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Having helped get Kerryn Phelps elected, Damien Hodgkinson is running campaigns for eight independents at the election, including Julia Banks and Zali Steggall. By Karen Middleton.

The campaigner behind Phelps, Banks and Steggall

Damien Hodgkinson, political consultant.
Credit: Jonno Revanche

Last year, the former director of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, Damien Hodgkinson, was working with Kerryn Phelps on a plan for the mayoral elections in Sydney in 2020. Then things changed, unexpectedly.

Phelps, who was a Sydney city councillor at the time, had fallen out with Lord Mayor Clover Moore and had quit both her deputy position and Moore’s independents group. She had enlisted Hodgkinson’s community campaigning and volunteer marshalling skills to help her plan a tilt at the top council job.

But when then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull was ousted from his own high office in August, and a month later quit his seat of Wentworth, her goal changed. She rang Hodgkinson.

“I was on holiday,” the campaign consultant tells The Saturday Paper. “Malcolm resigns and I get a phone call saying, ‘I think we’re going to pivot a little bit.’ ”

That pivot saw Phelps mount a highly effective campaign for the prized federal Liberal seat.

Assisted by Hodgkinson, Labor-linked political strategist Anthony Reed and communications specialist Darrin Barnett, who is Reed’s business partner and former media adviser to Labor prime minister Julia Gillard, Phelps caught the wave of anger that swelled from the August insurrection and surfed it all the way to office.

In recent years, a parade of others had done what Phelps achieved, loosening a major party’s grip on a previously safe seat and wresting it away. More are hoping to add to her number.

In so-called safe seats around the country, a small army of locally prominent independent candidates has begun to emerge, recruited by voters who want to fight back.

A good many of them are using the services of Damien Hodgkinson, set to be a pivotal backroom figure in the coming election. They include Phelps, Zali Steggall and Julia Banks.

Hodgkinson, a 50-year-old consultant, runs a change management company, DEM Asia, and at last count was working with eight independent candidates – seven for the house of representatives and one for the senate – setting up their campaign infrastructure, including donor and volunteer databases, and advising on logistics, administration and other back-of-house necessities.

He rejects comparisons with the man dubbed the “preference whisperer”, Glenn Druery, who helped independent senate candidates team up to play the preferences system and win on tiny percentages of the vote.

Hodgkinson is about on-the-ground assistance.

Teaming up with political strategists including Anthony Reed’s Watson Consultants, he is advising a clutch of separate would-be independent politicians on how to fight to win, including what, where and how to spend their advertising dollars to maximise their impact.

“The independents aren’t working together,” he says. “It’s about us creating an environment that allows them to compete effectively.”

Hodgkinson tells them that an incumbent independent MP will need to find about $150,000 – and a whole lot of volunteer help – for a re-election campaign. For new independent candidates, he estimates $250,000. Of that, about $60,000 will need to be spent on sending out postal-vote ballots.

His own fee of about $30,000 also falls within that figure. Political advice is purchased separately, from others.

For the fee independents get access to computer programs and logistics and administrative advice before, during and, if they win, after the campaign.

Following the success of Phelps’ campaign, Hodgkinson and Reed saw an opportunity. “We sat down and said, ‘Look, this is a gap in the market,’ ” Hodgkinson says. “You had a lot of independents that were interested in running but had no idea how to do it. And you had groups of concerned citizens … saying, ‘We want change’ and ‘Let’s find the viable candidate.’ ”

That’s how it happened in Warringah, the seat across the harbour from Wentworth, in which former Olympic skier turned independent candidate Zali Steggall will run against former prime minister Tony Abbott.

After Wentworth, Reed made contact with a group of disillusioned Liberal voters wanting something new in Warringah, and Hodgkinson joined him.

“They were already connecting but then they were looking for someone to put in the infrastructure that would allow them to work,” Hodgkinson says.

Conservative Liberals supporting Abbott are highlighting Reed’s involvement – and his Labor connections.

The Warringah group was advised they needed to find a candidate who reflected their values and priorities and not just take an anyone-but-Abbott approach. “That’s selecting the candidate on the wrong premise,” Hodgkinson says.

