Politics Analysis

Independents could usher in new democratic era, starting with Wentworth

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Independent candidate Allegra Spender (left) seems on track for a victory in the seat of Wentworth against Dave Sharma (Image by Dan Jensen)

Polls are showing a triumph within reach for Allegra Spender as the popularity of Independent candidates continues to grow, writes Professor Kerryn Phelps.

THE PENNY has dropped that Australian politics is undergoing a process of rapid evolution.

A dramatic shift in voter sentiment has seen a third of Australians say they will vote for Independents, Greens and other minor parties.

The emergence of the Independent movement is challenging the old combative two-party system.

Dubbed the “teal Independents” by the media to describe their small-l liberal values with a policy combination of a future-focused economy, environmental protection and social justice, this is the election campaign where we have seen an idea become a movement born of frustration with “politics as usual”.

The original “teal” reference was the colour chosen by MP Zali Steggall’s campaign in Warringah and then adopted by some of the other Independent campaigns.

In dozens of seats around Australia, communities have formed campaign teams to back candidates selected by locals to represent them. This was the process in Wentworth when they put out the call for prospective candidates and selected Allegra Spender.

Ms Spender is a business analyst, former policy analyst in the UK Treasury, was managing director of her mother Carla Zampatti’s iconic fashion label, CEO of the Australian Business and Community Network and former chair of the Sydney Renewable Power Company. Quite the CV.

Polling this week is suggesting a likely win for Allegra Spender in the electorate of Wentworth in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. This was the seat I won in the 2018 by-election after a short-and-sharp pop-up community-backed campaign, achieving an almost 20 per cent swing after Malcolm Turnbull was deposed as Prime Minister.

The Liberal candidate was an unknown in Wentworth at that time. MP Dave Sharma had no known connection to the eastern suburbs and had been working overseas as a diplomat for many years, most recently as Ambassador to Israel.  

Just seven months later, we were already back at the polling booths and we went very close to winning again. We were told that I was slightly ahead on election night, but the result was so close that we did not know the result for a few days. 

This was partly due to the marketing of Mr Sharma as a “modern Liberal” in an attempt to distance him from some of his electorally less palatable right-wing colleagues in the Coalition.

In the end, the seat was returned to the Liberal Party but with only a 1.3 per cent margin

The outcome was that Wentworth was converted from one of the “safest” Liberal seats in the country to one of the most marginal.

Importantly, at that same election in 2019, Zali Steggall won the previously safe Liberal seat of Warringah against incumbent MP and former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, and MP Helen Haines established a new tradition by winning the Victorian seat of Indi previously held by Independent Cathy McGowan.

In the intervening three years, Wentworth has had a chance to see Mr Sharma in the role of MP. It has seen a politician nominally a moderate, but not voting accordingly. He voted against attempts to progress climate action and voted against debating Helen Haines’ integrity commission bill.  

It is actually hard for people in seats held by Liberal “moderates” or “modern Liberals” (or however they are marketing themselves now) to see anything that they have achieved in this Coalition in terms of these and other issues such as addressing women’s concerns, affordable childcare, neglect in aged care or the massive loss of jobs in the university sector. 

Using teal colours and deleting or minimising reference to the Liberal Party in their newsletters hasn’t fooled too many people.

Added to this is exasperation with the Liberal-National Coalition on other issues like failing to fulfil election promises of establishing an integrity commission or passing legislation to protect LGBT students against religious discrimination, failing to address gender equality in the Parliament and racking up a trillion-dollar debt while explaining away waste and pork-barrelling as “that’s just what happens”. 

It is no coincidence that the Liberal Party has lost support amongst women. Australians will not forget the treatment of Brittany Higgins, or Prime Minister Morrison on the day of the 2021 Women’s March for Justice declaring it a triumph for democracy that protesters outside Parliament House weren’t met with bullets, or MP Julia Banks’ description of him as menacing controlling wallpaper.

The electorate will remember Scott Morrison proclaiming Christine Holgate be removed from her job as CEO of Australia Post, bellowing in Question Time in the House of Representatives that if she did not wish to step aside, “She. Can. Go!”

However, the loss of support is not just among women. I have spoken with many disaffected former Liberal voters who hark back to the foundational Menzian principles which spoke of democracy and social justice and they wonder what happened to cause this shift away from those ideals. It is likely that Robert Menzies himself would have trouble recognising this iteration of his Party. If, as expected, the Liberal Party does not somehow manifest another “miracle”, it will need to figure out this identity crisis.

Many are also angry that democratic local branch pre-selections were overridden in New South Wales by Morrison’s intervention to install “captain’s picks”, denying local branch members a say in the selection and endorsement of candidates.

Scott Morrison and others have tried running a scare campaign about the potential “confusion” that might be created by a balanced minority parliament. We had that situation in the last Parliament and demonstrated that it can work very well. It can work very well again if enough of these impressive, accomplished and professional community-selected Independents form a substantial crossbench.

Allegra and the other Independent candidates have also been repeatedly criticised for not saying which major party they would support to form government in the event of a minority situation. They are right to resist this badgering because the responsible thing to do is to wait until they see the signals from the electorate.

What does their electorate say? And what does the country as a whole signal that they want? Which party most closely aligns with their policy platform or is prepared to negotiate a compromise and could they be trusted to do what they say they will do?

Of course, if one of the major parties is able to govern in its own right then that is that.

Negotiating legislative outcomes in the Senate has become normal practice and one thing is for sure — the Senate will not be controlled by a major party.

While the polling that puts Allegra Spender ahead in Wentworth is cause for optimism amongst her volunteers and the many supporters of the new Independent movement, the experience of the last two elections in Wentworth tells us that caution is warranted.

Polls can be misleading.  

Anything can happen in the last few days of a campaign.

For the first time in many years, there is a sense of excitement about the possibility of a new era of participatory democracy.

Given the opportunity, Allegra Spender will take Wentworth into that new era.

Professor Kerryn Phelps AM is an IA columnist, the former Member for Wentworth, advisory board member and conjoint professor at NICM Health Research Institute, a Climate 200 advisory panel member, a member of OzSAGE and a former Sydney Deputy Lord Mayor. You can follow her on Twitter @drkerrynphelps.

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