Underlining the stakes involved, Prime Minister Scott Morrison says Labor’s agreement to refugee evacuation rule changes based on medical grounds show Opposition Leader Bill Shorten “hasn’t got the ticker … for this stuff”.
Shorten’s compromise agreement with crossbench MPs on Tuesday to water down the medical evacuation criteria for refugees stranded on Nauru shows his need to avoid dissension among members of the ALP’s parliamentary left who have long supported a more “compassionate” approach to the refugee issue.
“When it comes to national security,” however, Morrison argues “you don’t trade in it. It’s an area of pure conviction. You do things because you believe it. You don’t sort of flip and flop, which he has done here,” he said on Sydney Radio 2GB.
Government ‘struggling for what else they can sell’
Morrison was channelling the successful tactics of former Liberal prime minister John Howard. In 2001 Howard steamrolled then Labor opposition leader Kim Beazley over boat refugees, including questioning Beazley’s “ticker”. This was prior to Howard’s emphatic federal election victory.
Morrison’s ratcheting-up of the same issue is praised within his own party as an example of seizing the initiative from parliamentary defeat. It was the first lower house reversal for a sitting government on a significant matter since 1941, but Morrison has paradoxically galvanised the Coalition to the point where it reportedly feels it has some hope of securing a victory from the jaws of defeat at the coming May 18 election.
A different perspective emerges from Steggall, a barrister, who is opposing Abbott – a former Liberal prime minister and MP for Warringah for 25 years – as an independent candidate. The Morrison government, she says, “is struggling for what else they can sell. They have nothing on climate change and they’ve killed off the National Energy Guarantee [NEG].”
The NEG was supported by former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, but collapsed in the dramatic days prior to his August 24 party room humiliation and ouster.
“My impression from the electorate is that people are really tired of that. It’s so depressing. What have we got to look forward to?” Illustrating her point, Steggall denounced Morrison’s announcement that the government would re-open the detention centre on Christmas Island as “brinkmanship”.
She argues this is because the amendments made by the independents to medical evacuation protocols “have nothing to do with more boats coming in. It’s a political stunt. One thing Scott Morrison is known for is three-word slogans. For people that gets really tiring. They are turned away.”
Steggall’s comments will be closely examined by Coalition and Labor politicians. Both sides understand that Australian politics is approaching an inflection point. There are 11 seats, once all safe Coalition property, that are either occupied by independents or members of lower house micro-parties, or targeted by one or the other plus radical groups like GetUp!.
Issues vary from seat to seat, but the common theme is climate change. It has split the Liberal Party, dating back to Abbott’s first overthrowing of Turnbull as party leader in 2009. A sort of time-warp took place on August 24, and the split is reflected in the growth of the female independent MPs movement.
A colourful illustration was on show this month in Manly during the holding of the Cole Classic swim. The Corso area and beach were filled with thousands of people wearing contrasting aquamarine blue (for Steggall), and royal blue (for Abbott) T-shirts. Local divisions between Abbott and Steggall supporters have become so deep they have undermined some Manly-based swimming groups.
Female independents’ movement
Steggall may not be a member of a political party. But she is part of a movement, or a “rassemblement” as the French call loose political groupings, and it is growing – partly, it says, because it is attracting the backing of some formerly moderate supporters of the Liberal Party.
“The moderates are very much disenfranchised with the pull to the far right” in the Liberal Party, Steggall claims.
The 11 affected seats in this female independents’ movement are Indi (independent Cathy McGowan), Mayo (Centre Alliance member Rebekha Sharkie), Chisholm (former Liberal, and now independent, Julia Banks), Flinders (occupied by Health Minister Greg Hunt, but subject to a challenge by Banks standing as an independent), Dickson (held by Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, but the target of an ambitious GetUp!-led campaign to unseat him), Warringah (Abbott’s seat, now under challenge by Steggall and a GetUp! campaign), Wentworth (formerly held by Turnbull, now occupied by an independent, Dr Kerryn Phelps), Menzies (held by a conservative Liberal MP and former minister in the Abbott government, Kevin Andrews but subject of a GetUp! campaign), Kooyong (held by Liberal Party deputy leader and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg), Higgins (being vacated by Jobs Minister Kelly O’Dwyer), and Boothby (held by Nicolle Flint for the Liberal Party, but the target of a GetUp! campaign)
Of the 11 seats, three – Dickson in Queensland, Chisholm in Melbourne, and Boothby in Adelaide – are marginal and could fall to Labor. On the other hand, three seats occupied by independents – Indi, Wentworth and Chisholm – could form a counter-movement and revert back to the Coalition at the May 18 election, reducing the record seven lower house crossbench MPs to four.