A committee was established and candidates interviewed. Steggall’s interest emerged after the process had begun and ultimately she shot to the top of the list.

She is now one of those using Hodgkinson’s services, along with Phelps, who is recontesting Wentworth. Steggall also has the support of the activist group GetUp!

Hodgkinson is working with Julia Banks as well, who was elected as a Liberal in the Melbourne seat of Chisholm but defected to the crossbenches after the leadership upheaval and will run in the neighbouring seat of Flinders, against Health Minister Greg Hunt.

Liberal strategists are conscious of the threat.

“There’s always been independents,” one says. “There’s evidence that once they get in, they’re hard to get out.”

Even so, they are optimistic they can hold off the threat in Warringah, Flinders and Melbourne’s Kooyong, where renewable energy specialist Oliver Yates is challenging Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, again with GetUp!’s support.

“In Melbourne, the enemy is still very much Labor,” one Liberal says.

Among Hodgkinson’s current stable, there are candidates in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland and a senate candidate in the ACT eyeing the seat held by Liberal former ACT opposition leader Zed Seselja.

There are two newly emerged independent candidates taking on the Nationals in the NSW seat of New England and Victorian seat of Mallee, although they are not clients of Hodgkinson.

In New England, sustainability specialist and former Greenpeace officer and KPMG tax expert Adam Blakester is running against Barnaby Joyce.

In Mallee, the former mayor of the Yarriambiack shire, Ray Kingston, is contesting the election as an independent following the forced retirement of Andrew Broad over his use of a “sugar daddy” website.

Hodgkinson has had a meeting with prominent local businessman, environmental campaigner, adventurer and would-be independent Huw Kingston – no relation – who announced his candidacy this week for the NSW seat of Hume.

Held by energy minister Angus Taylor, Hume reaches from the town of Boorowa in the west, to Goulburn and Gunning in the south and north, to Sydney’s western outskirts.

Huw Kingston, who was responsible for making Bundanoon the first town worldwide to ban bottled water, says the Liberal leadership ructions motivated him to run.

“I remember driving up from the Snowy Mountains and listening to it for four hours and I just got really angry,” he tells The Saturday Paper.

“You know: ‘Here we go again.’ ”

He says: “Some of us have to try and refocus the political process ... just try to introduce some civil debate into the process to get rid of the dog-whistling that’s gone on.”

Huw Kingston is particularly concerned about climate change and the legacy this generation is leaving for others, including his five grandchildren.

At this stage, he is not using Damien Hodgkinson’s services.

He says he has no issue with Taylor personally, but he believes a lot of Liberal voters in Hume are “looking for something different”.

“I’m disappointed, like many people are, firstly in the unexplained coup of 2018 – his role there and the judgement to back Peter Dutton,” Kingston says. “He also seems increasingly unable or unwilling to take climate change and renewables seriously.”

Angus Taylor told The Saturday Paper: “The great thing about a democracy is that anyone can throw their hat in the ring. I stand on my strong track record of delivering for Hume, particularly for our regional economy and on infrastructure.”

The role of MPs in the Liberals’ leadership change is a common motivator for independent challengers.

Julia Banks’s switch to Flinders is driven by what she says is similar sentiment being expressed about Greg Hunt.

“People are just horrified that he spent his time last year supporting Peter Dutton and wanting to be Peter Dutton’s deputy,” she says.

In response to Banks’s challenge, Hunt is highlighting his long-term commitment to the electorate and to local issues.

Banks says that since she quit the Liberals in protest at what she alleges was bullying and intimidation during the leadership contest and a poor attitude to women generally, people have contacted her encouraging her to run in Flinders.

“There’s been a real groundswell,” she says. Banks has received small donations from across Victoria and also has GetUp!’s support.

“I believe it’s a really important time in Australian history, where people [are forming] a collective view that they are fed up with the combative nature of the major parties and are looking for a genuine local independent representative who’s not constrained by the party machine and who’s not focused on self-promotion.”

In the ACT senate race, Zed Seselja’s backing of Dutton and climate change scepticism are also emerging as potential vote-swingers, according to unpublished polling conducted in late January.

