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The female independents vying for the seats of high-profile Liberal men at the next federal election
Concerned by a growing disconnect between the values of their communities - such as gender equality and climate - and how they are dealt with in Canberra, these independent candidates are among those ready to contest the 2022 federal election.
Published Sunday 5 December 2021
By Emma Brancatisano
Source: SBS News
Zoe Daniel says she had no intention of entering politics.
The former ABC journalist has worked on the sidelines as an “observer” for almost three decades, covering natural disasters, conflicts and politics - most recently as the broadcaster’s United States bureau chief.
She says she is a swing voter and tends to cast her ballot based on leadership and policy agendas. Right now, she says Australia is stuck.
“As someone who has worked around the world, who has seen the disintegration of one of the world’s great democracies in the US, I feel that we are really stuck right now in our two-party system.”
“The policy-making is very much to do with how it plays with the electorate rather than how it actually affects people's lives. I also think there is a huge trust gap developing between the people and the politicians, and that's something that is really concerning to me.”
Last week, Ms Daniel announced she will run as an independent for the Melbourne electorate of Goldstein in the upcoming federal election.
Zoe Daniel (right) will run against Liberal MP Tim Wilson in the Melbourne electorate of Goldstein. Source: AAP, Supplied
Ms Daniel was approached by Voices of Goldstein, one of many Voices of or Voices for grassroots community groups fielding candidates and mobilising independent campaigns aimed at government-held seats.
“The main pillars of that movement really align with my own values - particularly around integrity, which I think [is] sadly lacking in politics the world over - including in Australia - and also finding some accountability in particular policy areas that are sadly lacking and, in effect, hampering our progress at a time when we really need to be moving forward.
“Climate is a big one, also equality and genuine safety for women in the workplace.”
Federal parliament has this year been rocked by allegations of bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault, particularly against women. An conducted by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins this week laid bare the extent and depth of the problem inside the people's house.
Goldstein, in Melbourne’s south-east, is held by Liberal MP Tim Wilson, who was elected in 2016 and re-elected in 2019. He holds the seat by a margin of just under eight per cent but defended his position in a statement to SBS News.
“My record of taking Goldstein’s values to the nation is resolutely clear in what I’ve delivered: stopping the retiree tax and the China Extradition Treaty, delivering marriage equality and Australia’s first comprehensive economy-wide plan for carbon neutrality,” Assistant Minister Wilson said.
“The Parliamentary record shows that they [current inner-urban independent MPs] already vote with the Greens 70 per cent of the time and their own backers say they will work closely with the Greens if elected – so can we stop the charade that they are anything but fake Greens."
Alana Galli-McRostie will run as the Greens' candidate for Goldstein. Victorian Labor has been contacted for comment.
Independents step up for 2022
The government has named 29 March as the date for a federal budget in a parliamentary program, which could pave the way for an election in early May.
Also among those facing challenges from independents are Liberal moderates Dave Sharma in Wentworth, in Sydney’s east, and Trent Zimmerman in North Sydney.
Allegra Spender and Kylea Tink launched their respective campaigns to run in Wentworth and North Sydney in recent months.
“I’ve lived in Wentworth my whole life,” said Ms Spender, who is the daughter of late Australian fashion icon Carla Zampatti and former Liberal MP John Spender.
Trained as an economist and with much of her career spent working in business, she plans to focus her campaign on climate change, integrity and the economy.
“The reason I’m running is really the frustration that a lot of people feel - I think around the country, but particularly those in Wentworth - with what is happening in Canberra. I feel there is a real disconnect between what the community’s expectations are of government and of parliament versus what is actually being delivered.”
Speaking to Sky News on 24 November, Mr Sharma said he has run against strong and high-profile independents each time he has stood for elections.
"This is not a new feature on the Wentworth political landscape, at least for me," he said. "And, I think people need to make up their mind - and independent candidates also need to level with the public - that if there is a situation where there is a hung parliament, who are they going to support as prime minister?"
