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In the face of a serious challenge by independent candidate Zali Steggall, Tony Abbott is fighting to hold on to his place in parliament – and some of the campaign tactics have turned nasty. By Alex McKinnon.

The campaign for Warringah

Warringah candidates Zali Steggall and Tony Abbott.
Credit: AAP Image / News Corp POOL, Damian Shaw

Three days out from election day and pre-polling in Warringah is flat chat. The pop-up voting centre set up by the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) on Military Road in Mosman, sandwiched between a boutique clothing outlet and a beauty clinic, has a line snaking out its door. A truck with a mobile billboard on the back, bearing the face of Zali Steggall, is doing laps around the block. A Tony Abbott volunteer has had great success putting his labradoodle in an Abbott T-shirt and walking it in front of polling places. Steggall’s people have darkly nicknamed him “the dog man”.

Even before Steggall, a barrister and former Olympic skier, announced in January that she would be running, the race for Warringah had captured national attention. After Kerryn Phelps’ victory in Wentworth, the prospect of another small-l liberal challenger emerging, and toppling a former prime minister to boot, seemed possible, even in this most staunchly Liberal of seats.

In November, the Vote Tony Out Instagram account went live with the blessing of former world champion surfer and Manly local Layne Beachley. It quickly amassed more than 10,000 followers, and community groups seeking to oust Abbott began reaching out to each other.

In late December, there was a brief flurry of attention around broadcaster, non-profit director and Woolwonga and Gurindji woman Susan Moylan-Coombs, when she announced she would contest the seat as an independent.

Moylan-Coombs is still running, but it’s Steggall who has galvanised local anti-Abbott sentiment on Sydney’s northern beaches. Her campaign claims to have 1300 volunteers on call. And while single-seat polling in Australian elections is notoriously unreliable, a poll released by GetUp! earlier this month had Steggall winning 56 per cent of the two-candidate-preferred vote.

At the Mosman polling centre, Dean Harris, the Labor candidate for Warringah, has stationed himself out front and is valiantly pressing the flesh in an attempt to lift Labor’s primary vote above the 15 per cent his predecessor won at the 2016 election. He estimates one in four people he’s spoken with are “rusted-on Liberals”, but says everyone else is open to change.

Those waiting in line to vote seem more or less evenly split. A middle-aged woman in a leopard-print shawl is blunt about why she’s voting for Steggall: “Because she’s not Tony Abbott. I think that’s the nicest way I can put it.”

An older woman with a wheelie bag is sticking with Tony. “He’s done a lot for our electorate,” she says. “I think he’s an honest person. Except for what he did to Pauline Hanson, helping put her in jail.”

Volunteers from all sides are under orders to keep it friendly, but there is a frisson of tension. Steggall has received a complaint from a voter who alleges an AEC official approached her and, seeing she was holding a Steggall how-to-vote card, asked her: “Why do you have that? What’s she going to do for you?”

Jeniffer McGuckin, the AEC’s returning officer for Warringah, confirmed the Steggall campaign had lodged a formal complaint, and that it would be followed up.

Nastiness has been a theme of the campaign on the northern beaches. And as election day nears, the Steggall campaign is nervous some new attack will emerge. Steggall says this is one of the reasons she likes the long pre-polling window.

“There are so many dirty tricks that get played at the last minute, it cuts away the effectiveness of those,” she says. “It means people have to show their hand earlier, which is not a bad thing.”

In an interview with The Daily Telegraph published on Wednesday, Abbott voiced similar complaints, lamenting that “this is by far the most personal campaign that’s ever been waged against me”.

“I think the tone of political debate is deteriorating all the time,” he said.

Faced with Abbott’s comments, Steggall pulls a face.

“It’s hilarious that Tony’s complaining about everyone being a bit hard on him,” she says. “One guy who came past me didn’t want to stop and talk, but muttered under his breath, ‘You’re a disgrace.’ I find it funny that there’s talk it’s all gotten a bit personal.”

But some elements of the anti-Abbott campaign have been visceral in their methods. Posters of Abbott’s head, emblazoned with the words “Pell” and “cunt”, have been put up around the electorate, prompting calls to the police. Earlier this month, a hollowed-out book filled with faeces was left outside Abbott’s electorate office.

