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Margaret Simons on the independents who could go on to hold the balance of power.

The outsiders who could dominate the election

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More than in any other election, next month’s poll will feature a defining number of independent candidates. They represent a new, well-organised reaction against the major parties. For the Liberals, they also represent a threat that may one day see the party split.

Today, contributor to The Monthly Margaret Simons on the independents who could go on to hold the balance of power.


Guest: Contributor to The Monthly Margaret Simons.


Read Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

More than in any other election, next month’s poll will feature a defining number of independent candidates.

They represent a new, well-organised reaction against the major parties. For the Liberals, they also represent a threat that may one day see the party split. 

Today, contributor to The Monthly magazine Margaret Simons on the independents who could go on to hold the balance of power.

It’s Monday, April 4.

[Theme Music Ends]

Margaret, going into this election there are two broad types of independent candidates. There are the so-called teal independents running in Liberal seats, and there is a movement of independents who running in the bush against Nationals incumbents. Let’s take the first group. Tell me about some of these inner-city independent - who are they?

Archival Tape -- Zoe Daniel:
“I'm Zoe Daniel, and I'm your community backed independent candidate for Goldstein.”


We have Zoe Daniel, a former ABC journalist who's running in Goldstein, taking on the Liberals Tim Wilson. 

Archival Tape -- Kylea Tink:
“I'm Kylea Tink and I'm running as the independent candidate for North Sydney because I believe we need to change the climate in Canberra. This federal election I'm asking you to put me, is your number one at the ballot box?”

We have Kylea Tink in North Sydney who is taking on Trent Zimmerman. And we have Allegra Spender in Wentworth running against Dave Sharma. 

Archival Tape -- Allegra Spender:
“Hi, I’m Allegra Spender and I'm your independent candidate for Wentworth. I'm a CEO. I grew up here. I went to school here and now I'm raising my family in this beautiful environment we all call home.”  

And then more broadly, we have a member of the Cheney family, Kate Cheney, running in Western Australia.

Archival Tape -- Kate Chaney:
“You may have received one of these scary flyers in your letterbox from the Liberal Party telling you that I'm not actually independent. Well.. I am.” 

And you know, I could go on a lot because there's dozens of them. Climate 200, which is the funding organisation for some of these teal blue independents, is now backing 18 candidates and there's many more than 18 candidates.

Mm-Hmm. And then there are the independents who are running in seats held largely by Nationals members. Can you tell me a bit about who you spoke to? 

Okay, so some of the independents who are running against mainly National Party safe seats, typically they're coming from farming backgrounds. They've got involvement in local councils or in local agricultural organisations and are fed up really with the National Party, in their view, not representing the interests of people in the lower Murray-Darling Basin. 

Archival Tape -- Pennie Scott:
“Why do I want to regenerate the Riverina? Because I don’t trust the National Party”

The Penny Scott in Riverina, that's Michael McCormack seat, the former leader of the National Party. 

Archival Tape -- Pennie Scott:
“They’ve had the past 11 years to lead and be the change on climate action.”

Penny Acharya is a teacher. She's taking on the Minister for Industry Angus Taylor in Hume, which is an enormous electorate. 

Rob Priestley in Nicholls, which is the second safe, safest conservative seat in the country. He says that the area of northern Victoria and the Riverina have been shortchanged by the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and by water trading. 

Archival Tape -- Host:
“Why did you decide to stand as an Independent for the seat of Nicholls?”

Archival Tape -- Rob Priestly:
“It’s a really interesting time in federal politics, our community is really vulnerable to some of the changes that will come with climate change.” 

He thinks the National Party has proved itself not up to the job of managing a big social, economic and environmental change of that kind. And he sees climate change as an even bigger social, economic and environmental challenge.

Archival Tape -- Rob Priestly:
“The thing that really probably got under my skin was when I thought about the last time that this government tried to tackle a major environmental reform… it was the Murray Darling Basin plan.” 

Now whether or not they can win, we'll have to wait and see. But again, these are not silly candidates. They're respected local people. 

Right so it sounds like some of these candidates are a real threat then, to the Nationals. So how did that happen - how did the Nationals become vulnerable to these Independents? 

Well, I think it was a huge mistake for the National Party to think that Barnaby Joyce was a vote winner. 

He may be in a couple of seats in northern New South Wales and Queensland, but when I was writing my quarterly essay on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, I travelled the whole length and breadth of the Murray-Darling Basin, and I think I only found one person who would say anything nice about Barnaby Joyce and his time as water minister.

So I think he's been a negative for the National Party. I think the National Party is increasingly seen as having favoured northern cotton growers over southern more diverse farming sectors and also favouring mining interests over farming interests. 

Right. Broadly, these two groups are being linked together. What is it that unifies these independents, in the city and in the regions?

I think, as I say, climate change is the key issue that links all of them. And the fact that all the political parties the Greens, Labour, National Party, Liberal Party have all failed to come up with a credible plan of action on climate change. You know, the Greens voted down the CPRS. The Abbott government destroyed the emissions trading scheme arrived at under the Gillard government. Kevin Rudd dropped the policy rather than fighting the election on it. I mean, you can sheet that home to all the political parties who have failed in significant ways. So that's the key issue and that is an issue of these times and this moment. 

Quite a number of the candidates said the key point at which they decided to run was during that awful period when Scott Morrison was trying to strong arm the National Party into letting him take a zero emissions by 2050 target to COP26 in Glasgow. That was the key turning point for quite a number of these candidates, so that is the issue and that is of our times. 

But I do think there's this longer standing issue as well of the reduction of mass participation in political parties and the accompanying loss of faith in the effectiveness of political parties when it comes to representing people. 

We’ll be back after this.


