High-profile independent Kerryn Phelps has backflipped on preferences in the upcoming Wentworth byelection in a bid to shut down attacks that she is a Labor stooge.
In comical scenes, Dr Phelps gatecrashed a planned press conference by Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Liberal candidate Dave Sharma at a Double Bay cafe on Friday morning to announce she would preference Mr Sharma ahead of Labor’s Tim Murray on her how-to-vote cards.
While Mr Sharma had been waiting at the cafe – which incidentally was just a few hundred metres from Dr Phelps’ surgery – Mr Morrison scrapped the visit at the last minute.
Dr Phelps’ preferences decision was a reversal of her stance on Sunday when she announced her candidacy for Malcolm Turnbull’s old seat and urged voters to put the Liberals last.
“My view is that I will be putting out how to vote cards because with so many people running as candidates, I think people need some kind of guidance of how to vote,” she said.
AFR Weekend understands Dr Phelps’ campaign hopes the preference decision will help show she is a “safe pair of hands” to Liberal-leaning voters flirting with supporting her. The former Australian Medical Association president has already pledged not to vote against supply bills with her potential victory forcing the Coalition into minority government.
Dr Phelps’ preferences will only become pivotal if she does not finish in the top two candidates. But if Mr Murray is eliminated from the count before Dr Phelps, his preferences could get her over the line.
While Dr Phelps has pitched herself as a local champion for voters frustrated by the antics of the major parties, this image has been dented by the revelation, first reported by The Australian Financial Review, that long-time Labor strategist Darrin Barnett is masterminding her campaign.
PM welcomes Phelps’ preferences
Mr Morrison later appeared at a Catholic primary school with Mr Sharma promoting the announcement of an extra $4.6 billion in funding for non-government schools.
The Prime Minister said “issues” had stopped him from being with Mr Sharma at the cafe, and he wanted the focus of the day’s campaigning to be on school funding. The later press conference also gave him a chance to respond to the re-affirmation of Australia’s AAA credit rating.
“I know all the Labor Party tricks, even when they’re working for ‘independents’… and frankly I’m not going to buy into it,” he said.
“Crashing press conferences, I’m pretty used to it.”
Mr Morrison said while Dr Phelps’ decision to preference Mr Sharma was welcome, “that doesn’t make her a Liberal”.
“The independent Kerryn Phelps is not running to help or support the Liberal Party,” he said.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten branded Mr Morrison as “no show ScoMo” for cancelling his press conference.
While Wentworth has returned nothing but MPs from the Liberal Party and its forerunners, the demise of Mr Turnbull, who had a strong personal following and progressive views shared by many in the Eastern Suburbs electorate, has raised the spectre it could fall.
The byelection will be held on October 20 with at least 11 prospective candidates signalling their intention to run.