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A string of independents who have broken away from conservative politics could define the next parliament. By Mike Seccombe.

Independents: Inside the insurrection of the centre

The independent candidate for Goldstein, Zoe Daniel, launches her election campaign in Sandringham, Victoria, last weekend.
Credit: Bernard Wright

As a foreign correspondent for 20-odd years, Zoe Daniel saw the devastating consequences of climate change close up.

“I’ve been to the Arctic. I have seen the melting sea ice and the melting permafrost,” she tells The Saturday Paper. “I covered a massive superstorm in the Philippines that flattened an entire city of 200,000 people. I’ve covered bushfires in California and Australia, hurricanes across the US and cyclones in the Pacific. This is not an esoteric thing to me, you know: I’ve actually witnessed the impact.”

Back in Melbourne, though, having left her job at the ABC, she was not sure, when the Voices of Goldstein group approached her to run for federal politics, if she wanted to put herself and her family back in the 24-hour news cycle. In the end, she says, it was her kids who told her she should.

Her daughter is 13 and her son 15 and they are “quite politically switched on”.

“They’ve met Greta Thunberg, for example, when she came to DC,” Daniel says. “My son’s still got the School Strike for Climate sign that he made for that day signed by Greta sitting on his windowsill in his room.

“They’re really concerned about climate, but they’re also just really frustrated at the lack of progress on climate policy. So, you know, I feel and they just feel like there’s been a lot of wasted time, and there isn’t time to waste.”

Climate was not the only motivating factor for Daniel’s decision to run for parliament, though.

“The other big part of this is the integrity factor … the sense of a lack of honesty, of sort of being gaslighted, of not getting a straight answer, ever.

“Having covered Trump, that’s something that really concerns me deeply.”

We’ve seen Australian politicians adopt a lot of the Trumpian tactics such as calling “fake news” as cover for inconvenient truths.

“I don’t trust them. I don’t. I don’t trust what they’re telling us that they’re doing. And I don’t trust them with our future.”

And so Daniel, a self-described swinging voter who went for the Liberals in 2016 on the basis of Malcolm Turnbull’s apparent commitment to addressing the climate crisis, is now working against the government that dumped him as its leader.

She is running for the wealthy, blue-ribbon Liberal seat of Goldstein against Tim  Wilson, the former policy director of the right-wing Institute of Public Affairs, which at the time denied, and still denies, that human activity is heating the planet. (Wilson says he does not personally deny anthropogenic climate change.)

Only this week Wilson claimed that a proposal to establish an independent climate change commission to provide advice to the government on the appropriate policy and interim targets in pursuit of its promise of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 amounted to “subversion and treason” if it could overturn policy.

Daniel says climate policy has been “weaponised to the extent that climate policy is all about politics, not the climate emergency”. She recognises the urgency of changing this. “There’s just no time for that anymore. We can’t keep waiting.”

Daniel is one of several high-profile independents who have announced they will run at the next election, mostly in seats held by the Liberal Party.

Kylea Tink is another. She has the kind of life story usually lauded by the Coalition. Both her parents had their own small businesses, which often left her in charge of three younger siblings. She also went into business and thrived.

She’s been chief executive of the McGrath Foundation, a breast cancer charity, and also the children’s cancer charity Camp Quality. She’s worked in senior roles at a multinational, advised and sat on several boards, and run her own management and consultancy business.

Given her background, it is not surprising she mostly voted Liberal in the past. But she never saw herself getting actively into politics, even though “I’ve worked around the edge of government for most of my life.”

When she was approached by the community group North Sydney’s Independent to run for parliament, she thought a while and decided to do it on the basis that, when things aren’t right, “your choices really are to sit around and complain about it, or to stand up, and, you know, step up to try and fix it”.

At the last election she voted Liberal, but the three years since “have been extremely disappointing”.

Tink believed Scott Morrison’s “very clear promise” that a national integrity commission would be set up. Instead, his government has demonstrated “a lack of integrity, and lack of transparent thinking, a lack of accountability at the most senior levels, and lack of a commitment to robust and positive discourse”.

She is motivated by concern about climate change, too, not only for the obvious environmental reason but because the Morrison government is wasting the huge economic opportunity presented by renewable energy.

“One massive trigger” for her was Morrison’s statement that if no one else would fund a new gas power plant in the Hunter Valley, then his government would spend up to $600 million “in an old technology … that when built will be left stranded”.

The government’s attitude to women is also a big issue for her, as is its general reliance on the public’s darker instincts.

“I feel like particularly the last three years of government, we’ve continually been taught to be afraid, to be small, to be mean and to be short-sighted,” Tink says.

A third independent is Allegra Spender, running in the Liberal-held seat of Wentworth. Her antecedents could hardly be more establishment. Her grandfather, Sir Percy Spender, KVCO, KBE, QC, was a member of federal parliament from 1937 to 1951 and a cabinet minister under the Liberal Party’s founder, Robert Menzies. Her father, John Spender, QC, was the Liberal member for North Sydney from 1980 to 1990. Her late mother was the fashion designer and businesswoman Carla Zampatti.

