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Saturday, February 24, 2024

A revolution in Wentworth, a study in teal

A revolution in Wentworth, a study in teal

It looks like a green-blue sky ahead for Allegra Spender as her volunteer base grows. But her Liberal opponent Dave Sharma looks just plain blue

Margot Saville writes

It’s been impossible to buy a plain teal-coloured T-shirt anywhere for days. Organisers for Allegra Spender’s Wentworth bid have scoured websites for more shirts to screen-print and give to volunteers.

With 1165 of them, and more signing up in the final week, the Spender campaign has soaked up much of the available stock. But it is not alone — about half a dozen independent candidates have adopted the retina-searing hue, giving rise to the shorthand description teal independents. Turquoise-blue banners are everywhere.

Dave Sharma, a 46-year-old former diplomat, holds the seat of Wentworth on a margin of 1.2% — about 1200 votes. A Guardian Australia poll yesterday predicted he would lose to Spender on preferences. On a primary vote basis, he had 36% to her 33%. But the Redbridge poll found most of the preferences from Labor (12%) and the Greens (6%) would flow to Spender, pushing her to the front.

Sharma has controversially put the UAP candidate, Natalie Dumer, second on his how-to-vote card; this poll estimated she would pick up 5.3% of the primary vote. But only 30% of the UAP voters who were polled said they would give their preference to Sharma; 30% would give it to Spender and 40% were undecided. Stand by for some very wild voting patterns on Saturday night.

The poll also revealed a very low undecided vote of 4.4%, indicating that most people have made up their minds.

I saw this at two very busy Wentworth pre-poll centres on Saturday, where throngs of voters galloped into the booths. On a sunny day in Paddington and at Bondi’s Waverley Park, most people refused how-to-votes, saying they already knew what to do.

The exception was those stopping to talk to Spender, who spent a couple of hours at both booths. Over the years I’ve stood around many election booths with candidates and the only time I’ve seen such a positive reaction was Maxine McKew’s battle for Bennelong in 2007.

At times Spender had people two to three deep, waiting patiently to talk to her. Sharma was positioned further down the hill with his wife and attracted much less attention — although as the incumbent perhaps people feel they already know what he stands for.

Since an incident at pre-poll last week, when a man got close to Spender and shouted “You’re a bitch!” in her face, the nearest volunteers kept a close watch.

Spender’s volunteer army is extraordinary. Wentworth is the richest electorate in the country and the teals are a mixture of ASX 200 company directors and regular people, all willing to stand around in the rain for hours holding signs and talking to the public. I’ve spotted a selection of Chief Executive Women and several executives of large IT companies standing with local teachers and nurses — united by a common cause. Saturday was the first time I had ever heard a male volunteer exhort voters to: “Vote for a woman and get a woman into Parliament!” It felt like a seismic shift.

In contrast, the Liberal volunteers are overwhelmingly male and skew very young, fuelling the constant rumour that they are Young Liberals bussed in from other areas. What this means is that the Spender volunteers often greet voters (and their dogs) by name, while the Liberal vollies tend to stand around talking to each other rather than interacting with the electors. The wealthy male professionals who are the backbone of the Wentworth Libs are clearly unwilling to don a campaign T-shirt and pound the streets, preferring to make pledges at private dinners in harbourside mansions, including one attended by Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Money talks.

People are desperate to get this election over. According to Antony Green’s election blog, to the end of Monday, May 16, nearly 2.6 million had voted at pre-poll; a massive 607,989 pre-polls were taken on Monday, 200,000 more than on the equivalent day in 2019.

In addition, more than 2.6 million postal vote applications, representing 15.2% of enrolment, have been received, compared with 1.5 million for the same period in 2019. This means it could be a very long night on Saturday, and a result possibly not known for several days.

Green says the AEC is permitted to open pre-poll ballot boxes from 4pm on election day to sort and unfold ballot papers. Counting will start at 6pm.

The Liberal Party has sent letters to Wentworth voters, urging them not to vote for independents “that are not being up-front about their real intention, which is to bring down the Liberal government”. (As opposed to what — invade New Zealand? What else would they be doing?)

“We could end up with a hung Parliament… It would be disastrous for the country.”

Labor has retaliated by producing special stickers of Morrison to put on Sharma’s corflutes, making it look as though Morrison is peeking over the edge of his photo, and the latest amusement, a series of mobile billboards of Morrison and Sharma embracing with the tagline: “HOW GOOD IS DAVE?”

One of the hottest local issues, however, is the fate of local culinary institution, the Indian Home Diner in Paddington, handily located right near the popular Unicorn Hotel. Owner Robert Chowdhury and his team have served marvellously alcohol-absorbing curry naan kebabs until 3am for about a decade. But one spoilsport has complained and Woollahra Council ordered it to shut early, pending further community consultation. Such is the fame of the diner that both Sharma and Spender have been forced to weigh in.

“This is a tragedy. I will fight to restore IHD hours,” Sharma said, after which Spender said: “Even though I haven’t been to the Unicorn in a while, even I know the Indian Home Diner is a national treasure. Let’s save it.”

Neither is commenting on the latest community fight, however, which is a proposal by Woollahra Council to change the name of the Woollahra street on which the Russian embassy is situated to “Ukraine Street”. Although many residents of Fullerton Street are sympathetic to the Ukraine cause, they are less excited about having to change the address on all their correspondence. Resistance is building.

The Russian embassy, which has suffered the double blow of constant street demonstrations and the loss of its street parking permits (Woollahra Council is on a mission), has described the proposal as a “political trend of the day”.

But where do Sharma and Spender stand on this? Are they willing to defy Vladimir Putin and the residents of Fullerton Street to stand up for Ukraine? So far, not a peep.

This article was first published in The Saturday

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