The scion of one of Perth’s most powerful families, Kate Chaney is the independent candidate who may yet take Curtin back from the Liberal Party. By Margo Kingston.

How independent Kate Chaney plans to win Curtin

Independent candidate for the seat of Curtin Kate Chaney.
Independent candidate for the seat of Curtin Kate Chaney.
Credit: Rebecca Mansell

Kate Chaney’s punchline goes like this, although the set-up is much longer: “I’m running because I think we have lost community, integrity and vision in federal politics.”

Chaney, 47, is a member of one of Perth’s most prominent political and business families. She is standing as the community independent candidate for the blue-ribbon seat of Curtin, where her family has lived for four generations. Her uncle, Fred Chaney, held the neighbouring seat of Pearce. Prior to that he had served as a minister in the Fraser government and as deputy Liberal leader.

“There are probably 20 reasons why you wouldn’t do this, and really only one reason that you would, and that’s because it matters,” Kate Chaney tells The Saturday Paper. “It’s just got to be done.”

Chaney is the director of innovation and strategy at Anglicare WA, after stints as a corporate lawyer, business consultant and creator of sustainability and reconciliation policies at Wesfarmers. She has been on the boards of Next25, Lifeline WA, Awesome Arts, and the WA Regional Development Trust.

“Over the last 10 years I’ve increasingly been thinking about our future-building system. I’ve sat on the board of Next25, which looks at how to ensure we have a conversation about what sort of country we want to be and the changes we can make to enhance our future-building system,” she says.

“We have this future-building system made up of government (the political side and the executive side), the corporate sector, civil society, media and community. They all say, ‘Yeah, there’s a problem.’ And then they all think it’s a problem of some other part of the system.

“Over my career I’ve seen that from those different perspectives – corporate, professional services, non-profits and as a community member – and had this nasty dawning realisation that the system’s broken and that we are the system. So if I’m not going to stand up and do something about it, who do I think is? If we all just roll our eyes and say, ‘Oh, that’s politics, it’s revolting’, we can’t expect anything different if we’re not prepared to try anything different.”

In August last year, Chaney joined the Labor Party, “much to my husband’s shock”. She knew she needed to be involved. “I was so disillusioned with the Liberal Party and the federal direction, so I went to a function to hear Penny Wong speak – she’s a really interesting woman – but the vibe there was not for me. It’s tribal. It’s us versus them, it’s identity-based … I didn’t have anything to do with them after that, and went back to thinking, ‘What can I do?’”

Tony Fairweather, a corporate lawyer, was asking himself the same question. So was his friend, Anthony Maslin, an entrepreneur and philanthropist who became a household name in Perth when his three children and their grandfather died in the 2014 MH17 airline disaster. Maslin and Fairweather met with three other friends in October “in simple frustration with the lack of climate action and our federal MP”.

Curtin, one of the 10 wealthiest seats in the country, is represented by conservative Catholic Celia Hammond, who was backed by the dominant right-wing faction “The Clan” to replace leading moderate Julie Bishop when she retired.

Hammond is an uncomfortable fit in progressive Curtin. She believes humanity’s contribution to climate change is “very minimal” and opposed same-sex marriage. At the last election she suffered an 11.3 per cent primary swing against her. She holds the seat by 13.9 per cent, and the primary and preferences mix places Curtin in the mathematical “sweet spot” for a competitive liberal independent challenge.

Fairweather says that after their initial meeting “we each dived into our networks to expand the conversation and check the mood with baby Kitchen Table Conversations”. The themes were consistent with those in blue-ribbon Sydney and Melbourne seats – real action on climate change, political integrity, support for gender equality, Indigenous rights and the arts, and serious investment in innovation, technology and education to secure Australia’s economic future. No one in the group has party political experience. People with legal backgrounds have been joined by local marketing and media experts, learning on the job.

A Maslin interview with the local Post newspaper in early December launched “Curtin Independent” with a page-one splash, generating wide interest, especially from professional women. “He is a public figure in Perth, so it really lit the match,” Fairweather says.