Allegra Spender will run against Liberal MP Dave Sharma for the seat of Wentworth in the upcoming federal election. Source: Facebook (Allegra Spender) / Supplied
With similar frustrations and career experience in the commercial sector as a CEO and board member, Ms Tink’s first instinct to play her part in “changing the conversation” was to turn to what she knew well.
“I was quite surprised when a friend called me and asked if I had ever considered entering politics. I could honestly say to her at the time, ‘no, I hadn’t’,” she said.
Weeks later, with the backing community independent group ‘North Sydney’s Independent’, Ms Tink launched her campaign. She believes Australia is at a “tipping point” when it comes to climate, integrity, and more broadly, politics.
“The thing I also find interesting is that as voters, we created this system. We are the ones that brought it into being, and the exciting thing about that realisation is that we can also recreate it. For me, that's a major reason for standing up - accepting the responsibility to recreate it,” she said.
Kylea Tink will run as an independent against Liberal MP Trent Zimmerman for the seat of North Sydney. Source: AAP, Supplied
Mr Zimmerman told SBS News such contests are “part of a vibrant democracy”.
“I will be standing on my record as North Sydney’s MP and previous to that through my long involvement in our community,” he said.
“I am proud of what I have achieved during my time in federal parliament, including delivering marriage equality and achieving strong climate policy outcomes such as a net zero by 2050 commitment, improved emission reduction projections of 35 per cent by 2030 and better protection for Commonwealth harbour land in Sydney.”
He said it is important the government and the Liberal Party have “strong progression liberal voices in its rank” and that it “makes no sense to me that the Voices movement is targeting moderate Liberals”.
NSW Labor is yet to finalise its preselections, while the Greens will announce its NSW candidates following this weekend's local elections.
Simon Holmes á Court, convenor of Climate 200 - a “special interest group” which supports and helps to fund pro-climate, pro-integrity and pro-gender equality independents - said he is aware of about 16 candidates who have either announced or are expected to announce their campaigns; 14 of them are women.
‘Predominantly a women-led movement’
Born out of the success of Cathy McGowan, who in 2013 broke the Liberal’s hold on the seat of Indi, some experts and those within the movement say running as an independent is gaining traction.
At the time, Ms McGowan became the first independent member for the north-east Victorian electorate, and the first female independent to sit on the crossbench. She held the seat in the 2016 election and successfully passed the baton to Independent Helen Haines in 2019.
Others followed, including Kerryn Phelps - who held Wentworth after winning a by-election in 2018 but lost it to Mr Sharma in 2019 - and Zali Steggall, who challenged former prime minister Tony Abbott to win the seat of Warringah in 2019.
According to Climate 200, more than 30 grassroots community groups have now formed across the country to support independents.
“It’s not an overnight success,” Mr Holmes á Court said.
“That story - of a community banding together and working to secure true local representation - has inspired so many communities around the country and created this democratic revival that we are seeing through the Voices of movement and moving towards the community independents movement.”
He said about 80 per cent of those involved in the community independent movement who he is in contact with are women.
“There is something very visceral about the experiences over the last 12 months - and not just on the treatment and safety of women, but a feeling that parliament is failing all of us,” he said.
“It is predominantly, I would say, a women-led movement. And it's no surprise that the candidates who are stepping up, and who are being selected by their communities, are predominantly women.”
Ms Steggall welcomed the recent announcements from various electorates “of strong, independent candidates stepping up, especially because they are professional women”.
“We do need more gender equality down here in this place, and I think it really is time for more women to acknowledge and feel that politics is where they need to go to change things,” she said.
Independent MP Zali Steggall. Source: AAP
Ms Steggall views this trend as the culmination of “several years of dissatisfaction”.
“With every disruptive curve, it gradually picks up pace until, all of a sudden, it reaches a tipping point. I think, I hope, this is what we are seeing now with Australian politics,” she said.
“We've had more and more opportunities for a bit more diversity, for the parliament to be more representative of the diversity of views that we have in society ... It has shown that this can be done.
