Who’s afraid of the independents?

The “teal” independents challenging mostly moderate Liberals in once safe seats may, or may not, prove to be one of the most significant stories of this election. Their pared-back agenda of climate change action, integrity and gender equality has stood out from the spray of cash and commitments from the major parties. That so many of them are women the Liberal Party would once have wooed as candidates is notable, particularly because the government has alienated so many female voters.

“Teal” independents Allegra Spender, Zoe Daniel, Kylea Tink, Sophie Scamps and Kate Chaney.Credit:Jessica Hromas, Elke Meitzel, Wolter Peeters, Nick Moir, Tony McDonough

This is not politics as usual, particularly for the Liberals, who have – mistakenly, in our view – attacked them as “fake” independents whose election would cause chaos in parliament. The truth is we are seeing democracy in action. If voters in moderate Liberal seats decide the party no longer represents their values, the party has itself to blame, no one else.

At this election, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has attempted to sandbag its support from the likes of Pauline Hanson while wooing voters in the regions and outer suburbs, areas more traditionally supportive of Labor. This is a fascinating, and perhaps historic shift, in Australia’s political alignment.

We will know next week, but it may mean the Liberal Party’s shuffle to the right, including its foot-dragging on climate policy, its leader’s encouragement of candidates such as Katherine Deves in Warringah (whose views on trans people are abhorrent), and its refusal to see the necessity of a strong federal integrity commission, will mean disillusioned small-l liberals may abandon the party in large numbers.

If the party loses a seat like Kooyong – the seat of Robert Menzies – it will mark a historic moment for the Liberals. Monique Ryan, an independent galvanised by grassroots support and bankrolled by local fundraising and Simon Holmes a Court’s Climate 200, has federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg fighting for his political life. The Age does not endorse either candidate, but we do believe the party would be diminished if Frydenberg, a substantial person of talent, lost his seat amid a mess of his party’s making.

Rob Priestly is tapping into discontent over a battle on water rights in the seat of Nicholls.

Apart from Ryan, the most prominent of the teal independents are Zoe Daniels, who is threatening to oust Tim Wilson in the bayside electorate of Goldstein, Allegra Spender, running against Dave Sharma in the Sydney seat of Wentworth and Kylea Tink, who is challenge Trent Zimmerman in North Sydney. At times, their rhetoric has been general rather than detailed, and it is fair that they have been asked who they would support on matters of supply and confidence if they found themselves with the balance of power.

On their key issues, it is clear their positions more closely align with Labor’s, but to say so may undermine their chances among traditionally Liberal voters. But it is reasonable, too, that they would consider the popular vote in their decision, and which major party wins the most seats. It could be that an independent MP guarantees supply to one party, and negotiates with others to achieve a robust integrity commission and greater action on climate change, actions The Age supports. There is no reason to think that all the teal independents would choose one side – indeed, that is unlikely.

The influx of independents reaches beyond the inner-city enclaves. There is movement in the country, too, and here, the issues are different and local. In northern Victoria, independent Rob Priestly, a Greater Shepparton councillor and local businessman, is tapping into discontent over the ongoing battle on water rights in a tight three-way battle with the National and Liberal parties in the seat of Nicholls.

Next door, in the seat of Indi in north-east Victoria, the spark was first lit that triggered the groundswell of independents in the modern era. It was here that local farmer Cathy McGowan defeated Sophie Mirabella at the 2013 federal election, the only sitting Liberal MP to lose her seat that year despite holding a margin of nearly 10 per cent. McGowan has become a mentor to other independents, who argue that unless a seat is marginal, it gets scant attention from the major parties.

The independent candidates deserve scrutiny, but not sneer. Outside their core beliefs, whether it be climate, integrity and gender for teal candidates, or water rights in northern Victoria, independents have often struggled to articulate policies crucial issues to Australia, including its relationship with China, the mounting debt bill, tax reform and cost-of-living pressures. Without the resources of a party to have fully costed, detailed policies would seem ambitious. The danger of independents is that they focus on a few issues and the interests of just one electorate, while the advantage of a political party is that it can and must take into account the national interest, which involves hard trade-offs.

Australians are increasingly sceptical that our two-party system is working. For all the scaremongering that a hung parliament would result in chaos, there is no shortage of countries that rely on shifting coalitions to form government. At the 2019 election, the combined primary vote of Labor and the Coalition in the House of Representatives slumped to its lowest level since World War II and opinion polls during this campaign show the shift to small parties and independents is growing. The major parties may bemoan this, but they need to look in the mirror to understand why.

Cut through the noise of the federal election campaign with news, views and expert analysis from Jacqueline Maley. Sign up to our Australia Votes 2022 newsletter here.

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