Battle for ex-PM’s seat takes dirty turn
THE battle for the prime ministerial seat of Wentworth, which will decide whether the Coalition still holds majority government, has descended into the gutter, with dodgy push-polling exposed and a sickening rape threat against high-profile candidate Kerryn Phelps.
A woman interviewed by a hugely influential poll that was circulated to claim Professor Phelps' vote was collapsing has signed a sworn statement saying it was blatant push-polling and that she did not even live in the electorate.
And in a separate matter, news.com.au has discovered that Prof Phelps has been subjected to a chilling rape threat that is now being investigated by police.
The anonymous male caller left a cryptic voicemail message on the phone of a senior Phelps aide referring to the rape of a female politician.
The questionable poll was conducted by an outfit called uComms and appears to be the same as one commissioned by independent candidate Licia Heath that is one of the most widely quoted of the campaign.
The poll results were extremely damaging for Prof Phelps - appearing to suggest support for her had collapsed due to her decision to preference the Liberals over Labor. They were leaked to The Guardian, which ran a story beginning thus: "Exclusive: Liberals leading 51 per cent to 49 per cent on two-party-preferred basis in poll which also shows Kerryn Phelps damaged by preferencing decision".
It was picked up and run by multiple other media outlets as a "ReachTEL/uComms" poll. However, the better-known ReachTEL told news.com.au the poll was conducted entirely by uComms and merely used ReachTEL's robocalling platform.
News.com.au has obtained a statutory declaration from a voter who was rung not once but twice by the automated pollster even though she does not live in the electorate and has never lived in the electorate.
The statement also says she believed she was being push-polled because the automated "questions" in fact told her that Phelps was preferencing the Liberal Party and asked if that would change her mind about voting for the high-profile GP.
News.com.au has confirmed the person's identity and address - which is over 10 kilometres away from the eastern Sydney seat and on the opposite side of the city - but has chosen not to identify her for privacy reasons.
It is understood the Phelps campaign has now lodged a formal complaint with the Australian Electoral Commission. There is no suggestion that the Heath campaign was aware of the flaws in the poll's methodology.
Ms Heath's campaign manager Claudia Bowman said they believed that any false results or non-eligible voters would be struck out of the poll results however a uComms spokesman said this was merely incorporated into the margin of error.
The signed and notarised statutory declaration states:
"It felt like push-polling because the question was 'Did you know Kerryn Phelps is going to preference the Liberals?' and then 'Would this change your mind about voting for her?' …
"I remember saying to my husband it felt like push-polling because they were trying to convey information about Kerryn Phelps.
"But the weirdest thing is that I don't even live in the electorate of Wentworth. I live more than 10 kilometres away. And I've never lived in Wentworth and can't vote there."
The woman said the following week she was called again by the same pollster but hung up. uComms said it was unable to explain how this would happen without knowing the voter's identity.
Push-polling is when a so-called "pollster" attempts to push a candidate's key messages and influence voters under the guise of ascertaining their voting intentions. It is not illegal but highly criticised.
In the case of this poll the two relevant questions were: "Independent Kerryn Phelps has indicated she is directing preferences through to the Liberal Party. Does this make you more or less likely to vote for Kerryn Phelps?"
And: "Independent Licia Heath has lead (sic) the campaign for a new public high school for the eastern suburbs. Does this make you more or less likely to vote for her?"
One Phelps campaign strategist said: "If that's not push-polling I don't know what is." However, the results have been widely reported without question until now.
Meanwhile, in an entirely separate matter, police have been called in to investigate what appears to be a disturbing rape threat directed towards Prof Phelps.
A voicemail message left on a Phelps adviser's mobile phone at 6.47am on Tuesday consisted solely of a brief clip of a news report quoting an overseas politician saying a colleague wasn't even worth raping.
The message, which has been heard by news.com.au, seems to allude to infamous comments made by a Brazilian congressman who said a female critic of his was so ugly she did not even deserve to be raped.
After the Phelps incident was reported to police that day the staffer received another message from the same number late on Tuesday night, this time a man's voice offering a torrent of profane abuse.
This has also been heard by news.com.au however we have chosen not to publish the exact words of the alleged threat or abuse nor identify the campaign staffer involved for the sake of their personal wellbeing.
It is understood that police are investigating the matter.
There is no suggestion whatsoever that any other candidate had any role in the threat.
- Joe Hildebrand co-hosts Studio 10, 8.30am weekdays, on Network Ten and is editor-at-large for news.com.au. Continue the conversation on Twitter @Joe_Hildebrand.