John Moyle speaks with Allegra Spender, candidate for the Division for Wentworth, who hopes to oust Liberal member Dave Sharma and return the seat to independent hands.
This coming federal election, all eyes will once again be on the electoral district of Wentworth in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs, one of the smallest but most demographically diverse seats in federal parliament.
Since federation it was considered a safe seat for conservatives until the 2018 October by-election following the resignation of Malcolm Turnbull, which saw independent Kerryn Phelps sweep in, only to lose the seat to Liberal Dave Sharma in the May 2019 federal election.
Now, in the 2022 election, Allegra Spender, another high profile independent candidate, is hoping the Morrison Government’s dysfunction on multiple levels and her campaign run on urgent issues such as climate change, transparency and accountability, will once again see this blue ribbon Liberal enclave return to independent hands.
“I feel the current Liberal Party is out of touch with what is important to the voters of Wentworth,” Spender tells the Sentinel.
“When I look at people I know here and have met since declaring my candidacy, they feel that the government is out of touch with the socially progressive values of Wentworth and the environment, as well as some of the other economic and forward looking aspects of the Liberal Party.”
When Spender first put her hand up as an independent candidate for Wentworth, it came as something of as shock to the well heeled of the Eastern Suburbs, as she is a genuine third generation blue blood. Her grandfather Percy Spender was a politician for the United Australia Party (UAP) under Menzies and later became the fifth Australian ambassador to the United States.
The UAP was the forerunner of the Liberal Party and has no connection with the claims of the anti-vaxxer mining magnate from Queensland who has highjacked the name.
In Wentworth, Allegra Spender is well known; the daughter of the late fashion icon Carla Zampatti and John Spender, who served as shadow foreign minister under John Howard in 1987 and later as Australia’s ambassador to France.
That Spender would give up her role as CEO of the Australian Business and Community Network, and overturn the family’s more than 80-year devotion to the Liberal Party, says a lot about the air of dissatisfaction surrounding the Morrison Government, even among Liberal voters.
“The great thing about Allegra Spender is that it is OK for a Liberal voter to vote for her as she is one of them, and I think that a successful independent in this area is a fairly critical element,” local Waverley councillor Tim Murray says.
A Labor councillor, Murray was also the ALP candidate for Wentworth in the 2018 by-election and the 2019 federal election, where he polled 36,038 votes against Dave Sharma’s 53,716 votes on a two-party preferred result.
Independent pollster Dr Raphaella Crosby from KORE Poll says unless the government really screws up before the next election (we know there is every chance of that) her latest polling indicated Sharma would be returned.
In a survey conducted online from 12 to 17 January, on a first preference basis Spender was polling at 32 per cent, with Sharma at 36 per cent.
“The seat is too close to call, but voters usually swing back to the incumbent as the election nears, and naming the ALP candidate will shake numbers up a bit,” Crosby says.
KORE places Labor at 19 per cent on first preferences, which could be adjusted depending on the chosen candidate.
Like Phelps in the 2018 by-election and 2019 election, Spender sees climate change as the big issue for the electorate and the nation, and is critical of the lack of action the incumbent Sharma has shown in this area.
“I do not think that we have the moderate Liberal government that Sharma thought he was enlisting in and there has been a significant failure by Sharma on climate change,” Spender says.
“Sharma and other moderates say that they care about these issues but they are not willing to really stand up and be counted in ways that may be damaging to their careers.
“They could have also voted [for the federal] ICAC bill but they didn’t cross the floor and cause a debate on this issue.”
Spender is also wary of the role of Barnaby Joyce and the troglodyte members of the Nationals who make sure the government toes their ultra-conservative line.
“Look at Barnaby Joyce and that space and you get to see who determines what the outcome is. It is not the moderate Liberals, it is the Nationals, and you have to wonder why the government is listening to the Nationals and not the moderate Liberals,” Spender said.
“What I am concerned about is that they (the moderates) are not able to influence their own party and they’re not willing to do so in an effective way.”
Shaping up as an important factor in the upcoming election is the number of independent female candidates fielding for seats across the country.
Climate 200 is a group of business and former political party individuals from both sides dedicated to seeing reform for climate change and accountability across the federal election.
The group raises money from donations to spread across credible independent candidates and groups, who may be eligible for amounts varying from $10,000 to $100,000 in support.
“There are around 30 groups across the country seeking support … all of the ones who have received support so far have been women with the exception David Pocock in the ACT,” a Climate 200 spokesperson says.
Spender welcomes the increasing role of female candidates, citing examples of outstanding women politicians in recent times.
“Look at Cathy McGowan, Zali Steggall, Helen Haines and it shows that you can have an important voice as an independent and this is a way of making a difference that has excited,” she says.
“It’s been a really turgent three years, when you look at climate change, when you look at the scandals and we don’t have time to waste on another cycle of spin.”
Taking on board local Wentworth issues can’t hurt any candidate and for Spender it is the need for another high school in the electorate that is at the top of her list.
“The public high school is important, as are the circumstances with refugees and getting back to the basics about health care, and with Covid, they are worried about the economy in the immediate and long term,” Spender says.
Spender is not underestimating the fight she will have for Wentworth, but if family legacy and her own abilities are worth anything, she just might succeed, on her own terms.
“I am not going to do preferences so I am not going to tell the people of Wentworth how to vote, except to vote for me as number one.”
John Moyle is the associate editor and special writer for the Sydney Sentinel.
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