April 2022


Independents and the balance of power

By Margaret Simons
Portrait of Zoe Daniel

Zoe Daniel. Photograph by Mia Mala McDonald

The federal election may hinge on a new crossbench of professional women in wealthy inner-city seats and a rural revolt against the Nationals

It will top 35 degrees today in the northern Victorian town of Stanhope, population around 800 and shrinking fast. There are signs on the community noticeboard for a protest meeting against the local council’s plans to close Stanhope’s swimming pool. There are spaces in the once crowded car park at the Fonterra dairy processing factory. The primary school, which a few years ago had about 30 students, now has 15.

Despite the heat already striking up from the footpath, the candidate has barely broken a sweat. He rolled into town 15 minutes ago, the sign mounted on the back of his ute announcing “Time for change – Rob Priestly”. And here he is – hairy legged in navy shorts, an orange T-shirt bearing his name and a matching face mask. Orange and navy are his campaign colours partly because there have been so many independent federal election candidates seeking T-shirts – teal blue is particularly in demand – that the options when he came to order were limited.

Priestly carries his pamphlets into the relative cool of the cavernous hardware store. The woman behind the till has her grey hair pulled back tight in a ponytail, and a face that has fallen into the lines of experience. She accepts his introduction but does not meet his eye.

What does she think about politics? What issues are important to her?

“Oh, you don’t want to know what I think of politicians,” she says, face turned to the window and the pastel-bright street beyond.

“But I really do,” Priestly says. He tells her he has never been a politician – has never joined a political party. But if there is a problem, well, he believes you should not just stand back and whinge and wait for others to fix it. He tells her his campaign will be funded by local people: those who do business or live in the electorate. No donations will be accepted from outsiders.

And she looks at him.

Once, this was soldier-settler country, and dairy-farming country. Now, largely because of the politics of water and water trading, many dairy farms have spent decades growing prickles, before converting to dryland farms. The families that they supported have moved away. Priestly tells the woman he wants the electorate of Nicholls to be noticed. It is the second-safest conservative seat in the country, and is presently held by the National Party’s Damian Drum, who retires at this election. If, on election night, the Nationals easily hold the seat it will barely get a mention, he tells her. But if he is elected on a 20 per cent swing, or even if he goes close, it will be one of the biggest stories of the night. He paints the picture in short, dry words: television panels of politicians and journalists, all trying to work out what just happened in towns such as Stanhope. And that, he says, will translate into national attention, to no longer being taken for granted. It will mean more infrastructure and a voice in national affairs.

She is smiling now. She promises to ring Priestly if there is anything she wants to discuss. She accepts his pamphlet, which invites her to put a tick against issues that are important to her. “Water policy” tops the list. Climate change is number four, after housing and energy costs. In Priestly’s mind, they are linked. He has lived through water reform, and perceived it to be driven by cynical politics rather than science. The impact on the rural community has been devastating. Climate change must be handled better, requiring a much bigger economic and environmental transformation. As far as he is concerned, the National Party has proven not up to the task of managing the complexities involved, or giving a voice to those most directly affected.

Priestly is one of a wave of credible local figures running as independent candidates in the forthcoming federal election. Nearly all of them are taking on electorates normally regarded as safe for the government. Their cumulative impact, and the prospect that some of them might just win, is one of the things that will make the coming contest different. If neither the Coalition nor Labor win in their own right, newly elected independents and those of the existing crossbench who are re-elected will decide who forms government. “Foment” might be a better word for the phenomenon than “wave”, since it is a multiple bobbing up rather than a single, connected thing. There are different issues in each electorate, and a different ecosystem surrounding each candidate.

There is a new ecology surrounding this phenomenon. It includes grassroots community groups promoting political discussions in electorates. In some cases, that is all they do, but other groups actively seek out and endorse independent candidates. Hybrid political organisations are springing up as part of this ecology. There are groups such as Climate 200, founded and convened by entrepreneur and climate philanthropist Simon Holmes à Court, which is raising money and funding carefully picked “values aligned” candidates. Climate 200 has what might be described as nascent policies – on climate change, government integrity and women’s rights – but insists it is not, and will not become, a political party. Meanwhile, candidates in Tasmania have founded the Local Party, which is running candidates but has no policies, instead existing to promote participatory democracy.

