Saturday’s Wentworth by-election saw the Scott Morrison Coalition government lose its parliamentary majority of one seat, and it was the biggest defeat in a by-election in Australian history, by more than 20 percent on the primary vote.
As inglorious as this is, this is not the most important part of what hapenned at Wentworth. Far more meaningful, are the reasons why and the lessons that this brings.
One of them is the shoddy way in which former member and prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, had been treated by the rival faction within his own party. Another is he antipathy to Scott Morrison who replaced him. But even this does not explain it all. Many politicians and political commentators are already turning away from exploring this. They do not ant to face the truth, and prefer to stick to the trivialities.
Independent Kerryn Phelps was victorious because people were looking for something different than the general run of the mill politicians that they have come to loathe. It is an Attitude that is deepening around Australia, and it is significant that this has made a mark in Wentworth. Although Phelps already had a local profile, the surge of support for her was because, she was seen as representing a more humane form of politics.
This is one of the most silver spoon neighbourhoods in the country, making it a natural support base for the Liberal Party. and this is exactly what it has been. Until now. No longer. The change has come about, because there is a growing sense of crisis at the big end of town, and this is driving a fault line between two alternative views on how to proceed into the future.
One is, to protect wealth and privilege, through increasing use of an iron fist. Slash tax for the top end, massively expand corporate welfare and handouts; raise the proportion on government expenditure devoted to services to the elite, and cut out the rest; lift the level of exploitation of labour by keeping the wage share down and lifting the pace of work; restrict civil liberties and institute a drive for law and order to keep the population in its allotted place.
Opposing this, are those who see danger in it, and turn towards a more inclusive and fairer Australia. Some of this is driven by a sense of a fair go. There is also a belief that going too far the other way, risks the bulk of Australia demanding much more extensive change, and this would pose a greater risk to wealth and privilege.
The division is fierce. it has entered both the Liberal and National parties, and is the main reason why Malcolm Turnbull was dumped. And Wentworth has seen the continuation of the battle.
As important as this division is, it is still only a part of the story.
Wentworth served as both a litmus test and microcosm of what is going on across the nation, proving that the developing mood is rising to a new level. People feel that Australia cannot continue to go down the same track. There may not yet be clarity about where to go, but the mood for change is here, and the political centre is beginning to drop out, as Australia polarises.
This is not only a matter for the Coalition. It is also something that the Labor Party must contend with. Its vote went down in Wentworth. Nor were the Greens able to increase their support. Labor may still be on track to win the federal election next year, due to the Coalition being so despised. But if it fails to stand for and deliver something substantially different, it will soon be plagued by the same rot. Time will tell.
Although Australians want change, the question is, what kind of change are we going to get? It can go in one of two opposite directions. A major political battle is looming on the horizon. That side which is best prepared will make headway. There is danger in it. There is also opportunity.
The forces for the iron fist are busy organising behind the scenes, infiltrating political parties, are well healed and are supported by the biggest media monopoly in the country. They pose as defenders of Australia, the family and Australian values. This is used to manipulate insecurity, fear of the future, economic slide, loss of faith in the future and anger within a section of the population, to build a kind of populism based on divide and rule.
Australia’s union movement are taking a lead. But it is not enough to go it alone. There is an emerging new union/community alliance, which has not nearly reached its potential. There is still a long way to go. For now, there is a focus on getting Labor into government or increase the representation of the Greens. In Victoria, there is a small movement of socialists trying to get some representation in parliament.
All this is very well. But the biggest and longer-term need, is to build unity against a common enemy, not only in words, but as force that is more extensive and better organised than the other side. Standing in the way is political sectarianism.
The reality is that we are all in this together. Building unity requires clear agreement on some basic matters like the need to combat the greed of a few and make Australia more equal, more inclusive; to build a truly humane and democratic nation; to take care of the future through the protection of the environment and building a sustainable economy: To do this on the foundation of building the political voice and power of the majority.