Dave Sharma: is Wentworth's ‘modern Liberal’ a hawk on Iran?

Dave Sharma, the newly elected member for Wentworth in Sydney’s east, will be one of the faces to watch when he takes his seat among the backbench of the re-elected Morrison government.

Already a hero for reclaiming the crown jewel of Wentworth for the Liberals after a brief tenure for independent Kerryn Phelps, Sharma has a CV that makes him a likely future minister, perhaps even a prime minister down the track.

A former dux of his school and the youngest ambassador ever appointed by Australia – he was just 37 when he presented his credentials in Israel – Sharma exudes a kind of laidback calm and competence.

He tells Guardian Australia he is certainly not in hurry to become a minister. The first step, he says, is to learn the rules of parliament while also making sure he builds on the 1.8% margin that gave him his seat and the Coalition a clear majority.

But perhaps his constituents will be hoping that Sharma can become influential sooner rather than later.

Sharma ran on a slogan of “a modern Liberal” and his constituents, who ranked climate change action as an urgent priority, are hoping he can shift the thinking of his party towards a more ambitious stance.

Sharma, however, insists that disappointment in the Liberals’ policy on climate is more an issue of communication than substance.

“I support responsible action on climate change, I support our policy, ” he told Guardian Australia. He says he backs the Liberals’ approach of reducing Australia’s emissions by 26% to 28% by 2030, though the Direct Action fund will provide subsidies to emitters to reduce their carbon outputs and specific investments in projects such as Snowy 2.0.

“I think we need to communicate our policies better, to explain how they will reduce emissions,” he says.

Sharma, with deep experience in the diplomatic corps, is also likely to involve himself early in Australia’s international relations through parliamentary committees and behind the scenes input.

He warns that Australia’s place in the world won’t be so easy to manage as it has been in the last 70 years “because the world has become a much less predictable”.

But he rejects the idea that Australia will be forced into some sort of balancing act between the US, Australia’s major alliance partner, and China, the major trade partner.

Instead, he says Australia’s role will be to ensure that both allies remain within the “rules based order”.

Kerryn Phelps after conceding defeat to Dave Sharma in Double Bay

Kerryn Phelps after conceding defeat to Dave Sharma in Double Bay. Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP

“We want the major powers to remain invested in the institutions that have been developed over many years: peaceful settlement of trade disputes, a commitment to free trade, freedom of navigation, multinational trade agreements and the peaceful settlement of disagreements,” he says.

Australia’s role, he says, is to reinforce the importance of those arrangements.

“The US is aligned to us, and is our most important relationship, but we have differences on the approach to some of these,” he says. “China is aligned on some of those but there are more differences.

“We are not the enforcer of the rules but part of our job is to ensure and urge that people abide by them.”

He has also got strong views about the growing tensions between Iran and the US, describing Iran as a “problematic and destabilising actor in the region” that is seeking to rewrite the rules in the Middle East.

He says former US president Barak Obama was prepared to take bet on Iran that it would put its nuclear weapons on ice. But he says says Iran has “pocketed the gains under that agreement, and stuck to the letter of the agreement on nuclear weapons, while continuing to develop its rocket program and weapons programs”.

He is reluctant to say where Australia should stand if tensions escalate between US president Donald Trump’s administration and the Iranian government other than to say “we support the US aims to keep them within the rules”.

Dave Sharma and Scott Morrison during a visit to the North Bondi Surf Club during the Wentworth byelection campaign last year

Dave Sharma and Scott Morrison during a visit to the North Bondi Surf Club during the Wentworth byelection campaign last year. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

In any event, Sharma says he is happy to make contributions outside his foreign affairs comfort zone.

His time as Australia’s ambassador to Israel has convinced him of the need for Australia to develop policies that will help build a stronger tech-based industry.

While Australia has the smarts within within its universities to innovate and develop new technology, Sharma says: “We don’t do well in commercialising it, with the result that innovations often go offshore and Australia misses out.

“It’s partly a cultural mindset … But it’s also a question of investment capital, government policy and tax.

“I don’t have any illusions that I can fix it but it does deserve some more bandwidth in the national debate.”

The other issue Sharma wants to help drive within the government is female participation rates in the workforce. He says only 72% of women are working in paid employment in Australia, compared with 77% to 78% in Canada and New Zealand. That also compares with 82% of men.

“Boosting participation would be a huge economic reform,” he says. “It is often not by choice, it’s the system: the cost of childcare, tax rates capping people at four days a week and the culture of workplaces themselves.

“The reality of modern Australian families is that both people need to work but we don’t have the systems and the norms to make it happen.”

Sharma has three children, aged 12, 10 and 6, and his wife, Rachel, who was also a lawyer and diplomat, works part-time. While he says they have made the choice for Rachel to work part-time, other families do not have that choice.

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