Australia's new independent MPs vow to keep pressure on the Morrison government

Zali Steggall and Helen Haines say they will fight for action on climate change and protection of the medevac legislation supporting sick asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru.

Australia's newest independent MPs have warned the re-elected Morrison government not to become complacent with their narrow majority, as parliament resumed this week.

Independents Zali Steggall and Helen Haines both made history at the May election, with Ms Steggall defeating former prime minister Tony Abbott, and Dr Haines becoming the first independent to succeed another.  

While crossbenchers in the House of Representatives may not be kingmakers - like in the 45 Parliament – the new MPs have warned they could hold the balance of power at any point.

“I think we need to remember they have one seat more than they had in the 2016 election, we've seen a lot of disruption and by-elections occur on a regular basis,” Ms Steggall told SBS News.

Independents Zali Steggall and Helen Haines say they could hold the balance of power at any point in the next term.
Source: SBS News

“Right now the government has a majority but it's a relatively narrow majority and we know from very recent history that that can change,” Dr Haines said.

“So at any point in the next three years, we may indeed find that members of the crossbench have the power.”

The federal government has 77 seats in the House of Representatives with a thin two-seat majority, and the crossbench is made up of six seats.

Climate a key issue

Former Olympian Ms Steggall pulled off an extraordinary victory when she won the blue ribbon seat of Warringah, beating Mr Abbott with a swing of almost nine per cent.

The 45-year-old said the reality of coming to parliament is exciting but that she is ‘not naive’ about how much there is to learn.

Crossbench MP Zali Steggall says she will push for stronger action on climate change.
Source: AAP

One of the major issues the independent campaigned on was stronger action on climate change and she has vowed to push for that over the next three years.

“This is not a problem that is going away and Prime Minister Scott Morrison is committed to taking action ... now it's going to be a question on how of you deliver on that,” Ms Steggall said.

The issue was also pertinent in Ms Haines’ campaign for the rural north-eastern Victorian seat of Indi, which was vacated by retiring Independent Cathy McGowan. She won the seat by a margin of 7.7 per cent.

Dr Haines – whose campaign had the endorsement of her predecessor - said she doesn’t believe the government’s climate change policy is enough.

“The direct action policy is not enough and I say that with great conviction, yes it's good to be on the ground planting more trees ... but it's not enough and we need to reduce emissions ... right now, emissions are increasing,” she said.

Helen Haines is the first independent to succeed another.
Source: SBS News

Dr Haines is a former midwife and health academic and has lived in the electorate for more than 30 years.

“You know I feel almost teary thinking about this; people used to call out, 'Hey, Helen, you were there when I had my son’ or ‘Hey, Helen Haines, you looked after my mother’,” she said.

“You know, these kind things, so there was that sense of a deep connection,”

Medevac fight continues

Another issue the two independents agree on is the medevac legislation, passed during the last parliament.

The crossbench was instrumental in passing the laws, which allow for sick asylum seekers held on Manus Island or Nauru, to be transferred to Australia for medical treatment.

The government will move to repeal the legislation this week.

“I don't understand that the case has really been made for why it should be repealed, it’s of a limited effect in terms of just the current people,” Ms Steggall said.

Ms Steggall recently met with one of the architects of the Medevac bill, Kerryn Phelps, who lost the seat of Wentworth at the election.

Doctor Phelps has been lobbying crossbenchers in Canberra to vote in favour of keeping the legislation.

“I was very much a voice for that legislation when it came through and I can't see at the moment that I would be changing my view on that,” Dr Haines said.

Despite some of the contentious issues set to face the 46 parliament, the pair hope they can work constructively over the next three years.

“Being an independent is again a special place to be in this parliament, it's a relatively small crossbench which means my role is very different to many of the other new parliamentarians,” Dr Haines said. 

Published 3 July 2019 at 7:01am
By Pablo Vinales