Spender went to the elite Ascham School, then on to Cambridge University for an economics degree, University of London for her master of science, and Harvard and Dartmouth College for business courses. She worked at McKinsey as a business analyst, and in the British Treasury, before becoming managing director of the family fashion company. She was chair of the Sydney Renewable Power Company, an environmental impact investment company, and is now chief executive of the Australian Business and Community Network, which works to address educational disadvantage.

On paper, she would seem a perfect Liberal candidate, but instead she is intent on prising affluent Wentworth from the party’s control. The Liberal Party, she says, is “not listening to what decent people think is important”.

She ticks off the same issues as Daniel and Tink: climate, corruption and lack of accountability, and the treatment of women.

Before she decided to run, she says, “I looked at the numbers of women in the house of reps. So the Liberal Party that in 1996 had 23 per cent women, in the current parliament, I think, it has 22 per cent women. And it has never gotten above 24 per cent in the last 25 years. And I have a real issue with that.”

It’s not just the narrowness of the party in gender terms that bothers her, either; it is also the general social and ideological narrowness.

Most of the people supporting her – and, she believes, driving the current proliferation of other groups and independents gunning for the Morrison government – would in previous times have been Liberal moderates.

“Countless people”, she says, had told her as much, “and said either the last election or the coming election is the first time they’ve ever considered not voting Liberal”.

This is a big threat for the increasingly ragged Morrison government.

Consider a few facts. The government controls just 76 of 151 seats in the house of representatives, after the Covid-19 conspiracy theorist and climate change denier Craig Kelly quit the Liberals to run with Clive Palmer’s flaky but well-funded United Australia Party. An electoral redistribution has abolished a Liberal seat in Western Australia and created a notionally Labor one in Victoria.

Ten of Morrison’s MPs will not recontest their seats at next year’s election – including former attorney-general Christian Porter and Health Minister Greg Hunt. There may well be more to come.

The last thing the government needs is a host of well-funded, accomplished, articulate candidates emerging in the Liberal heartland. But that’s what’s happening.

Wentworth, where Spender is running, is the wealthiest electorate in the country. Tink’s target seat, North Sydney, is the fourth richest. Daniel’s is seventh.

Tomorrow will see the announcement of an independent challenger in the New South Wales seat of Mackellar, the fifth-richest electorate, and next weekend candidates will be announced in wealthy Kooyong, held by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, and Flinders, which Hunt is vacating.

This is an insurrection of the political centrists, of small “l” liberals who consider themselves, in Spender’s words, “economically responsible and socially progressive” and who think the Morrison government is neither.

Theirs is a decentralised, localised, grassroots movement, not a party. It is informed by the success of a few independents already in parliament.

It is also overwhelmingly female. All the candidates so far announced, and the overwhelming majority of their supporters, are women. The movement’s hero is Cathy McGowan, who won the Victorian seat of Indi in 2013 and who, at the last election, passed the baton to Helen Haines – the first ever independent-to-independent succession in Australia. Its most prominent member is Zali Steggall, who beat Tony Abbott in Australia’s second-richest seat, Warringah.

These independents are not wild radicals or puppets in some leftist conspiracy, although the government seeks to paint them as such.

On Wednesday in parliament, speaking in support of legislation designed to make life harder for such movements, the incumbent in Mackellar, Jason Falinski, took another turn at it.

He called them “front groups” and suggested they were being manipulated and funded by dark money. He ticked off a list of the seats being contested: “Wentworth, North Sydney, Mackellar, Goldstein, Higgins and Kooyong. All Liberal seats. They just target one political party.

“We all know what’s really going on here; the left-wing are now using these private groups to attack Liberals, because they know they couldn’t get elected as Labor members, as Labor candidates, and as Green candidates.

“Please spare us the cant about community groups. You know, there’s nothing about them that’s community. What there is about them a lot is about how co-ordinated and how much [money] they’re hiding.”

Falinski’s claims don’t stand up to scrutiny. While it is certainly true that the independent candidates have access to significant funds, there’s nothing hidden about it. Simon Holmes à Court happily boasts about how much Climate 200, the organisation he set up to back progressive independents, has raised.

At the start, he says, the aim was to collect money from 200 climate-concerned, well-heeled people like himself. Hence the name. “We’re around about 6000 now,” he says. “We’ve raised $4.6 million so far.”

And the group has some “chunky” donors. Nick Fairfax, scion of the former media family, for example, recently committed to matching up to $100,000 in donations from others. The pledge “brought in 460 people over four days”.

Climate 200’s membership and war chest continue to grow rapidly. Significantly, about 10 per cent of donors have committed to recurring monthly contributions. Most donors, though, are giving relatively modest amounts – $25, $50, $100.

Holmes à Court denies they are manipulating anyone. Climate 200 has no part in the selection of candidates.

“We wait till the campaign emerges,” he says. “And we only talk to campaigns when they’ve satisfied us that they have governance in place, that they have a constitution, that they have directors, that they’ve got proper processes.”

