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Wentworth's by-election bellwether



The federal electorate of Wentworth will be the focus of intense scrutiny over the coming weeks, as voters respond to the loss of their long-standing member, Malcolm Turnbull. A by-election looms, and it looks like anything but a sure thing. 

South Head National ParkThat shouldn't come as a shock — much of the widely assumed 'blue ribbon Liberal' status of the seat is due to Turnbull's deep personal connections and high visibility around the electorate. He swims, walks, rides trains and catches ferries with his constituents. He even shops at the local pharmacy — though what he purchased last Tuesday evening remains a mystery to all but the young cashier who served him!

Assumptions are dangerous. Even the descriptor 'blue ribbon' sets up expectations. Wentworth is not so easily categorised. It's a mixed bag. Sure, there are the harbourside mansions behind high walls in Vaucluse and Point Piper — but there are also dense pockets of apartment dwellings in many areas of the seat. There are plenty of 'ordinary Australians', to use another phrase that sets up dangerous expectations.

Here's a snapshot of Wentworth from inside my block of 'ordinary' blonde-brick flats. Half the residents are owners and half rent. Two are teachers — one primary and one secondary. There's a retired couple, and two young families. Three students share digs on the ground floor. There's a gentleman in his 80s living with his adult daughter, who is his full-time carer, and there's a young lawyer and his wife. There are two nurses — one male and one female, from different hospitals. Some of these neighbours hail from Malaysia, Cuba, Africa and the Middle East. Among them are Catholics, Muslims, and Jews — practising and non-practising — along with agnostic me.

This is Wentworth as I know it. It is not an electorate that is easily pinned down. It's also not easily duped.

At the far eastern tip of the Wentworth electorate, a measured war is being waged. It's a microcosm, at State level, of the forces that will come to play in the upcoming Federal by-election. A developer, well known for running mammoth function venues in high-profile locations, is threatening to take over a piece of NSW national park that sits high on Sydney Harbour's southern headland, commanding some of the best views in the land — views for which any 'blue ribbon' stereotype would pay through their refined nostrils. 

But this amazing piece of bushland is already owned — by the people of New South Wales, on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of visitors from all around the world who come to see it every year. They sit in it, watch fireworks from it, picnic in it, and walk through it, listening to birdsong and snapping selfies.


"If governments truly make decisions for the people, and not for their own ends, this development proposal is a test for both state and federal politicians."


The fight against the Dockside Group's proposal to create a function venue in the South Head National Park has mobilised a very Wentworth mix of politics and demographics — and in last week's Reachtel poll about pressing issues in the upcoming by-election, 67.5 per cent of the 886 voters surveyed said they were against the proposal. That might be an indicator of the values of constituents — fair play and openness about process are currently running high in people's minds.

To hand over a piece of national parkland in an iconic place of Indigenous and white history — Captain Phillips' first landing place in Sydney harbour — to one commercial company on a forty-year lease would be dodgy at best. To do so without proper community consultation — and in this instance, the community extends far beyond local residents — begs many questions about due process, private/government alliances, and the value systems of those who proposing the venture. These are the same questions being asked as events in Canberra move from 'spill' to 'coup,' to 'nanny state.'

If governments truly make decisions for the people, and not for their own ends, this development proposal is a test for both state and federal politicians. There's no argument being put, from any quarter, against the idea of a suitable development in that parkland. The site is crying out for a visitor centre of some kind — but the tourists coming to experience South Head's natural beauty won't be served by a private function centre. They seek wildlife, not wild partygoers.

Why have guidelines if they are to be flouted? Why speak of a common good, if a privileged few can make fortunes at the expense of our heritage? Who values what, on South Head, in Wentworth, and in our nation's capital? What are the values by which we are to live and be judged?

Wentworth will make its choices, but it is a different place after this latest leadership change. Its voters are watching, and will be voting with values very high in their minds.



Ailsa Piper headshotAilsa Piper is a writer, director, performer, teacher and speaker. She was co-winner of the Patrick White Playwright's Award in 2001 for her script Small Mercies, and her first book, Sinning Across Spain, was published in 2012. An updated edition was released in 2017. The Attachment: Letters From A Most Unlikely Friendship, co-written with Tony Doherty, was also published in 2017.

Topic tags: Ailsa Piper, Wentworth, Malcolm Turnbull



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Existing comments

Thanks Ailsa! I agree "Wentworth will make its choices, but it is a different place after this latest leadership change. Its voters are watching, and will be voting with values very high in their minds." But one value that the major parties all agree on is accepting large donations, a value that undermines our democracy. I notice the Greens are keen to change this value. If you value democracy, seriously consider voting Green!

Grant Allen | 06 September 2018  

Not sure whether the Libs will lose Wentworth in the byelection but would be very sure that the Libs will lose the NSW State election next year. It is dubious that we have ever seen such a dictatorial government in this country as the current Lib State government, seduced by the money of developers and listening only to lobbyists rather than the people they are supposed to represent. The State government, not the Federal government, is the threat to the South Head and it will be unjust and idiotic if the voting public gifts the Federal Lib seat to the Shorten mob or the Greens in the belief that such a result will deter the State Libs who make Abbott's wrecking ball look like a half-filled balloon. The State Libs will be "good riddance" in NSW!!

john frawley | 06 September 2018  

Perhaps there's a silver lining to the recent cloud of sickening vapourings from Canberra. If Ailsa is right, and the people of Wentworth are becoming more aware of their own values and standards, it's a sign of hope for the rest of us. Powerful critique based on values and rational analysis? Doesn't that sound good!

Joan Seymour | 06 September 2018  

I think most voters can see the difference between Federal and State politics. But sometimes, especially in a by-election, voters can send messages to different Governments. One message might go to Macquarie Street about developers in the Electorate. Another message might go to Canberra about how the community thinks the Liberal Party treated their local MP. Malcolm as PM was a disappointment, but was he really that much worse than his replacement, or potential replacement? Of course any outcome other than a Liberal win could have serious consequences for a Federal Government with a one seat majority, so voters who want to send a very strong message may well vote for “the Shorten mob” (you can call it the Labor Party John F without being disrespectful) or the Greens or even an independent. This may be more likely if the Libs put up a conservative candidate. A more liberal Liberal in the Turnbull image might be more acceptable, but where will you find a centrist, pro-republican, socially progressive, economically responsible candidate in the Liberal Party these days?

Brett | 07 September 2018  

To answer your question, Brett. 'Not in the current "Abbott and ilk mob".' The disrespect has been well earned on both sides !!

john frawley | 07 September 2018  

Great piece, thank you. I hope Labor candidate - in with a real chance as Ailsa suggests - will get on board the South Head issue quickly . It matters.

Tony Kevin | 08 September 2018  

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