A definitive result in the Wentworth byelection on Saturday may not be known for a few more days yet but several things about politics in Australia are already evident.
It is more than likely that independent Professor Kerryn Phelps will be victorious in the blue-ribbon Liberal seat. The swing against the government, in the vicinity of 20%, is substantial and historic and cannot be readily dismissed.
On Saturday evening a result was called too early causing the Liberal candidate Dave Sharma to concede defeat alongside the Prime Minister Scott Morrison and the deputy leader of the Liberal party Josh Frydenberg. The putative member for Wentworth Phelps gave a rousing victory speech.
“We have made history tonight. This is a great moment for Australian democracy.”
Just a few months ago the idea of the Liberal party losing the seat of Wentworth was unfathomable. A leadership spill obviously threw that into play and certainly some of Phelps’ electoral success was sparked by anger at the treatment of the highly popular local member and former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
But the dramatic swing against the government and Phelps’ appeal is bigger than just local discontent. Turnbull’s ousting was orchestrated by conservative forces in the Liberal party – a group of MPs determined to take Australia, and the government, in a direction Australians don’t like. The hammering the government received in Wentworth – even if Phelps isn’t to win the seat – makes that clear.
If Wentworth is a guide it’s clear that decency, compassion, integrity and common sense do matter to many Australian voters: politicians can ignore this at their peril.
The Wentworth by-election was, in many respects, a David and Goliath battle in which David rather miraculously either won or came incredibly close to winning.
In a tight timeframe from virtually a standing start, an Independent female candidate took on the government, in the bluest of electorates, campaigned on a platform of humanity and decency, and has come within a whisker of winning the seat.
It breathes an unexpected wave of hope into Australian politics that perhaps things don’t have to be the way they are. That change is perhaps possible, and that perhaps, the moment is ripe for that change to be led by women.
Phelps herself captured this in her premature victory speech when she said: “any young people, any women, any aspiring Independents out there – if you are thinking of running for parliament or running for public office: yes, it can be tough, yes, the road can be hard, but it is so worthwhile that we have the right people stepping up to represent Australia.”
It seems Phelps’ likely victory was enough to prompt author and commentator Jane Caro to seriously consider a tilt at the seat of Warringah, which the former PM Tony Abbott has held for two and a half decades.
How many other intelligent, civic-minded Australian women might consider stepping up after watching the likely result achieved by Kerryn Phelps?
If a 20% swing was possible in the seat of Wentworth, it isn’t difficult to imagine that change is possible elsewhere.
Women for Election board member, Coleen MacKinnon, says there is a growing unwillingness among women to stay on the sidelines.
“It’s been a confluence of events that is certainly encouraging more women to consider running at least,” MacKinnon says. “They’re not necessarily running out the door immediately because there are definitely obstacles but the Libspill and the stories about bullying of women has created a real sense that ‘we can’t sit back and let this continue’.”
MacKinnon points to Phelps’ success in Wentworth and Jane Caro’s interest in Warringah as evidence of this.
As an advocate for greater representation of women in parliament MacKinnon says it’s absolutely critical that voters understand having more women in politics isn’t just an issue of doing the “right” thing. Global research from the National Democratic Institute makes clear the positive impact of having more women in politics.
“Evidence shows that women work across party lines better, that they work in a less hierarchical and more collaborative way and are more responsive to constituent concerns,” MacKinnon says. “It’s very similar to research in the corporate world but the corporate world is 10 years further ahead than parliament.”
The fact evidence suggests female politicians forge greater citizen confidence in democracy is particularly valuable right now.
“People are so turned off from politics at the moment that they want to disengage” MacKinnon says.
In response to the news that Jane Caro would consider running for political office former politician Tony Windsor offered his support, and noted that the world is run by those who turn up.
I’m hearing you are running in Warringha @JaneCaro .Is that true ? If so I would be honoured to help in any way if it was useful in some way . I really hope you do run.
THE WORLD IS RUN BY THOSE WHO TURN UP.
— Tony Windsor (@TonyHWindsor) October 20, 2018
In America women are running for office in record numbers, triggered partly by the discontent with US President Donald Trump and it’s increasingly likely this pattern will be repeated here. And we are here for it.