“In fact, in the last several elections, the primary vote for major parties keeps dropping, which says people are looking for alternatives. I strongly believe community-backed independents are that alternative - it's that credible, local alternative that communities are looking for.”
A ‘distinctive episode’ in Australian politics
Ian McAllister, a politics professor at the Australian National University, said independents have “waxed and waned” in Australian politics over time.
"We have seen a surge in independents over the last ten years or so, particularly in the House of Representatives, which is not usually where you find the independents. It is a bit of a change," he said, noting a decline in partisanship and trust in politicians have made them more attractive to voters.
Last federal election, the Coalition faced a string of independent challenges, with Ms Steggall and Ms Haines being successful.
Professor McAllister has also noticed a “potentially quite important change” among recent candidates.
“What I do observe is the most recent crop of independents - and they tend to be disproportionately female, older, people who have sometimes done things in business and commerce in the public sector and then stood. So they do tend to be slightly different,” he said.
Anika Gauja, professor of politics at the University of Sydney, believes this is “quite a distinctive episode”.
She puts this down to the increasing number of independents declaring their candidacies earlier, evidence of a significant mobilisation in their electorates against the government and the major parties on progressive issues such as climate change. She also attributes this to the high number of women candidates.
“Given the findings of the Jenkins report, this isn’t terribly surprising,” she said.
“Australian political parties have been known for quite some time for their fairly masculine cultures, and it has been quite hostile to women and women candidates. Running as an independent offers many women an opportunity to enter politics and to do so outside that culture of mainstream party politics.”
But she said this election, there’s a key difference.
“We have a lot of very competent, talented women running for parliament this time, but I think this is a more significant episode because they have announced their candidatures early [and] they have a well-resourced, and well-organised support group behind them.”
Part of that support is donations from Climate 200, which is subject to the same disclosure regulations as the major parties. Mr Holmes á Court said the group had intended to have at least 200 donors coming into the next election. At time of writing, it is set to pass 6,000 donors and $5 million in funds.
“We are small fry [compared to the major parties] but we are going to focus our attention on helping these independents who are stepping up. They have their own fundraising - our job is to turbocharge them.”
‘Showing up means we stand out’
When asked about being surrounded by mostly women candidates, Ms Tink said she found it “intriguing” and “exciting”.
“I think at the moment, we are probably the focus of attention because there are a few of us that have stepped up in quick succession. So it does look like there is this real wave, this momentum.”
“There is clearly no doubt that women are still very severely underrepresented when it comes to leadership roles in this country, and that includes our parliamentary roles. The reality is there is more room to step up because we haven't been there in the first place.
“Showing up probably means we stand out because we are unusual in what we've seen in the past.”
Ms Spender also said she was not surprised by the number of women standing up who “don’t see an alternative”, while Ms Daniel commented on their similar skills and backgrounds.
“Rather than sitting on the sidelines as observers as we have been, we have each made separate decisions to step in as independents simultaneously.”
Could this change things?
Having observed changes in Australia's political landscape for some time, Professor McAllister says he isn't convinced much will change.
"The number of times you look at something and think, ‘this is a big change, this will change politics’, well no [it doesn’t]. Another couple of elections and it's all back to normal."
But others think independents could threaten the balance of power.
The Coalition now has 76 seats in the 151-seat parliament, while Labor has 69. Seventy-six seats are needed for a majority government.
“If only two of those seats were to move across to independents, we would have a government where the crossbench needs to be consulted on all legislation,” Mr Holmes á Court said.
"What we saw back in 2010 to 2013, when there was a minority government that required crossbench support, and when we had minority government again at the end of the last parliament when the medevac bill was passed, independents have a track record of bringing a backbone to parliament; they raise the big issues and they vote on their conscience."
Professor Gauja agreed a shift in the political landscape is “entirely possible”.
“There are a number of electorates - both in urban and regional areas - that are quite marginal,” she said.
"The combination of that [marginal seats], some women independents already in parliament, and the fact that we have these well-resourced groups announcing their campaigns early I think could make a real difference in the next election.”