The polling commissioned by Unions ACT suggests a significant upset is possible if an independent emerges who appeals to disillusioned Liberals more than the Greens.

In Canberra, local businessman, former investment banker and renewable energy developer Anthony Pesec emerged this week as a challenger. Like the man he hopes to unseat, Pesec has Croatian heritage. His parents fled the former Yugoslavia in the 1960s and settled in Canberra, establishing a building business.

Pesec has also engaged Damien Hodgkinson and may benefit from what is already an active union campaign against Seselja, particularly focused on his conservative allegiances.

Traditionally Labor-voting in the lower house, the ACT has two senators and generally returns one from the Liberals.

In the senate since 2013, Seselja is assistant minister for treasury and finance and a member of the Liberal Party’s conservative wing.

Seselja declined to comment on his re-election prospects or Pesec’s candidacy.

The January 23 uComms opinion poll shows support in the territory for the major parties has slipped since October, while support for the Greens and independent or “other” candidates has jumped. This apparent vulnerability has prompted Unions ACT to commit money to the ACT election campaign – up to $100,000 aimed at unseating Seselja.

“In over 20 years, Unions ACT has never spent a cent on ACT federal elections, but this time we believe that our campaign will remove Zed,” secretary Alex White tells The Saturday Paper.

At the 2016 election, Seselja fell just short of achieving a quota in his own right, which in the ACT is 33.3 per cent, but won on preferences.

The uComms poll results, seen by The Saturday Paper, show support for the Liberals in the senate fell from 24.2 per cent in October last year to 22.4 per cent in late January.

The unions believe that if it falls further, Seselja is in trouble.

Labor’s vote is also down from 39.3 per cent to 33.1 per cent, while support for the Greens has risen from 17 per cent to 19.9 per cent.

Support for either “independent” or “other” totalled 17.7 per cent in January, up from 13.9 per cent in October.

A further 6.9 per cent were undecided, up from 5.6 per cent.

Significantly, the poll also found that 37.6 per cent of voters said they might change their minds, 26.5 per cent of them Liberal supporters.

Among the policy issues respondents were asked to rank, climate change placed highest, followed by the economy, hospitals and Medicare, and the cost of living. Immigration was next but in single digits.

In January, voters were also asked about Seselja specifically and 65.6 per cent wanted someone new. While 61.1 per cent of Liberal supporters wanted him re-elected, 20.4 per cent wanted to replace him. Another 18.5 per cent were undecided.

Of those same Liberal voters, 40.8 per cent said they generally supported Seselja but when given a range of options, less than a third of them – 27.9 per cent – said he represented their values and beliefs. Another 12.8 per cent didn’t know enough about him to comment, while 8.7 per cent disagreed with his views on issues such as marriage equality and climate change, and 9.8 per cent said he was too close to politicians such as Peter Dutton and Tony Abbott.

Despite Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s insistence that Australians have moved on from the leadership events of last August, that issue – along with climate change – has influenced the emergence of many of these independent candidates.

This week, Morrison unveiled a revamped action plan on climate change featuring a $2 billion climate solutions fund for emissions reduction, an extension of a program that Abbott established.

He also unveiled another $1.5 billion in special measures, including $56 million to accelerate a second Bass Strait electricity connector, and a further $50 million in smaller-scale energy efficiency grants for businesses and community groups.

It also emerged that the Coalition is changing the rules for MPs’ office allowances so the almost $137,000 per  member each year can now be spent on newspaper and television advertisements as well as mailouts – delivering a considerable boost to incumbents.

Hodgkinson is advising his clients to focus their own budgets on the digital realm, where algorithms make it possible to target messages by suburb.

He’s choosing his clients by viability, not ideology.

“I’m trying to be politically agnostic from a business perspective,” Hodgkinson says.

However, he acknowledges that the big market is in conservative independents. If they win, a fair few of them may have Damien Hodgkinson and his colleagues to thank.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 2, 2019 as "The campaigner behind Phelps, Banks and Steggall". Subscribe here.

Karen Middleton
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.