OPINION: Weird, wealthy Wentworth is not the real Australia – Nick Cater


The below appeared in the Australian Newspaper on 21/10/18

Written By Nick Cater:

A by-election in Sydney’s eastern suburbs is no place to test the national temperature, any more than dipping your toe into a glass of chardonnay at the Bondi Trattoria can tell you if it’s warm enough for a swim.

Wentworth is a land removed from the daily struggles faced by other Australians, a place where rising electricity prices barely touch the hip-pocket nerve, where God’s own airconditioner blows gently off summer waters, and “action” on climate change, by which they mean “subsidies”, boosts the share portfolio.

Few Wentworth residents could tell you the price of petrol, just as few know the full horror of the word “commute”. Four out of five Wentworth workers live less than 10km from the office. In the seats where the tradies live, like Forde on the southern fringe of Brisbane, more than two-thirds of workers endure the tyranny of the long commute.

The Wentworth result looks bad for Scott Morrison, though not quite the catastrophe for which the excitable Saturday night commentators were longing. He could find himself leading a minority government and losing a safe seat to a populist independent. History suggests it will be hard to win back.

Yet the result needs to be kept in perspective, a virtue that was conspicuously lacking in much of the weekend analysis. A loss in Wentworth would be less troubling than the loss of a seats like Longman on Brisbane’s northern fringes, not to mention the failure to regain it earlier this year.

The polling booths the Liberals must win are the ones where you pay for the sausage sizzle with coins, not Amex. The Liberals’ core vote is in lamington land, not cupcake country.

We mean no disrespect to Sydney’s eastern suburbs, but let’s be honest, it is a little bit weird.

Barristers outnumber plumbers by almost two to one in the seat of Wentworth. It is home to 210 surgeons but not a single animal slaughterer. If you live in Wentworth, your meat is boned elsewhere.

The issues that came to the fore in the Wentworth campaign — climate change, social justice, the rights of LGBTIQA+ schoolkids, children on Nauru, the future of the ABC etc — would barely nudge the dial in 90 per cent of the country.

That these things are top of minds in Wentworth reinforces what a happy little land it is.

It’s a place where brows are untroubled by mass immigration, with glorious full employment. The biggest industries are legal and financial services.

Only the foremost of First World problems are discussed around the dinner table. Wentworth has the third highest concentration of university degrees in the country. The average weekly income is more than twice as high as that in Tasmania.

It is an area of relatively settled migration in which nine out of 10 have Australian or European ancestry. Six out of 10 migrants have lived in the country for more than 10 years, compared to less than 40 per cent in other parts of Sydney. The Muslim population is 0.4 per cent.

The issue of refugees and asylum-seekers was rated as the top non-economic issue by only 6 per cent of voters in the 2016 Australian Electoral Study, yet in Wentworth at the weekend we’re asked to believe it was a hot-button issue.

Global warming might swing votes in Wentworth, but just 4 per cent of the national electorate rated it as of prime importance.

Malcolm Turnbull, a republican who paid respects to the symbolic crusades of the day, was in some ways the perfect candidate for this small-L-minded electorate. He increased the Liberal margin from 53 per cent to almost 69 per cent over five elections in which the result in Wentworth was sometimes at odds with the national swing.

To understand why the commentators struggle to understand why Wentworth is different, and why next year’s election won’t be decided in waterside seats adjacent to the CBD, it helps to know where journalists live.

Wentworth is home to 731 of them, the third highest concentration in the country, beaten only by the neighbouring seats of Sydney (962) and Grayndler (837).

If ABC hosts seem more at ease interviewing Kerryn Phelps than, say, George Christensen, it is hardly surprising. More than twice as many journalists live in Phelps’s seat than the total number who live in the five Queensland seats north of Bundaberg.

As if the atmosphere around the Wentworth polling booths wasn’t surreal enough, the Friends of the ABC turned out to distribute how-to-vote cards, embossed with the ABC’s logo.

Candidates were split into three categories: friends, neutrals and enemies.

Phelps, naturally, was on their favoured list together with Labor and the Greens. Bob Katter’s candidate, Robert Callanan, was among the neutrals. The enemies? You’ve guessed it. The Liberal Democrats, the Australian Liberty Alliance, and poor old Dave Sharma for the Liberals. (Memo to the parliamentary committee considering if GetUp should be classed as a political entity by the Australian Electoral Commission: If GetUp deserves to be on the list, so do the Friends of the ABC and, arguably, the ABC itself.)

An absence of self-awareness appears to be a permanent feature of the cultural elite, judging by this gratuitous post-Wentworth advice to the Prime Minister from Peter FitzSimons, a columnist for whom Neutral Bay is the centre of the universe and Wentworth just a ferry ride away: “Get serious on climate change … Treat refugees with humanity … Move the whole soul of your party away from right-wing ideologues, and towards where the bulk of the people are — much closer to the centre.”

One suspects Morrison will be disinclined to take this advice. Whatever the odds against winning a general election, the content and style of his speech on Saturday suggest he’s determined to beat them.

Whether the battle for Wentworth is won or lost, it remains a cultural outlier. Now that the polling is over, the Prime Minister can return to his natural game and his natural constituency.

Nick Cater is executive director of the Menzies Research Centre.

Link to the original article: here