Meanwhile, Steggall has borne much of the campaign’s negativity. Besides Captain GetUp, Freddie Foreign Money and Chicken Man, the small army of bizarre costumed nemeses who follow her incessantly, Abbott’s surrogates have been blanketing friendly media outlets, giving dire warnings on the consequences of a Steggall victory and painting her as a left-wing plant.

In Mosman, federal Liberal Party vice-president Teena McQueen, a close factional ally of Abbott, has dropped by the pre-polling centre to see how things are going.

“I can’t comment,” she tells The Saturday Paper when approached for an interview. “I’m helping out several campaigns, I’ve just popped in here.” Five minutes later, she is walking an elderly voter to the polls, Liberal how-to-vote card in hand.

The night before, on Sky News’s The Bolt Report, McQueen accused Steggall of being handpicked by “vicious” left-wing activist groups. McQueen claimed Steggall’s campaign was “motivated purely by hatred to get rid of Tony”, calling Steggall’s campaign co-manager, Voices of Warringah president Louise Hislop, “a highly destructive creature”. In that interview, host Andrew Bolt called Steggall’s claim to independence “very hard to believe”. On Outsiders, the Liberal senator James McGrath declared: “Zali Steggall is a fake.”

On 2GB’s Sydney Live, where Abbott has a weekly standing appointment with host Ben Fordham, Peta Credlin, Abbott’s former chief of staff, called Steggall “exactly the sort of cancer we don’t need more of in the federal parliament”. Abbott’s sister, City of Sydney councillor Christine Forster, told Alan Jones on Wednesday “it would be a national tragedy, in my view, if this was a man who was lost to parliament”.

In April, The Daily Telegraph ran a front-page story in which Steggall’s ex-husband, former Olympic rower David Cameron, and his wife, barrister Bridie Nolan, accused her of being “opportunistic” during the Lindt cafe siege in 2014 by speaking to reporters about the death of barrister Katrina Dawson. Cameron and Nolan, who had respectively called Steggall an “idiot” on Twitter and urged her to “withdraw now before you embarrass your family further”, quickly walked back their comments in the wake of widespread public criticism, with Nolan calling the article “sensationalised nonsense”.

A key Liberal line throughout the Warringah campaign has been that Steggall is a secret Labor supporter. Even over the Spit Bridge, black-shirted Abbott campaigners in Brookvale wave signs warning passing motorists: “A vote for Steggall is a vote for Shorten.”

That line of attack prompted Steggall to confirm this month that she would support the Coalition in the event of a hung parliament, although she acknowledges the government “needs a reset” on issues such as climate change. It has also increased her resolve to push for reforms to the way politics is conducted, such as laws mandating truth in political advertising and Hansard fact-checkers.

“I’m used to court, where you get in trouble when you’re misleading. When you make a claim, you have to back it up with facts,” she says. “Businesses are held to a higher standard than Canberra. In political advertising, you can say anything – literally anything. If we can force business managers to comply with their obligations, I don’t see why politicians and parties can’t.”

While Steggall has much to say on the issues she’s based her run on, she keeps coming back to the campaign’s tone, and the people driving it, as symptoms of a deeper problem in politics.

“Some more loyal Liberal people seem very offended that there’s a challenge. Seeing that defensiveness has been really interesting,” she says. “If you’re not a far-right conservative drinking the Kool-Aid, you must be a leftie communist. They’ve got no respect for the broad, moderate centre who want respectful politics and debate. I think people are really tired of that aggressive, nasty style.”

On the ground, the toxic tone of this campaign seeps out in many ways. In Mosman, when a genderqueer person in a white jumper and make-up walks past, declining the Liberal how-to-votes, two male volunteers in Tony Abbott T-shirts grin at each other.

“What a great outfit that guy has on! Fantastic,” the older one tells The Saturday Paper.

“He’s a journo,” the younger one mutters.

“I know that! I know he’s a journo,” the older one replies. “I wasn’t having a go at him; I was just a bit surprised. Listen, you won’t print this, but the Liberals are going to win with a swing of five to eight seats. I’m giving up a day of work today to support Tony Abbott. He’s a good guy.”

“After 80 years on this earth, I’m learning a lot about humanity,” a white-haired Steggall volunteer later deadpans. “You know what? I prefer dogs.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 18, 2019 as "Warringah wars". Subscribe here.

Alex McKinnon
is Schwartz Media's morning editor.