Coalition hopes are rising in Indi because McGowan, who has held the seat as an independent since 2013, will not be standing again. Meanwhile, Banks is shifting her independent focus from Chisholm to Flinders, and the Liberals’ Dave Sharma is mounting a determined campaign to wrest back the Federation seat of Wentworth.
At the same time, however, victories by two or three more female candidates standing as independents in seats like, say, Warringah and Flinders, could increase the number of lower house crossbench MPs to nine or even 10 – a result that would obviously limit the chances for a Coalition victory.
According to Paul Oosting, the national director of GetUp!, it’s a “once in a generation opportunity to challenge the hard right of the Coalition. If we have a parliament not dominated by the hard right faction of the Liberal Party, we will have the opportunity to have future parliaments that are more aggressive and capable of achieving multi-party outcomes on challenging issues like climate change and migration.”
They could also be a lot more chaotic.
After Phelps’ victory at the October 20 Wentworth byelection, much of the female independents’ focus has moved across the Harbour and zoned in on Steggall’s attempt to unseat Abbott.
“There’s no doubt it’s going to be a tough battle,” Steggall concedes. “And there’s no doubt Tony Abbott is a very experienced and wily politician. He will be throwing everything at me, including the kitchen sink.”
However, “I’ve succeeded in sport, I’ve succeeded professionally. I’ve been at the bar for 10 years. If I’m not qualified to give this a go, who is? If you want change, you’ve got to be prepared to do it.
“I felt we were coming to an election where there had to be something different and I knew there were groups within the electorate that were tapping into that feeling of wanting change.
“I’m a centrist. I think a majority of the population is centrist,” she says, and nominates former NSW Liberal premier Mike Baird, who was the state member for Manly, as a “great” Liberal premier of NSW. Julie Bishop, a long-time deputy Liberal leader and currently languishing on the backbench, “was an outstanding foreign minister”. There’s also “strong support for Malcolm Turnbull inside Warringah”.
Path to victory
A long-time resident of the area, Steggall has witnessed a radical demographic shift in one of Australia’s most affluent electorates. Warringah hosts a median household annual income of $155,000 and an average age of 38.
Reflecting these changes, a number of community groups sprang up in the hills, bays and hollows that dot Warringah. They include People of Warringah, Voices of Warringah, Vote Tony Out, and North Shore Environmental Stewards.
These community groups’ political involvement had their genesis in the remarkable 2013 victory of McGowan as an independent candidate in the north-eastern Victorian regional electorate of Indi. A highly credentialled agricultural scientist, and former regional officer for the Victorian Farmers’ Federation, McGowan was the nominee of a local community group, Voice of Indi, to contest the 2013 election in Indi, a seat that had been a Coalition stalwart for more than 80 years.
McGowan’s against-all-odds victory, at a time when Abbott led the Coalition to a landslide win, not only inspired the formation of community groups in Warringah, but established the template for moderate female independent candidates throughout the country.
The independent member for Wentworth,Phelps, who is a former president of the AMA, has written that Wentworth and Warringah “have traditionally voted Liberal at a federal level, but last year’s Wentworth byelection showed that the mood had changed because of dissatisfaction and, frankly, disgust with the incumbent Coalition government”.
However, McGowan showed the way years earlier. The Indi-inspired, Warringah community groups’ plan to run an independent candidate against Abbott on a broadly centrist platform was well flagged, and late last year Steggall approached Vote Tony Out.
‘I have got faith in this electorate’
The group’s convenor, Mark Kelly, who has sold literally thousands of Vote Tony Out T-shirts, sips on his almond milk coffee near the water by the Bower café in South Manly and says: “In the last 10 days or so Tony Abbott’s henchmen have kicked into gear and they are throwing a lot of mud around.”
However, the deceptively laid-back Kelly, whose company, Global Surf Industries, designs, manufactures and wholesales 60,000 surf boards into 74 countries each year, adds: “I think it’s going to be good.”
Abbott’s office did not respond to an email request for an interview.
Meanwhile, the Steggall-Warringah campaign has attracted the backing of a hub of 10 locally-based companies involved in renewables such as solar power that share office space in a building next to the Manly Wharf.
Campaign funds are also flowing. “There’s heaps of small donations,” Kelly says, “and there’s people chucking in 10 grand. There’s lots of little fundraisers going on in the community group. They all add up.”
Employing the Warringah waterways as a metaphor, does this also add up to female independents leading a sea change in Australian politics?
“I wouldn’t want to be generalising,” says Steggall, “but maybe there’s a willingness to collaborate that women bring to the table rather than being one end of the spectrum of the argument.”
At a recent business breakfast, female executives “came up to me and said thank you for doing this. There is that need for greater female representation, but also for debate to be more productive.”
Zali Steggall pauses, sips her coffee, and adds: “I have got faith in this electorate. It’s not going to be easy but I believe it’s possible.”