Michael Pascoe: Warning! Warning, Scott Morrison! Voters are paying attention!

The NSW by-elections on Saturday may have far-reaching implications for the federal Liberals, Michael Pascoe writes.

The NSW by-elections on Saturday may have far-reaching implications for the federal Liberals, Michael Pascoe writes. Photo: AAP

It would take an extraordinary mixture of hubris, tin ear and outright stupidity to lose Gladys Berejiklian’s blue-ribbon seat, to blow a 21 per cent margin, negate a supposed Gladys sympathy vote and ignite panic in the Liberal Party.

But that is what the New South Wales branch of the aforementioned party appears to have done.

ABC election analyst Antony Green is guilty of understatement in observing: “This is the result with federal election implications.”

All the usual attempts to claim state by-elections are fought on state matters, not federal, won’t wash.

And there is no comfort for the government in the element of the vote that does look like a local issue – overlooking Ms Berejiklian’s pick, a popular former mayor, a woman, for a conservative white male from a right-wing think tank and former staffer for no less than three Liberal politicians.

The Liberal Party habit of preferring men is a problem well beyond Willoughby.

The reason for federal Liberal panic though is that Willoughby is demonstrating voters in educated “conservative” seats have been paying attention to what has happened or not happened to “their” party.

They don’t like it and are prepared to swing big time to an independent alternative.

Independent candidate for Willoughby Larissa Penn. Photo: AAP

Last Saturday, the independent didn’t even have to be much of a candidate or run a strong campaign.

It was enough not to be Liberal to come from nowhere to getting within a preference flow of winning the seat.

The size of the swing underlines it certainly is not enough anymore for the Liberal Party to simply not be the Labor Party – which is pretty much all Scott Morrison is promising this election.

Meanwhile, Labor has been busily making itself like the Liberal Party on the key issues that went against it at the last election, underlining the “fresh alternative” the community independents are providing.

Unlike Willoughby, there are strong candidates running well-resourced, well-organised, community-backed campaigns in half a dozen federal seats the Liberal Party had considered safe. They no longer are.

If the Liberal Party had pre-selected former Willoughby mayor Gail Giles-Gidney instead of Tim James, Ms Giles-Gidney would be an MP now instead of the count going down to the wire on postal votes over the next few days.

The voters noticed and thought about who the candidate was and what he stood for, not the party brand.

The federal community independents are not just relying on voters continuing to notice and think, they are encouraging them to do so.

North Sydney independent Kylea Tink may have had an effect on the Willoughby result. Photo: AAP

It is not unreasonable to suggest the profile and promotion of the North Sydney federal independent candidate Kylea Tink rubbed off on Larissa Penn, the independent snapping at Mr James’ heels.

The community independents are reminding their electorates that voting for a Liberal member means voting for the policies and performance of Scott Morrison, Barnaby Joyce, Matt Canavan and Peter Dutton, among others.

The four hot buttons are climate, integrity, women and “the Biloela family”.

They are tapping into what Simon Holmes a Court identifies as a belief that our politics are broken – the same old same old won’t do.

As suggested here a week ago – before the Religious Discrimination Bill vote – we can expect a flurry of activity by and statements from threatened Liberal members trying to differentiate themselves from the party they have dutifully supported in (nearly) every vote.

The message from Willoughby is that they have left it a bit late.

The electorate is awake – former rusted-on voters have discovered the wonders of WD-40.

Politics won’t be the same.

(At the time of filing, 34 per cent of the Willoughby votes had been counted with Tim James ahead by 574 votes, 51.7 per cent to 48.3 per cent, with preferences continuing to run in Larissa Penn’s favour.)

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