May 24, 2022

Federal politics

The end of Liberal reign in Kooyong

By Elle Marsh
Image of Monique Ryan and family on election night

Image credit: Elle Marsh

At the Auburn Hotel on election night, hope coalesces around Monique Ryan

On one side of Auburn Road, a large Josh Frydenberg billboard looks down on the passing cars. Frydenberg’s grin is partially obscured by the train crossing. On the other side of the road, the Auburn Hotel is lit up in teal, and a line of people in Monique Ryan T-shirts snakes around the corner. A passer-by yells up into the night sky, “Buh-bye Joshy!”

Inside, the pub is chockers. The crowd is watching the election coverage on the TV screens and nibbling on lamb skewers. There’s a group of teen volunteers in the beer garden trying to get someone to buy them drinks. An elderly woman who looks like she’s somehow biting all five of her fingernails at once is being consoled by a friend.

“I feel sick,” a man anxiously murmurs to his partner.

Then the ABC’s chief election analyst, Antony Green, comes onto the screen. Nobody can hear him, but he appears to be amazed by what he is saying. The dial on the screen swings up. There is a collective gasp and the crowd cheers.

It’s about 8pm and the independent candidate for Kooyong, Monique Ryan, is in the lead. With 15.4 per cent of the ballot counted, she’s ahead of Treasurer Josh Frydenberg. Only six months ago, Ryan was working as a neurologist at the Royal Children’s Hospital. Now, she’s about to depose one of Australia’s most prominent politicians.

“History is being made tonight,” a woman hollers.

Since the creation of the south-eastern Melbourne seat of Kooyong, it’s been a conservative stronghold. The blue-ribbon seat is made up of affluent suburbs such as Kew, Camberwell and Hawthorn, and has been represented by former Liberal leaders including Sir Robert Menzies. The incumbent, Josh Frydenberg, was touted as heir to the Liberal Party leadership, but tonight, those plans are dead. By 10pm, it’s clear the Coalition cannot form a majority government, and then Frydenberg admits it will be “very difficult” to retain his seat.

Walking onto the poky “stage” in the beer garden, Monique Ryan receives a rockstar’s welcome. She stands in front of a sagging arch of balloons, with her husband and children beside her.

“I didn’t actually write a victory speech. And this is not a victory speech. It’s just a thank you, to all of you,” says Ryan.

A few of her dark curls stand up with static and attach themselves to the balloons behind her. As her stepdaughter fusses over the balloons, Ryan has a big childish grin on her face. Clearly giddy, she tries to compose herself and takes a deep breath.

“We started this because we wanted action on climate change, and we felt it was the most important challenge of our time.”

“Our government wasn’t listening to us.” Ryan pauses. “So we’ve changed the government.”

The pub erupts into cheers.

Across Melbourne and throughout Victoria, voters on Saturday swung forcefully away from the Coalition to support grassroots campaigns. In Kooyong, the roots of Ryan’s independent campaign can be traced back to the model of community organising that took hold in the Victorian seat of Indi a decade ago.

In 2012, a group of concerned locals in the north-east of Victoria set about researching exactly what residents wanted from their elected representative. They hosted conversations around kitchen tables and conducted surveys. They formed the first “Voices Of” group in Australia, Voices For Indi, and endorsed an independent candidate, Cathy McGowan, who later won the safe Liberal seat of Indi, taking over from Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella.

There are now at least 38 active “Voices Of” groups across Australia, including one in Kooyong. There are no formal structures connecting these different groups, but it’s a model of encouraging political engagement that’s been adopted nationwide by local volunteers.

When Ryan gets to Canberra, she says, her parliamentary priorities will be informed by the thousands of conversations she’s had with locals over the past six months, and the extensive research and data collected during her door-knocking campaign. Her key policy priorities include reducing Australia’s carbon emissions by at least 60 per cent by 2030, the establishment of a federal anti-corruption commission based on Helen Haines’s Australian Federal Integrity Commission bill, and addressing gender inequality. She says she plans to advocate for an increase in Australia’s refugee intake and the granting of permanent residency to refugees on temporary protection visas. 

McGowan, who’s been dubbed “the godmother of independents”, travelled around Australia to visit and support independent campaigns such as Ryan’s in the lead-up to the election. McGowan says she saw Indi’s “Voices Of” model working for other communities.

“In every single one of these independent electorates that have run community independents, the sense of connectivity and belonging that people report just makes me extraordinarily pleased,” says McGowan.

With the final vote tallies still at least a week off, election analysts predict that more than 33 per cent of Australians will have voted for minority parties or independents in this election, accelerating the long-term decline in support for both major parties. Nine new lower-house seats have been won by independents and the Greens to create the largest and most progressive crossbench in Australia’s parliamentary history.

McGowan argues that the major parties, particularly the Liberals and Nationals, have stopped genuinely involving the local communities in the political process. “I hope the parties pay attention to what we’re doing and that they learn something,” McGowan says. “But if they don’t, I think they’ll become a byproduct, and people will find other ways of organising.”

Days after the election, Ryan is more than 6000 votes ahead when Frydenberg finally concedes defeat via a video statement released on his social media accounts. Under his scripted words, emotive music plays. “Every day I’ve given my all to the job,” says Frydenberg. “I now look forward to spending more time with my beautiful family.”

Among the 2000 volunteers who worked on Ryan’s campaign, there are socialists through to former lifelong Liberal voters. Having ousted Frydenberg, Ryan’s challenge now will be to keep her promises to the electorate and to keep the disparate and diverse groups of Kooyong residents engaged and connected with each other.

But before this work begins, the hundreds crammed into the Auburn Hotel on election night are celebrating. A silver-haired man behind me tries to wipe away the stream of happy tears rolling down his cheeks. By a table of empty glasses, a young woman in a floppy beanie and baggy Midnight Oil T-shirt embraces a stiff older woman wearing a teal fascinator.

“We’ve come together and we’ve made friends,” Ryan tells the beaming crowd. “We’ve stood together in the rain on flyer stalls. We’ve walked the streets in pairs and we’ve knocked on 55,000 doors. And everything we’ve done, we have done with love. I know that’s a strange word to be using in a political campaign, but it has been love.”

A volunteer with her infant strapped to her front joins the middle of the impromptu outdoor dance floor, where the crowd dances to Helen Reddy’s “I am Woman”. Everyone seems to know this child bouncing about among them. They are smiling and pulling faces at the baby; others sing to her.

The mother, Catharine, tells me later that for the first time in a long time she is filled with hope for her child’s future. “We danced from sheer relief. That’s how it felt: joy, but also sheer relief.”

Elle Marsh

Elle Marsh is a features and field producer at 7am, Schwartz Media’s daily news podcast.

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