By Paul Paech
If all politics is local, then the streets of Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs are where the direction of Australia’s political destiny will be decided.
The ugly machinations around the exit from politics of Prime Minister and Member for Wentworth Malcolm Turnbull have created a showdown between a disciplined ALP and the chaotic Liberal Party in Canberra.
But it’s possibly much more than that.
With some commentators forecasting the electoral death of the modern Liberal party, the up-coming Wentworth by-election could be the canary in that party’s fetid mine.
Although both parties have rolled political heads a few times recently, not one Liberal (apart from the too-good-to-be true Julie Bishop) has come out of this recent mess with a clean face.
Over the last few years, voters living in Wentworth’s leafy harbour and beachside streets have experienced Liberal governments at federal, state and local levels.
These residents are in a pretty good position to judge whether the Liberal Party is actually doing a good job of governing where it matters – and that’s not on the screen or in the opinion polls, but in the real life home-grown on-the-ground place they call home.
The saga of the Bondi Pavilion in the Waverley part of the Wentworth electorate is the perfect micro example of what happens at the Federal level.
You will probably remember the God-almighty battle between former Mayor Sally Betts and, well, almost everyone else over her ambitious $42 million proposal to glitz up the beloved Pavilion to better attract the consumer tourist dollar.
Within days of replacing Betts as Mayor in September 2017, the ALP’s John Wakefield was already setting up a Bondi Pavilion Stakeholder Group.
Over the next few months, he personally chaired more than sixty intense hours of discussion and debate that distilled the Pav’s many complex issues into a single report, which became the brief to the architect, and just now the concept design is being readied for community feedback.
The newly released concept is a simple evolutionary proposal that shows respect for the building and its many cultural and community activities.
There’s an extensive improvement in the amount and the quality of community space, while the theatre (which the ABC’s Simon Marney recently called “one of the best performance spaces in Australia”) will be completely refitted.
Betts wanted to get rid of the first-floor theatre to make way for high-end commercial uses: fine dining while you gaze out over the beach.
Her unloved proposal was a last ditch effort to halt the steady deterioration which occurred under Betts’ seven-year reign.
When Betts’ plan went to the community, it generated more than 700 letters of objection and only a handful in favour, which Betts conveniently ignored.
Wakefield’s proposal ticks most – if not all – of the community’s boxes, quite a significant achievement.
But that’s not the end of the Liberal/ALP comparison here: Wakefield’s Pav proposal is just one of more than a dozen initiatives currently under development for Bondi and its beach.
Among these are three new amenities facilities along the beachfront, a major water cleaning and recycling proposal for the north end of the beach, rebuilding the retaining wall along the kiddies’ pool, and many more.
These are the kind of nurturing maintenance works that Betts ignored, choosing instead high-impact and high-price projects that were ill-conceived and not wanted by the community.
And if that approach sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the same way that state Liberals have arrived at nonsense projects like WestConnex and the light rail: poorly considered and poorly executed ideas that promise much but end up delivering massive inconvenience and destruction, at great expense.
The Liberal brand is also seriously on the nose in neighbouring Woollahra – the heartland of Turnbull’s Wentworth – thanks to the almost successful direction from Macquarie Street to abolish local councils.
No surprise that local member for Vaucluse, Gabriel Upton, has been the focus of residents’ anger.
Currently, she’s refusing to listen to arguments against commercial leases over state parks at Watsons Bay for large scale wedding and function rooms.
All these are projects announced from on high by consultants who apparently know better than residents about what’s needed.
The fact is that lots of Liberal voters have been just as appalled by the unholy mess that their party has created in their own back yards as they have by the recent blood-letting, arrogant bullying and sheer deceit in Canberra.
It’s not just the infighting that’s the problem though.
Today the Liberal Party looks less about competent government than it does an out-of-touch rogues’ gallery of, frankly, quite awful people.
Abbott has become quite repulsive, clearly tortured and twisted inside.
But even here there are some pleasures: who should get the job of taming the Liberal monsters, chairing the committee to decide which hapless candidate will try to fill Turnbull’s sizeable shoes in Wentworth?
Why, only that most toxic of all Liberal power-brokers, Waverley’s own Sally Betts.
With any luck, this impossible task of managing post-Turnbull Wentworth will prove to be her Waterloo.