As an independent candidate running against the party machines, a contender in the Strathfield byelection found the odds were against her. By Elizabeth Farrelly.

The harsh truths of independent politics

Elizabeth Farrelly campaigning as an independent candidate in Strathfield, Sydney.
Elizabeth Farrelly campaigning as an independent candidate in Strathfield, Sydney.
Credit: Supplied

Only when awaiting the final Strathfield byelection count did I realise I’d broken my vow not to stand for election, ever again. It is of course self-evident that ordinary people – people who are neither investment bankers nor career politicians – should be able and encouraged to take democratic office. But the getting elected thing is a killer, especially for independents. This I knew from ancient personal experience.

My 1990s term as an independent City of Sydney councillor, intensely rewarding though it was, taught me many things. Among them was the enduring fact that the elbows-out, self-promotional qualities demanded by our gladiatorial election circus are the direct opposite of the wisdom and decency we need in our leaders.

To survive the pit you must either join a party or go indie. A party is a big leg-up but demands that you first claw your way through its vile internal machinations. Going indie, on the other hand, is expensive and blindingly difficult. Until mid-2021, this choice between the impossibly brutal and the brutally impossible had struck me as prohibitive.

Perhaps I should have clung to that view. We’ll come to that. But first let’s consider how the current slew of federal independent candidates deal with this electoral conundrum.

Enter Climate 200. Set up by Simon Holmes à Court to level the field a little, Climate 200 sponsors 16 independents, 14 of them female. Doctors, teachers, lawyers and businesspeople, some sit within the “voices of” movement, some not. None are career politicians. All have had lives.

Even a small group of these indies could hold the balance of power. Veteran psephologist Malcolm Mackerras predicts five will be elected – plus Bob Katter, now with his own party – sharing power within a hung house of representatives. Such a shift could be seismic.

Of paramount importance is that these independents are truly independent. They share three principles with Climate 200 – the need for climate action, gender equity and a federal ICAC. On everything else, they’ll diverge. But even on the core issues, insists Holmes à Court, Climate 200 won’t pull strings.

The potential is immense. But it won’t be easy. Indeed, few realise just how hard it is – for reasons of funding, organisation and legislation – to walk a principled road through a circus of fat and clownish cynicism.

This loops back to my personal experience. The moment that changed my political inclinations, then my life, followed a morning of disappointments last year. It was deep lockdown. We needed to move house, but the Sydney property market was at its deranged zenith. Dejected by yet another failed auction bid, we joined the hordes of inner-city exiles and headed west. So it was on a street corner near the Flemington village bubble-tea shop that the moment came.

I was innocently sucking those glorious goopy bubbles through their outsize paper straw when a gaggle of friendly seeming women handing out Labor how-to-votes recognised me. “Oh!” they exclaimed. “If you’re moving here, you must join the party and stand for us in Reid.”

Eventually I did move there. I joined the party and the local branch. This made me gently uncomfortable. Even joining the Egg-a-Day Club when I was seven was a little too regimented. But perhaps, I figured, it was worth it to help oust this destructive neoliberal government that blathers on about koala protection and respect for Country while frantically approving coalmines, tollways and endless forest-felling sprawl.

In the event, Labor didn’t preselect me for the federal seat of Reid. Nor for council – although the incumbent deputy mayor insisted I preregister as a candidate and asked me to hand out for her, a combination that proved fatal to my 30-year position as a newspaper columnist. Nor, finally, for the Strathfield state byelection on February 12.

That was all fine. I left the party without hard feelings and, reinhabiting my more natural, non-aligned role, decided to stand for Strathfield as an independent. It was a bold decision, perhaps, since I was relatively new to the area, but I believed – and still believe – people are starting to see the nexus between dodgy city-destroying development and shady backroom party deals.

It was an exhausting few weeks. But it reaffirmed my view that independent voices, far from “splitting the vote”, are more than ever important to the integrity and ideas content of Australian politics.

Many people regard independents as closet Labor or Liberal. I think the opposite is generally true. As Holmes à Court pointed out in his recent National Press Club address, “a party MP is answerable to their party, their faction, their donors and their branch” before they even think about their constituents. An independent, by contrast, answers only to their constituents and their own principles. Every vote is therefore a conscience vote: making independents “the conscience of parliament”.

Yet, or perhaps for that very reason, everything – money, reach, timing, preferences and logistics – is stacked against them.

Money in particular is difficult. Holmes à Court notes that an independent can raise a million campaign dollars, as Zali Steggall did, and still be outspent by the parties 2:1. In my case, more like 7:1. We spent about $35,000, while each major party, I’m told, came in just under the cap of $250,000.

Disadvantaging independents further still are the fundraising regulations, which cap donations to parties at $6700 but donations to individuals at a mere $3100. An independent, further, cannot spend money, for instance, or raise it, until they nominate for election – and they cannot do that before the election writ is issued.

This makes it extremely hard for any independent to muster enough volunteers or raise sufficient funds, especially in a byelection. In our case, the writs were issued a mere three weeks before election day, and two of those weeks allowed prepolling. So we had a campaign period of one to three weeks. By contrast, the major parties, being permanently registered, began campaigning a full two weeks earlier, effectively doubling their campaign period.

You might think getting into the upper house would be easier – the “houses of review” state and federal, being our supposedly wiser, more principled organs of democracy. In fact, it’s harder.

First, you must find a way to campaign statewide or nationwide. It’s not like you can letterbox three million households, much less doorknock them. Then there’s the ballot paper itself, where the New South Wales Electoral Commission prints a party’s name above the line but, for an independent, offers only a numbered box. Try getting half a million supporters to remember which anonymous box to tick.

Then there’s the sheer daily toil of it. Even in our recent byelection, trying to get a couple of bodies at each of three prepolling booths for two weeks, and 17 on the day, was a huge effort – not to mention the drudgery of schlepping everything out each dawn and taking it in again each dusk. This, no doubt, is why at least some of the major parties’ “volunteers” are paid to plaster booths with election material.

Regarding our upper houses, where booth numbers and areas are multiplied by hundreds, we can hardly be surprised that independents are rare. The senate currently has one independent, Rex Patrick from South Australia. Wikipedia lists nine in 120 years, including Nick Xenophon, who began as a South Australian MLC (1997-2007) where, unlike NSW, independents get named above the line.

In NSW just six independents have been elected to the Legislative Council since 1934. Currently there’s only Justin Field, who was elected as a Green and will not stand for re-election precisely because it is so difficult, even for an incumbent with a communications allowance in the hundreds of thousands.

Then there’s the preference thing. Campaigns are awash with preference whisperers, all of whom insist that you cannot win without doing a preference deal. But surely a true independent presumes that their supporters, too, have the nous to make up their own minds?

Anyone would think we didn’t want independents in politics. Certainly, you can see why the rusted-on party affiliates resent the challenge offered by truth-tellers. Australia is relentlessly, terrifyingly tribal. More than ever, though, elected leaders who can act quickly and on principle are desperately, desperately what we need.

As to me personally? We didn’t win Strathfield. But with a brilliant bunch of energetic volunteers from across the metropolis, we letterboxed 50,000 leaflets and, in three weeks, gained a healthy 10 per cent of the vote. Will we go again? That’s the question on all lips. And in truth, to apply the lessons and build the momentum is kind of tempting. It’s also horrifying. A decision will be made. Watch this space.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 19, 2022 as "Taking a stand".

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Elizabeth Farrelly is a writer, critic and academic. Her latest book is Killing Sydney: The Fight for a City’s Soul.

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