The spectre of Malcolm Turnbull is hanging over the Wentworth by-election. Pic: AAP
The spectre of Malcolm Turnbull is hanging over the Wentworth by-election. Pic: AAP

Wentworth by-election: Malcolm Turnbull haunts liberals

MALCOLM Turnbull might be gone, but he is far from forgotten.

The former prime minister has been conspicuously quiet in the lead-up to today's Wentworth by-election, which will determine who fills his vacated seat in parliament.

He has reportedly refused increasingly desperate pleas for help from senior members of the government, including Prime Minister Scott Morrison, arguing his intervention in the campaign would be a distraction that would hurt Liberal candidate Dave Sharma.

The cruel truth is, he is a distraction anyway.

The spectre of Mr Turnbull, and what his party did to get rid of him, is haunting the government endlessly as it struggles to defend its one-seat majority in parliament.

Liberal candidate Dave Sharma. Pic: AAP
Liberal candidate Dave Sharma. Pic: AAP

Should independent Kerryn Phelps beat Mr Sharma, Mr Morrison will be forced to rely on support from the crossbench to stay in power.

And as Wentworth votes today, her chances look good. Internal Liberal Party polling leaked to the media this week showed Dr Phelps with a commanding 55-45 lead. Yesterday Liberal sources told Fairfax Media they needed a "miracle" to hold on to the seat.

There may well be an element of strategy involved. By creating the impression Mr Sharma is an underdog, they undoubtedly hope to drive more Liberal voters to the polls.

But a nightmarish week has given Dr Phelps plenty of very real momentum.

It all started with the government supporting Pauline Hanson's "It's OK to be white" motion in the Senate, which left it scrambling to deny accusations of racism.

The Coalition backflipped and claimed an "administrative process failure" had led it to vote in favour of the motion by mistake, but the damage was already done, as Labor and the Greens accused it of endorsing "the words used by white supremacists and neo-Nazis".

RELATED: The sinister origins of 'It's OK to be white'

Then, later in the week, an ugly email was circulated to voters in Wentworth falsely claiming Dr Phelps had pulled out of the race because she had HIV.

"It's just vile and despicable, and I was shocked and appalled. Not just for the dishonesty and the smears involved but for the stigma put around people with HIV," Mr Sharma said of the email.

There was no suggestion he or the Liberal Party had been involved in its distribution.

Defeat in Wentworth would represent a disastrous humiliation for the government, given it is supposed to be the safest of safe seats. Mr Turnbull held it with a two-party majority of almost 18 per cent.

Dr Phelps has ruthlessly capitalised on voters' anger over the former PM's knifing, repeatedly hammering the Liberals on that point.

"A prime minister in the middle of his term was removed from office for no rational reason," has been one of her more frequent lines.

Meanwhile, the Liberals are trying to run on a platform of stability, which is ironic at best and a monumental blunder at worst, given the by-election is only happening because their instability brought Mr Turnbull down.

"This is a very important by-election. The lead independent candidate Kerryn Phelps on multiple occasions couldn't even say she'd support a confidence motion. That can throw the entire government into a lot of uncertainty," Mr Morrison told Channel 7 yesterday.

"I know there has been a lot of instability and uncertainty but voting for an independent will only make that worse."

RELATED: Kerryn Phelps could bring down the government

The government is clearly painfully aware of the harm its own leadership dramas have done to its chances. It is publicly admitting as much.

"I understand you're angry. I was there when it was happening, supporting the then-prime minister when they were seeking to take him down. What I'm telling you is this candidate for Wentworth will be as good as the last one. He's the same calibre," Mr Morrison said.

Former prime minister John Howard, who was brought in to campaign alongside Mr Sharma late in the week, struck a similar note.

"I want to say to any normal Liberal voters in Wentworth who may be a bit grumpy at the present time, who may feel a bit disillusioned, you cannot risk a protest vote," Mr Howard said.

"A lot of people here are sad that (Mr Turnbull) is no longer the member and prime minister, but others will take a view projecting forward. They'll say we're unhappy about that, but we're a lot more unhappy about the thought of a Shorten government."

Nationals MP Darren Chester wasn't quite so optimistic.

"I think we're about to get a real-life opinion poll on what Australians think of political parties that undermine their leaders and change leaders midstream," he told ABC radio.

Alex Turnbull, son of former PM Malcolm Turnbull, released a video on YouTube where he declared voters should not vote Liberal. Pic: YouTube
Alex Turnbull, son of former PM Malcolm Turnbull, released a video on YouTube where he declared voters should not vote Liberal. Pic: YouTube

Mr Turnbull's near silence - he has sent just one tweet in support of Mr Sharma, back when he first became the Liberals' candidate - has not been matched by his son, Alex Turnbull.

Turnbull junior, 36, has been publicly urging voters in Wentworth to send the Liberal Party a message by voting against it.

Speaking to Triple J radio earlier this week, Alex launched another scathing attack on the party's right wing, saying a big part of his father's record was "fighting the good fight against the crazies".

Asked to whom he was referring, he proceeded to list the top five "crazy" MPs and senators by name, with Tony Abbott in first place. He described Mr Abbott as "a singularly destructive human being".

RELATED: Alex Turnbull names and shames Liberal 'crazies'

Alex appeared to have some sympathy for Mr Morrison, saying he suffered from "the same problem my dad had".

"He's got some very, very crazy people to deal with who are not particularly rational political actors," he said.

"Being the leader of the Liberal Party and being sane is like being Bruce Willis in a Die Hard movie. It's always crazy and bad but hopefully you come out and get some stuff done."

He said his intervention in the by-election campaign had nothing to do with his father, who did not approve of his stance but was "dealing with it".

"He's out of office, I'm a private citizen, we can both do as we please," Alex told the ABC on Monday, insisting he was "absolutely not" doing Mr Turnbull's dirty work.

Meanwhile, on Thursday, Mr Turnbull himself mysteriously liked a tweet expressing support for Dr Phelps.

"Back handing out policy info and how-to-vote cards for Kerryn Phelps at Waverley Oval pre-polling station. No longer wondering 'Where's Malcolm?' Just hoping for a strong independent win on Saturday," the tweet from a campaign volunteer said.

A photo of a cardboard cutout of Mr Turnbull, asking 'Where's Malcolm?', accompanied it.

The like was undone within minutes, and no longer appears on Mr Turnbull's feed.

He returns to Australia on Monday, having extended his trip abroad until after the by-election weekend.

His absence will be noticed.