Before they give any money, he says, “it’s really important to us that campaigns have already demonstrated that they can fundraise from the local communities”.

“We ask for their policies to ensure that our values are aligned, but there’s nothing like a formal agreement or contract.”

The core values are three, he says: “climate, integrity or anti-corruption, and gender equity and the treatment and safety of women”.

The membership of the advisory council to Climate 200 speaks to its intention to remain issues focused and politically centrist. It includes former Labor Science minister Barry Jones, former leader of the Liberal Party John Hewson, who is a weekly columnist for this newspaper, and former leader of the Australian Democrats Meg Lees.

Climate 200 is supporting four independents who are already elected: Steggall, Andrew Wilkie in the seat of Clark, Tasmania, Rebekha Sharkie in Mayo, South Australia, and Haines in Indi.

It is supporting five hopefuls, so far: in Wentworth, Mackellar, North Sydney, Goldstein and Kooyong. All are women candidates. It is also closely monitoring several more possibilities, including Hume, held by Angus Taylor, and Craig Kelly’s seat of Hughes.

Holmes à Court says there are “a couple” of regional seats in each of NSW and Victoria, and one seat in Queensland, that may yet be added to the list.

So the two big questions: Why is this happening to the Liberal Party now, and what chances do the independent candidates have of winning?

The veteran political journalist and author Kerry O’Brien says it has been coming for a long time, and it’s not just an Australian phenomenon, or one afflicting the Liberals. It is a crisis in democracy.

The drivers are many and complex, he says. “You’ve got the failure of policy, you’ve got the collapse of proper debate in parliament, you’ve got the lack of perceived authenticity, you’ve got polarisation.”

The bottom line, he says, is that “the traditional two-party system is floundering”.

There has been a splintering, perhaps more obvious to date on the progressive side of politics. Some voters, left behind by economic and social change, have drifted to right-wing populists.

Others – younger, often more educated – went left.

“I mean, how many people who joined the Greens came straight out of Labor, who were on Labor’s old left?” he asks and answers himself – not all but many.

“But you don’t have to be poor to feel disenfranchised, and you don’t have to be an environmentalist. And the party of Menzies has moved sharply to the right.”

Steggall sees the rise of moderate independents as the inevitable consequence of changes in the Liberal Party over the past couple of decades.

When John Howard was prime minister, she says, many moderates were driven out of the party, both because he was personally very conservative and also because the party made the tactical decision to court the populist right.

“And I think that they moved to the right to embrace that vote with an assumption that the centre vote would come along – that you could placate that vote despite the more extreme.”

Howard, she says, was better at straddling that divide than the party leaders who followed him.

Rodney Tiffen, emeritus professor in government at the University of Sydney, offers a similar analysis.

And now, he says, the “broad church” of the Liberal Party has become an unmanageable congregation of differing creeds.

“The conservatives have long been playing hardball on climate change and stuff like that, but now we’ve got the moderates starting to play hardball as well, in the interests of trying to keep their seats.”

And the result, he says, is a do-nothing government led by a man who prevaricates and procrastinates and has little agenda beyond winning.

“Morrison is just an amazing prime minister,” Tiffen says. “He just doesn’t seem to think he ever has to do anything.”

So, to the second question: Can the independents win?

History would suggest not, and that the movement will fade, says Tiffen.

“But I don’t think that’s true anymore,” he adds. “I really think this is a very loseable election for the Liberals. The last election was won in the regions by the Coalition. I think this one could well be lost in the capital cities.”

A hung parliament is on the cards, and a few independents could wind up holding the balance of power.

In that case, who would they support? Wisely, they are not saying.

According to ABC election analyst Antony Green, it’s still a big ask to get up as an independent.

“I always say people will vote for an independent they know, but they will vote for a party candidate even if they don’t know the candidate, because they know the party.”

The successful ones, such as McGowan and Steggall, had recognition factor and also had the “huge advantage” of running against very unpopular conservative incumbents.

No doubt, he says, the electors of the wealthy, Liberal city seats the independents are going for are “de-aligning”, particularly on the climate issue.

“And in these sorts of electorates, Liberals do not like their government being really hard and tough and nasty. It just strikes me there’s a bit of that going on. They don’t like the Nationals and they don’t like Barnaby. And Morrison’s too suburban for them.”

It’s questionable whether that generic dislike will attach to incumbents such as Trent Zimmerman and Dave Sharma, who are themselves reasonably moderate – if ineffectual.

To win, they must drive the Liberal vote down to well under 50 per cent, and also “eat away the Green vote and Labor vote and end up in second place, to beat the Liberals”.

The government’s got a one-seat majority, on the new boundaries. Labor has 68, notionally 69, so it has to pick up seven seats to win.

So, just one successful independent could make a huge impact. And that’s the point.

This article was updated on December 4, 2021, to clarify Tim Wilson’s views on climate change and a climate commission.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 4, 2021 as "Independents: Inside the insurrection of the centre".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.