharma was on stage throughout the performance, unfailingly smiling. He was accompanied by his wife and young daughters, who were initially in the background but were later shifted by Frydenberg to a more conspicuous part of the stage. When Morrison arrived from the Invictus Games, he embraced Sharma and subsequently dominated proceedings.

Morrison's speech was defiant, delivered in short sentences followed by pauses in which his eyes were expressionless and his expression slightly querulous. The crowd welcomed him with a chant of 'ScoMo', and later, when he turned on the Labor Party, with a chant of 'Shame'.


"The negative energy of Morrison's speech and the way in which the candidate and his family were used as props painted an ominous picture of his future had he been elected."


Taking his cue from the Invictus Games he exhorted the party to fight resolutely in hard times, praised Liberal Party values that rewarded those who strive, and warned against the ruin that would be brought by a Labor Party Government. He repeatedly praised Sharma as an exceptional candidate.

All the actors in this scene seemed heavy and lifeless, with the exception of Sharma, who kept smiling, and spoke simply and modestly, thanking all those who supported and worked for his election, expressing sympathy for the other losing candidates and wishing Phelps well in her new position. He also thanked his family and acknowledged that the campaign had been bruising. He seemed like a tourist in a funeral parlour.

In the two scenes professional politics seemed to be pitted against amateur politics, with both Phelps and Sharma relative amateurs among the pros. Though it would certainly be possible to celebrate the event as the victory of amateur politics over professional, the response of many of us who watched was more ambivalent.

We felt sympathy for Phelps as she entered such a harsh world, and relief for Sharma that he and his family had escaped. The negative energy of Morrison's speech and the way in which the candidate and his family were used as props painted an ominous picture of his future had he been elected. They also pointed to storm clouds over the carnival atmosphere of Phelps' election.

In the Phelps party, however, the breathless words and dancing did harmonise with the reality of a brave venture by predominantly young people, one attended with spectacular success. In the Liberal wake, words and gestures were dissociated from reality. Embraces were dutiful, promises of a better Australia were at odds with the grim emphasis on struggle and hatred of the opposition party.

If that is the world of politics then the cooperative energy and the graciousness seen in the Phelps cavalcade and the Liberal candidate are superfluous to requirements. As with refugees despatched to detention, the light and intelligence newly elected MPs bring to Australia will quickly fade from their eyes.

And yet cooperation, graciousness, light and intelligence are exactly what Australia needs in order to shape a fair and sustainable society.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.


Main image: Dr Kerryn Phelps dances and celebrates on the night of the Wentworth by-election (Cole Bennetts/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Wentworth, Kerryn Phelps, Dave Sharma



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Existing comments

Dave Sharma and his family have certainly had a lucky escape. The way that Morrison showered him with faux praise, then conscripted his wife and children, all to the service and greater glory of ScoMo himself, then delivered a full-scale Pentecostal charge, complete with finger-pointing, at the rest of us, was sickening.

Ginger Meggs | 24 October 2018  

What a delightful and hopeful report on the Wentworth by-election. May the Australian public get a taste for a more positive style of democracy. And vote for it!

Val | 25 October 2018  

A very good insight into the happenings that Saturday night in Sydney, Quite a reflective piece that brought our current tired leaders into strong focus. Thank you,

Tom Kingston | 25 October 2018  

We watched the political circus on ABC TV 24. I totally agree with your observations Andrew. Sharma was gracious in defeat, Phelps gracious in her victory. Morrison and Fredinburg ungracious in their attacks on those who opposed them. I found Morrison's speech to be nauseating .We asked ourselves the question "why don't they get it???". Maybe a landslide defeat at the upcoming general Federal Election will get the message home to the LNP Government that their policies on Nauru, climate change and other neo- liberal ideas are no longer relevant to most thinking, caring Australian voters.

Gavin O'Brien | 25 October 2018  

I suppose it's inevitable that any bye-election is compared to an Olympic athletic race. Except there is only one medal. I cannot call it Gold because the prize is only a pass to taking a seat in a parliament. There other forces will take control of the medallist's talents, whether as a tiny cog in a restrictive party apparatus at one extreme or as a free-spirited ineffectual butterfly at the other. I've heard several gold medallists say that the letdown after the euphoria of victory can be so ego-deflating that they question the worth of all the time, energy &, yes, money they expended to achieve popular acclaim. I admired all the candidates who entered the Wentworth contest. I was impressed by the courtesy shown/expressed towards the winner. I was delighted to see the exuberance of the victory celebration was not sullied by silly champagne showers. Then there was the party pooper. Scomo's behaviour reminded me that politics goes beyond athletic analogies. For him it is much easier to stir up fear, division & derision than to encourage trust, unity of purpose & openmindeness.

Uncle Pat | 25 October 2018  

Hm. It might be lovely for Sharma to have escaped the world of politics, but of course, if she wins the seat, this will leave a woman dealing with it. Remember Joan Kirner accepting the poisoned chalice of the premier's position after the State Bank fiasco? Remember how Julia Gillard was treated? Thank goodness it wasn't a man having to deal with these situations too. Never mind, Phelps' will soon lose her joy. Shame on you Andrew.

Anna Summerfield | 25 October 2018  

As you have said in your article, Andrew, I think the Wentworth result was a shot in the arm for the politics for social justice and the environment. These are the issues that have become very important to progressives in Australia and around the world for very obvious reasons. I am very pleased that Dave Sharma will not have ti enter the hurley burley of political office because I know he is not as dedicated to the politics of social justice, human rights and the environments as Kerry Phelps. It is to be hoped that she will take a stand to stop our current government from shifting the Australian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This aping of Trump's actions will not help to bring peace to the ME - it will cause the opposite. Let us hope that in the 2019 elections, so many other ultra conservative politicians in Australia will be replaced by candidates dedicated to make positive changes for Australians in need and humanity and the world at large.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 22 November 2018  

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