Australia’s ‘independent day’ looms as voters reel from a ‘gutful’ of politics

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The rise of the independents in Australia's federal election
The rise of the independents in Australia's federal election ... "We are frustrated that so often our government is found to be either lying or incompetent, sometimes both." Image: ABC/IDN

SPECIAL REPORT: By Kalinga Seneviratne

When Australians go to the polls on Saturday to elect a new government, the vast continent which was stolen from the indigenous people in 1788 and annexed to the British crown may have its “independent day” — not one that would declare itself a republic, but a day when independent members of Parliament may hold the balance of power in the lower house in Canberra.

In February this year, the founder of Climate 200 Simon Holmes à Court — son of Australia’s first billionaire Robert Holmes à Court — in an address to the Canberra Press Club said that independents hold considerable sway in some seats, and they will provide a tough challenge to the two major parties in Australian politics — Labour (ALP) and Liberal-National (LNP) — in the forthcoming federal elections.

He added that they have gathered a $7 million (US$4.9 million) war chest to fix Australia’s “broken” political system.

“As we approach this upcoming election, the Australian political system is broken. That’s the problem. That’s why we are here today,” he told a packed press club in the national capital adding that Australians have had a “gutful” of politics.

“Engaged Australians are deeply frustrated that we are not making progress on the issues that matter … We are frustrated that so often our government is found to be either lying or incompetent, sometimes both,” he said.

“We have a government more interested in winning elections than improving our great nation. A government that seeks power, without purpose.

“We are frustrated about climate and action. We are frustrated about corruption in politics. We are frustrated about the treatment and safety of women.”

Looking over their shoulders
As the election campaign approaches its final stretch, politicians from both parties are looking over their shoulders at independent candidates who are challenging them in some crucial seats.

The Liberal Party of Prime Minister Scott Morrison is more worried than his opposition counterpart, the Australian Labor Party (ALP). Polling indicates that some blue-ribbon Liberal (governing LNP is a coalition of Liberal and National parties) seats could fall to popular local independent candidates and may result in a hung Parliament when the results of the elections are out by the early morning of May 22.

Liberals got a taste of things to come at a New South Wales (NSW) state byelection in February when voters in the heart of Sydney Northshore (which is a bastion of conservative politics) seat of Willoughby chose a replacement for the former Premier of the state, the hugely popular Gladys Berejiklian, who was forced to resign under corruption allegations.

She last won the seat with a hefty margin of 21 percent but there was a swing of 19 percent against the Liberal candidate who very narrowly won the seat via postal votes. The unsuccessful Independent candidate Larrisa Penn ran her campaign with very little funding.

Holmes à Court’s environmental organisation has been providing funds to a chain of candidates around the country, but he says that Climate 200 is not a political party and the candidates they give money to do not have a common political platform.

He also added that they give them money if they ask for it and give them advice on campaign tactics if they seek it. However, most independents are funded with donations from ordinary Australians who want to see systematic political change in Australia.

“These candidates don’t need to go into politics to be successful because they are already successful,” he told the press gallery.

“They are business owners, doctors, lawyers, journalists, and athletes. They are in it for the right reasons.”

Community advocacy group
In the Melbourne seat of Kooyong, held by Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, local independent Professor Monique Ryan, the head of neurology at the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne, who was endorsed by the community advocacy group Voices of Kooyong to stand in the seat is being given a good chance of unseating the government heavyweight.

“A genuine contest between two smart people to represent a smart, engaged electorate should make for good politics. Instead, the Kooyong campaign has turned rancid, as Ryan and her principal backer, Simon Holmes à Court, can almost touch an unlikely prize and Frydenberg, a potential future prime minister, can see his political career fading to black” observed Melbourne Age’s chief political reporter Chip Le Grand.

Professor Ryan is one of 21 “Voices of” candidates to have announced their run for a lower house seat for the 2022 federal election, and political analysts believe that in at least 5 Liberal-held seats in Victoria and NSW they stand a good chance of toppling the sitting candidate.

“The grassroots campaigns have attracted tens of thousands of people across Australia, many of whom have never volunteered for a political cause before,” noted Guardian Australia’s Calla Wahlquist. “Government MPs are feeling the pressure.”

The Seven Network claimed last week that PM Morrison had become “hysterical” about the independent challenge. It pointed out that he had started to hammer out a key campaign theme in media interviews and speeches claiming that independents in Parliament would threaten Australia’s economic stability and national security.

“The allegation by the prime minister … that independent parliamentarians and candidates are a threat to Australia’s security is a shameful slur on decent people exercising their democratic right to stand for election,” Tasmanian independent MP Andrew Wilkie said in a statement broadcast on Seven Network.

“It’s also symptomatic of a government becoming increasingly hysterical at the realisation it’s out of step with a great many Australians.” Wilkie pointed out that some crossbenchers, such as himself, had served in the defence and intelligence services and it was “outrageous” for the prime minister to criticise them.

Encouraged voting for independents
Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who was toppled in a party-room coup by Morrison in 2018 is encouraging Australians to vote for independents whom he calls “small-l Liberals” that are trying to save the liberal values he once espoused.

He says the party is now being taken over by climatic change deniers supported by Rupert Murdoch’s media in Australia such as Sky News, which has given ample coverage to Morrison’s “independents being a national security threat’’ argument.

Well-known election analyst Malcolm Mackerras predicts that the May 21 elections would result in a hung Parliament with both ALP and LNP dependent on 6-8 independent MPs to form a government.

The preferential voting system in the lower house of the Australian Parliament has resulted in favouring a two-party system, but he believes it is due for reform and voters would deliver it. It is compulsory for Australians to vote in elections.

Independents supported by Climate 200 are called “teal candidates” because they use colour in their campaign material which is a merger between green and blue.

“The teal independents are speaking directly to moderate Liberal constituents who are frustrated with the (blue) Liberal Party’s positioning on social and environmental issues” argues Amy Nethery, senior lecturer in politics and policy studies at Deakin University.

“While these same voters may never vote Labour or Greens, many are alienated by Morrison and his government, particularly on climate change and women’s issues.”

Many candidates are women
She points out that it is significant that 19 of the 22 Climate 200 supported candidates are women.

“All of whom have had highly successful careers in their own right. High-profile candidates include Ryan (Kooyong), a professor and head of neurology at the Royal Children’s Hospital, Zoe Daniel (Goldstein) a former ABC foreign correspondent, and Allegra Spender (Wentworth) the chief executive of the Australian Business and Community Network,” noted Nethery writing in The Conversation.

“The teal independents are not political staffers taking the next step towards inevitable political careers. These are professional women making a radical sideways leap because, they say, this is what the times require. It’s a compelling story.”

Dr Kalinga Seneviratne is a Sydney-based IDP-InDepth News Southeast Asia director, the flagship agency of the nonprofit International Press Syndicate. He is currently in Suva. This article is republished with permission.

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