Margaret, the Independents that we’re talking about, they’re obviously not a united movement - but taken as a whole, what kind of impact could they have on our politics?

Yeah. Well, of course, that does depend partly on whether they got the balance of power. It really does. But let's assume that we have a substantial crossbench, but it doesn't hold the balance of power. It still changes the ecology of parliament quite a lot, and we've seen that already. 

Archival Tape -- Helen Haines:
“This is an extraordinary moment I think in the House of Representatives…” 

For example, Helen Haines with her bill on the ICAC, you know, that shifted the whole conversation, I think,

Archival Tape -- Helen Haines:
“That we can have a vote 66 to 64 in favour of bringing on debate on the most important bill that this nation needs, and we were defeated on a technicality.”

And certainly, I think, succeeded in shifting Labor's policy on that issue. 

We saw with the religious discrimination bill just recently, Rebekha Sharkie moving as if it's an independent moving. The key amendments 

Archival Tape -- Rebekha Sharkie:
“Whilst I’m very pleased to see that there would be an amendment that would protect gay students, I’m horrified to see that it doesn’t extend to children who identify as transgender…”  

Which enabled Labour to sort of wriggle out of its wedged position. Labor, in other words, managed to effectively kill the bill without actually opposing it, which was a bit of strategic smarts but wouldn't have been possible without the role of an independent.

Archival Tape --
Rebekha Sharkie:
“More than horrified I’m utterly distressed by this exclusion, so I can’t even begin to think how the children themselves or their parents feel…”   

The fact that it was an independent who moved amendments made it easier for Liberal Party members to cross the floor. And of course, they might not have crossed the floor if they weren't facing this upswell of socially progressive independents in their seats. 

So, you know, the presence of a crossbench in parliament changes. The ecology already has changed the ecology in really quite significant ways. 

Taking a step back. Margaret, what does it say to you that the biggest potential upsets this election are coming from a series of independents rather than from a party? Is it a sign that people don't see a way to effect change through the party system? 

Yeah, well, the thing that really struck me when I was researching this, you know, over and above the candidates was the volunteers. Most of these campaigns, certainly the ones that have a real chance of success, are fuelled by dozens, if not hundreds, of volunteers who are giving hours and hours of free labour and in some cases, considerable expertise as well. I mean, these are often professional people. 

Now, once upon a time, if people like that who wanted to get involved in politics or had thought there was a need for change, the most likely course for them to take would have been to join one of the political parties in areas like North Sydney and Wentworth. It probably would have been the Liberal Party and through policy committees and national conferences and all the usual structures of political parties argue for certain policies, support certain candidates and see that as their involvement. Now these people are not doing that anymore. They've lost faith in the worthwhileness, if you like of that. 

And Jim Middleton, former political correspondent for the ABC and for Sky News, who's now working for Climate 200 and for some of the candidates, he said to me, Look, the big parties are basically over as mass movements,  people have lost faith in the effectiveness of being a member of a political party, and I think that's been a long time coming. Not the first one to identify it as a weakness of political parties. I mean, we're seeing at the moment with both Labour and liberals that local party members can't even be guaranteed a role in choosing their candidates. They're going to be overruled by the state or federal part of the branch. And you know, that's a real weakness. It may be seen as necessary to win power in the short term, but in the long term, for the viability and public support of your party, it's a real weakness. 

Mm-Hmm. One of the questions that you had going into this is whether what we're seeing is a good thing or a bad thing or a mix of the two. And I wonder where you've landed on that?

Well, I think given the stalemate on climate change policy, you know, we desperately need movement on that. And if this achieves that, then I think that will be a good thing. But I think some of the other things that are likely to result in the sort of medium to long term, and if we're talking about a long term shift in politics, we need to think about that. The Liberal Party has already made some lurches back to the centre of politics. For example, let's return some funding to the ABC. It's finally acting on the agreement with New Zealand to resettle refugees. 

These are issues which resonate in, you know, with these socially progressive liberal voting in the suburbs. If that continues, if the Liberal Party moves back to the centre and you know, people like Kylie Tink feel more at home with the Liberal Party than she does at the moment, then what's going to happen to the right of the party? It's not going to go away. 

We're already seeing splinters, people like Craig Kelly and so on, leaving the Liberal Party and joining Clive Palmer. We would have to expect to see more activism on the far right of the Liberal Party and possibly a split. I think, you know, in the long run, that may be something that we could be feeling very concerned about. 

So it's a complex phenomenon. It will have complex outcomes. And you know, as is the usual answer, a mixture of good and bad. But what I hope will happen is that both the political parties will look at the core reasons why they're so on the nose with the Australian population. Why is it that the National Party is no longer seen as the farmer's friend? Why is it that the Labour Party is no longer seen as the solution? Why is it that the hundreds and thousands of volunteers who are supporting independent candidates in this election are not seeing joining political parties as the way in which they can have an impact?

Margaret, thank you so much for your time. 


You can find Margaret Simons’ essay “The balance of power” on the cover of the latest issue of The Monthly.


Also in the news today,

The Prime Minister Scott Morrison has denied his involvement in a racial smear campaign against his opponent during his fight for preselection in the seat of Cook.

Statutory declarations first published by *The Saturday Paper* show that Morrison told pre-selectors his opponent was ‘actually a muslim’ and that a Lebnese candidate would damage the party’s chances after the Cronulla riots.

And Ukraine has now control of the whole Kyiv region pushing back Russian forces. President Vlodomir Zelensky said the Russians had left chaos behind them including mines and trip wires.

Reports have emerged of civilian bodies being found with their hands, killed execution style in front of their homes.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am, see you tomorrow.



Ruby Jones is an investigative journalist and host of 7am.


Margaret Simons is a Walkley Award-winning journalist and author.