Opinion

Jane Caro
Running against Tony Abbott in Warringah

There’s a line of Shakespeare that has been running around in my head over the past few days. Mind you, when I say “days”, I really mean nights, particularly in the wee small hours. The line that keeps ringing in my tired brain is, “Sleep no more, Macbeth hath murdered sleep …”, except in my case it is Warringah that has murdered sleep. I keep asking myself what I have done by putting up a tentative hand as a possible independent candidate for the seat currently held by former prime minister Tony Abbott. And, more to the point, why exactly have I done it? Do I really have anything worthwhile to offer the people of Warringah? Am I the right person for this job?

The unexpected roller-coaster of the past few days began on Saturday night, in the wake of Kerryn Phelps’s remarkable and satisfying success – as we thought at the time – in wresting the blue ribbon seat of Wentworth from the Liberal Party. My sister, who is a sober and responsible public school principal by day but clearly reverts to the mischief-maker I remember from my childhood by night, responded to a tweet by Charlie Pickering calling for more independents to think about running. She teased me about my possible candidacy in Warringah, she even suggested I might consider moving to a house in the electorate. I took umbrage at this suggestion – given that I grew up in Warringah, went to school there, sent my own children to a public secondary school in the area and live just across the border in the seat of North Sydney. Almost as an afterthought, I ended my tweet back with: “Anyone interested? Get in touch.”

They did. In droves. And they’re still getting in touch.

As I said in my tweets, I may not win, but that’s not the point. The chance someone like me running could nudge climate policy away from the denialism of the hard right makes me feel duty bound to at least try.

But it would be disingenuous of me to pretend this was the first moment I had toyed with the idea of standing for political office. Members of the public have been making that suggestion to me for more than a decade. I had always resisted the idea publicly, but I did occasionally wonder about it in private. However, when the dual citizenship crisis blew up I almost gave the idea away, as I have British citizenship as well as Australian. I was born in London and migrated here when I was five. I have since investigated revoking my British citizenship; it is not complicated.

In the year since, the state of the world continued to niggle at me. Democracy, it seems, is much more fragile than most of us imagined. As I watched it being whittled away in the nation that used to call itself the world’s greatest democracy, like millions of others, I became more and more concerned. I have watched in open-mouthed horror as the things we own in common – public schools, public broadcasting, public health, public transport, public infrastructure – have been undermined, underfunded and deliberately destroyed.

I heard the calls in the United States for more women to stand for office, and the response by the women in that country has been overwhelming. I spoke at – as well as marched in – the inaugural “Women’s March” in Sydney, where women and men joined hundreds of thousands of other like-minded people all over the world in protest against the Trump presidency. I boiled with rage as a roomful of men – a deliberately provocative assemblage – signed health-care legislation in the US that directly and negatively affected women’s access to reproductive choices and health. I watched in horror as the Senate hearing into the appointment of Justice Brett Kavanaugh played out, where many of the female witnesses and senators were often treated with thinly disguised suspicion and contempt.

You may say, well, that is mostly US politics, what has it got to do with the people of Warringah? Given the closeness of our politics, though, you can’t truly disentangle one from the other. I know that watching the Kavanaugh hearings, I was forcibly reminded of the treatment of Gillian Triggs – then head of Australia’s Human Rights Commission – at the hands of similarly belligerent and misogynistic male senators at a Senate estimates hearing. I am heartily sick of smart women being treated contemptuously by entitled men.

If I am noticing all this broader reactionary change – not to mention Brexit, Brazil, Putin, Duterte, school shootings, Poland, Erdoğan, Saudi Arabia, Jamal Khashoggi et cetera – many of the voters in Warringah are as well. But the problem is that, just like me, many will feel angry, unsettled and helpless. What can any of us do in the face of the return of the demagogues and the rise of fascism? Especially as we see what used to be the moderate conservative parties that form the Coalition tear themselves apart over whether to follow Trump et al in a lurch to the hard right.

Even more worryingly, like many others, I have watched environmental protections being stripped away in many parts of the world, but particularly in the US. I have watched world leaders, including many of our own – especially our former prime minister, the former member for Wentworth, who knew better – give in to pressure from the fossil fuel lobby, ignore the promise of renewables and at best downplay, or at worst deny, expert opinion and overwhelming evidence that global warming is happening and happening faster than anyone anticipated. I watched the man who is now our PM bring a lump of coal in to parliament in an attempt to mock the science of climate change. And I looked at the faces of my two small grandchildren and felt despair.

Then the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report was released and it pulled no punches. According to the report we have 12 short years left to cap global warming at 2 degrees. After that, all bets are off. In 2030, my granddaughter will be 12 years old. This has concentrated my mind. It’s time for all of us to do something – anything – we can to follow scientific advice and cut our dependence on fossil fuels in order to save ourselves. And, to do that, we must not let the climate deniers, the fossil fuel apologists, the bullies, the neoliberal zealots or those who think God will fix it – hold onto power.

And all of that – among other existential dreads – is what made me think I should consider running for Warringah. Whether I am the right person for the job, the best possible candidate for the seat, that is not for me to answer. Others who know the electorate better than I do will make that call. One thing I can promise is that I want to help in changing the face and attitudes of our leaders. Indeed, if all my candidacy and others like it does, at first, is force those in power away from the hard right and a little towards common sense, that will be something. What I don’t want to do is split the progressive vote or be a hindrance. If I am not the right candidate, I will happily withdraw.

I’m not considering running for office because I have always dreamed of being an MP – although I don’t deny it would be interesting. I am thinking about it because I see it as a civic duty. I was brought up by parents who had lived in Manchester and London through World War II. They were adolescents at the time and have vivid and disturbing memories of the Blitz and of the revelations about Nazi death camps in the immediate aftermath of the war. It affected them profoundly. They brought me up to believe that bad things happen when good people stand by and do nothing.

If I do run for Warringah, I intend to do whatever I can to make sure we pivot and pivot fast on climate change, growing economic inequality, our irrational obsession with private good/public bad and the frightening backlash against women, people of colour and the LGBTQIA community. I am sure there are many, many other people all over the world thinking the same thing – some of whom may be members of political parties, some whom may prefer to be an independent, like me. I have never been much good at toeing a party line.

In Australia, independents such as Kerryn Phelps, Cathy McGowan and Andrew Wilkie are courageously leading the way. Whether I run for Warringah or not, I am sure there are people out there who are eyeing off seats of their own all across the country ahead of the next federal election. The day of independents and of independent thinking is coming. As the author Aidan Ricketts puts it: activism is like the immune system. It rises in response to the threat.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 27, 2018 as "Running against Tony Abbott". Subscribe here.

Jane Caro
is a Sydney based novelist, writer and documentary maker.