Howard Moffat/AUSPICThe new Liberal candidate for Wentworth, Dave Sharma
Australia’s former ambassador to Israel, Dave Sharma, will be the Liberal candidate in the October 20 by-election for Malcolm Turnbull’s former seat of Wentworth, after Liberal party members in the seat ignored Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s choice of a female candidate.
Despite not living in the electorate, Sharma had the backing of both Turnbull and former PM John Howard emerging victorious from the marathon meeting at 1.30am on Friday morning.
Morrison had thrown his support behind Katherine O’Regan, until recently deputy mayor of the local council, in a push to see more women in parliament. Despite being declared the favourite just a day earlier, O’Regan was eliminated early in the ballot between seven candidates.
There were other woman among the seven candidates. Maxime Szramka was the first person eliminated, while Woollahra councillor Mary Lou-Jarvis, consistently polled ahead of O’Regan until she was eliminated in the fifth and penultimate round of voting.
It came down to a three-way contest between former Liberals deputy state director Richard Shields and Peter King, who was the MP for Wentworth before Turnbull defeated him in a preselection ballot.
The previous frontrunner, former Business Council of Australia executive Andrew Bragg, withdrew his candidacy earlier this week saying he wanted to pave the way for more women in parliament.
Bragg reportedly walked away from the contest with encouragement from party officials in Canberra and may be offered a senate seat at the next election. He was also believed to have conducted private polling, which revealed a massive plummet in the Liberal primary vote, from 62% down to 39%, while other polling found a female candidate could life the primary vote by 4%.
The choice of candidate by Liberal members in Sydney’s eastern suburbs is an early blow to the new Prime Minister’s authority.
Morrison congratulated Sharma on Twitter, calling him “a quality guy with extensive experience and capability”.
“The best candidate won. That’s how it should be,” he wrote.
“Of course I want to see more Liberal women in Parliament. But I always want to see the best candidate selected. That’s what members rightly decided last night. Thank you and well done to the selectors and a very big congratulations to Dave.”
Malcolm Turnbull, keeping an eye on proceedings from New York, also offered his congratulations.
Congratulations from Lucy and me to – new Liberal candidate for Wentworth. As a diplomat Dave has represented Australia magnificently overseas, and now if elected will make a great contribution in our national parliament.
— Malcolm Turnbull ()
While Sharma, 42, currently lives on Sydney’s north shore, his experience as Israeli ambassador will stand him in good stead with the strong Jewish community in Wentworth.
Born in Vancouver, Canada, Sharma’s family has Indian heritage and moved to Sydney when he was a toddler and he went to the local public school, Turramurra High School where he topped the HSC in his year.
He went on to study Arts-Law, and briefly medicine, then headed the International Division in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet under Julia Gillard. When Labor appointed him to the ambassadorship in Israel, he was the youngest person to be named an ambassador at age of 37.
He is married, with three children.
But Sharma now faces a strong challenge from Labor’s choice in Wentworth, Tamarama surf club chair and hedge fund manager Tim Murray, who has some high-profile local backing, including from Turnbull’s son, Alex.
The other important factor will be whether City of Sydney deputy mayor and former AMA president Dr Kerryn Phelps will run as an independent, with voter dissatisfaction with Turnbull’s treatment in the previously safe Liberal seat creating the possibility that a tight preference swap between Labor and an Phelps, if she stands, could put in independent in Parliament, ending the Coalition’s one-seat advantage in the lower house.