John Hewson
Independents versus a broken system

Despite the efforts of the media to discredit the independents’ movement, attempting to tag them as “fake independents” and otherwise minimising their coverage, there should be little doubt that many conservative members sitting in what they had thought were “safe” seats are already recognising the strength of the contest.

The essence of the independents is community engagement – an answer to the fact sitting members were not listening to, and really weren’t reflecting, the interests of the communities they were elected to represent. These independents are genuinely community-based, selected by their communities. Naturally, their policy focus is on the major failings of the Morrison government, the destruction of trust and lack of integrity and accountability right across the government, and the poor policy responses to the need for a national integrity commission. They are also focused on failures to act on climate, the cost of living and aged care, as well as other local issues.

The “Voices of” movement grew out of the success of Cathy McGowan’s community-based campaign against Liberal Sophie Mirabella in the seat of Indi. It was followed up by the success of Helen Haines’s election in the same seat. The success of Zali Steggall in replacing Tony Abbott in the federal seat of Warringah similarly emphasised Abbott’s failures in representing his community – specifically failing to represent their strong “Yes” vote on same-sex marriage and for his mockery of the climate challenge.

There have been some 45 community-based “Voices” movements established across the country, so far identifying 27 candidates. Despite the deliberately misleading attacks on these movements, they are genuine grassroots movements often begun around kitchen tables. These groups have then often, but not always, approached Climate 200 for untied financial support, to top up monies raised in their communities.

The candidates settle their policy priorities in discussions with various community forums and sign up volunteers to work in their campaigns, including manning polling booths on election day. Some have been able to sign up more than 1000 volunteers to date. As would be expected, given the state of the Morrison government, the declared candidates so far are in LNP seats. I am told, however, that movements are beginning in some ALP seats, too.

To deny the essence of community-based independents is to deny the essence of our democracy. Evidence is emerging that sitting members are starting to recognise just how exposed they really are, in terms of their failures to ensure appropriate community engagement.

For example, Dave Sharma, the member for my old seat of Wentworth, is attempting to counter the argument that he has been a poor local representative, publicising the fact he has received 37,492 emails “about issues in our community”, made 234 “speeches in our community”, and “conducted 1865 meetings with local residents”.

Sharma has also been exaggerating and misrepresenting his climate credentials, given that the issue polls as the most significant in his seat and with the memory of having lost the post-Turnbull byelection to Kerryn Phelps largely on the issue. His independent rival, Allegra Spender, has also been running hard on the issue.

I have been told that the main reason Greg Hunt decided not to recontest his seat of Flinders was for fear of losing to the strong female independent Despi O’Connor, a former mayor, local teacher and well-connected resident. To lose would have compromised the health legacy he is keen to preserve and protect.

Tim Wilson, in Goldstein, has been panicked into attacking a high-profile candidate, Zoe Daniel, for the fact that she had already distributed her posters in breach of electoral rules. And in neighbouring Kooyong Treasurer Josh Frydenberg is consumed by the contest with Dr Monique Ryan.

With the memory of serious challenges at the last election, he has been sufficiently concerned to obtain the list of declared donors to Climate 200 and to attempt to bully them. He has also saturated his seat with posters long before the election was called. Talk about double standards.

I guess it’s okay to be paranoid if you think everyone is coming to get you. The response of the Morrison government to these independents, strongly supported by some of their sycophantic media mates, has been to claim they are running as a front for Labor or the Greens. They produce no evidence to support this view, beyond vaguely asserting that some candidates are former members of the ALP or the Greens.

The likely significance of a vote for these independents at the next election is clear. The maths is also clear. The LNP has to hold all the 75 seats it has and hopefully win a couple more, while Albanese has to win eight seats to add to his current 68 if he is to get a winning margin. It’s a big ask for both, especially when the independents may win several more seats.

Recent polling, for example the most recent Roy Morgan Poll, reveals a significant pick-up in potential support for independents. Nearly one-third of voters said they would vote for a minor party or an independent. Morgan commented this “suggests that voters are significantly more apt to be persuaded by independents than at the last election”. There are already eight members on the crossbench, four from minor parties and four independents.

I believe that it will be difficult for either the LNP or Labor to win in their own right. The most likely outcome is that one of the two major parties will end up leading a minority government, having to negotiate with the independents to form government. While some fear this would be an unstable outcome, I suggest it may be the most effective means of ensuring better government in our national interest.

If the independents are prepared to make it clear that they will only support initiatives to deliver better government, with a national integrity commission to enforce accountability, it would be a dramatic improvement on what the LNP has delivered, wasting public monies in pursuit of their political ambitions, ducking clearly defined responsibilities, blaming others and obfuscating on the detail of issues just to move on. A hung parliament dependent on independents could trigger an end to this appalling age of entitlement.

Unfortunately, the media is working against this outcome. The sludge commentary from the monsters after dark on Sky News is now made up of blatant scaremongering about the possibility that these independents may hold the balance of power. It seems to come down to their concern, as irresponsible and ignorant, climate-denying flat-earthers, that independents will ensure a more complete and effective response to climate change.

It is to be hoped that they do. The Morrison government has been reckless and irresponsible in response to climate change – by resisting meaningful targets and adopting inadequate policies to reduce emissions.

A significant reason for the attractiveness of community independents is that the candidates don’t see themselves as career politicians but rather as accepting the overarching responsibility to reflect their views and interests as a means of giving something back to their community.

To quote Tony Windsor – they will not just be “time servers”.

I am concerned that some in the media have basically refused to cover the independents, either individually or as a political phenomenon. The mainstream press is going to extreme lengths to protect the two-party system, while at the same time obviously picking their nag.

This system is so conspicuously in decline. Party membership has fallen dramatically, yet the parties seem intent on sustaining bad behaviour, such as bullying and branch-stacking, taking for granted their rank-and-file members who, in many cases, have supported and worked for the parties through thick and thin over many years.

A mounting criticism of the declared independents is that they are mostly white, well-off women, those best able to afford to respond to climate change. The worst descriptions have painted them as chardonnay-sipping hypocrites and climate alarmists, which tells me more about those journalists and commentators than the people putting themselves forward for election.

Many journalists who have screamed in the past about the gender imbalance in our politics and more broadly about the concentration of power are now outraged about the rise of female independents. Surely, though, it would be an advantage to break down the dominance of men in suits and to have more women active in our politics and government.

Of course, it is not really about who is running. It is about holding onto a system that no longer works to serve the public. That is the reality in this election. 

John Hewson is a member of Climate 200’s advisory council.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 16, 2022 as "A broken system".

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John Hewson is a professor at the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy and former Liberal opposition leader.

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