Two Curtin Independent members approached Chaney in early January.

“Seeing the wave of community independents around the country made me take the idea seriously,” she says. “I thought maybe this is a way I can do it with integrity, without having to play that party political game with factions and compromises. This feels like the way I can have an impact on an acupuncture point where change happens in a way that’s consistent with my own integrity. It’s been a long time brewing, but it’s still a big move.”

Asked why she felt it was her duty rather than someone else’s to stand, she says, “A lot of people are not in a position to be able to do that. There’s financial risk, there’s reputational risk, there’s personal cost in terms of family responsibilities.”

Chaney says she has benefited already from a great education and a varied career. “I have the privilege of that opportunity and I’ve got a great support network around me, strong mental health and I’m probably tough enough. So if you’re lucky enough to be in that position, it does come with an obligation as well.”

She says the “Voices for” movement was the reason she’s in the race. “If I hadn’t been approached by Curtin Independent, I don’t think I would have had the guts to throw myself into it. Something I’ve found amazing about this is when you start a relationship with people talking about what’s important and values, it builds this incredible level of trust and common purpose and optimism. And that’s something I find really exciting – I’ve been pretty overwhelmed by the level of energy and support in this group of people who come from different ends of the electorate and are coalescing around this idea.”

The patron of the “Voices for” community movement, Cathy McGowan, tells The Saturday Paper that “across Australia voters in more than 20 once-safe Coalition seats are reassessing their vote, and integrity is the core issue. They are asking how did their representative vote on the Helen Haines integrity bill? They are asking why Bridget Archer, the MP for Bass, was the only government MP to cross the floor when the rules allow all Coalition MPs this option.

“It’s about courage. In these blue-ribbon, safe Coalition seats, including Curtin, communities are now exercising their courage muscle and calling on their MPs to do the same.”

Chaney chafes when asked about her family pedigree: “I hope it’s not just the surname – I’m a bit chippy about that.” In addition to her uncle Fred Chaney, her grandfather Sir Frederick Chaney was a minister in the Menzies government and the lord mayor of Perth. Her father, Michael, was chief executive of Wesfarmers and now chairs the company’s board. He has also chaired the boards of NAB and Woodside and was chancellor of the University of Western Australia.

“I’m not a representative of the Chaney family,” Kate Chaney says. “There’s a diverse spectrum of views within my family, and I don’t know that it’s appropriate for my family to come out and give their blessing. It’s much more about the community than about them. On a personal level they think I’m a little bit crazy because politics is a difficult game and challenging the status quo is hard.

“But we share a common interest in wanting to see Australia governed well, and my family has always had a strong sense of service to the public, whether that’s in law, education, business or politics. They’re personally supportive, and concerned, because putting yourself into public life you open yourself to criticism, and by all accounts it can get a bit ugly.”

Chaney herself is scathing about today’s Liberal Party. “I grew up in a Liberal Party context and handed out how-to-vote cards as a kid, but I’ve been a swinging voter my adult life and not felt that either party represents me. I don’t fit with any party, really, certainly the way they are at the moment. The Liberal Party is about power without purpose now. What they’re good at is the politics – the policies are a whole lot less interesting or important. So it’s ‘get in power and stay in power’ rather than actually using that power to achieve anything.”

Maslin will introduce Chaney at the launch of her campaign on February 6, Covid-19 permitting. Her campaign managers are Sarah Silbert, a lawyer who helped found Curtin Independent, and Kate Sinfield, a close friend of Chaney who owns a hotel and distillery. Silbert’s daughter, Sophia, 19, designed the campaign T-shirt and slogan, “Make Curtin count in Canberra”.

Suddenly, the Liberal Party faces an expensive fight to save its fifth-safest metropolitan seat. It comes from a fired-up community supporting Curtin’s answer to Wentworth’s blue-blood independent candidate Allegra Spender. It’s going to be wild.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 29, 2022 as "The courage muscle".

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