So what’s going on? Is this a transitory thing born of particular circumstances, or is it a permanent change to Australian politics? And if the latter, what does it mean for the way we are governed? Is it a good thing, or a harbinger of instability?

Eight hundred kilometres to the north-east of Stanhope, and a world away, are two independent candidates on opposite shores of Sydney Harbour. In blue-chip North Sydney, former charity executive Kylea Tink (campaign colour: coral pink) is breaking a lifetime habit of voting Liberal to take on the incumbent, Trent Zimmerman. On the opposite shore, businessperson Allegra Spender (teal blue) is running against the Liberals’ Dave Sharma in Malcolm Turnbull’s former seat of Wentworth – the wealthiest electorate in the country.

In Adelaide, Jo Dyer, who hit the national stage as the spokesperson for the woman who committed suicide after accusing former attorney-general Christian Porter of rape, is contesting Boothby, which stretches from the Adelaide Hills to the city’s beaches. In the well-to-do southern bayside suburbs of Melbourne, former ABC journalist Zoe Daniel hopes to take the seat of Goldstein from the Liberals’ Tim Wilson, and in nearby Kooyong, paediatric neurologist Dr Monique Ryan is running against the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg. Across the nation in the Perth seat of Curtin, Kate Chaney – daughter of a Liberal Party dynasty – is taking on Liberal Celia Hammond. There are others – too many to mention – from the Darling Downs seat of Groom to the Mornington Peninsula.

The media has, predictably, given most attention to the raft of professional women running in wealthy, Liberal-held seats in inner suburbs. Many of these candidates have accepted funding from Climate 200. Largely overlooked, however, has been a water politics–based revolt against the National Party in northern Victoria and the New South Wales Riverina. There is Priestly in Nicholls, and across the border there is Pennie Scott, independent candidate for Riverina, which is held by former Nationals leader Michael McCormack. As Scott puts it, the National Party is now regarded as “the mining party” by many in these places. It is seen as having mismanaged the politics of water and climate change, and favoured cotton growers in the north at the expense of farmers in the south. Now, she says, “the time is up”. The National Party has already lost seats in NSW state elections, to minor parties and independents. It seems the revolt is going federal.

These candidates want an urgent review of the Murray–Darling Basin Plan, and transparency around water trading, including a national register of who owns water. And most are not Climate 200 funded.

Teacher Penny Ackery, another adopter of teal blue, is taking on Minister for Industry Angus Taylor in the sprawling NSW electorate of Hume. Another “very considerable” candidate is said to be about to nominate in Farrer, which surrounds Albury. This is one of the safest seats in the nation, currently held by Environment Minister Sussan Ley. Normally you’d think she was safe, but, thanks to the toxic politics of the NSW Liberal Party, she wasn’t preselected until early March, which can’t have helped.

Rob Priestly has a chance in Nicholls, according to local businesspeople interviewed for this story who did not want to be named for fear of National Party retribution. The same fears prevent Priestly from naming his main donors – whom he says are local businesspeople. He is helped by the fact that it is a three-cornered contest, with the Liberals running a candidate as well as the National Party.

Priestly is well known. For the past 25 years, he and his family have built up their laundry and dry-cleaning business, which is a big local employer. He is deputy mayor of Shepparton, and has been involved in local business and water organisations.

Nicholls is centred on Shepparton, with the Murray River its northern border and taking in the tree-changer towns within a couple of hours’ drive of Melbourne to the south. The state seat of Shepparton is already held by an independent. To the east is the federal seat of Indi, which is where this foment, this new ecology of independent politics, arguably began. In 2013, local farmer and businessperson Cathy McGowan ran as a community-backed independent in that year’s election, and scored a surprise win against the Liberals’ Sophie Mirabella.

Such things have happened before in Australian history, but when an independent retired or was defeated, the seat has returned to “normal” – held by one of the main political parties. Not Indi. After serving two terms, in 2019 McGowan successfully assisted an independent successor, Helen Haines, to win the seat. This was a historical first.

McGowan has since written a book – part memoir, part manual for would-be independents. It has served as a primer for other communities wanting change. Community groups, sometimes known as “voices of” or “independents for” groups, have sprung up and identified credible independent candidates. This is how Allegra Spender, Kylea Tink and Zoe Daniel came to enter the race.

Unlike those three candidates, Priestly is not a “voices for” or community group endorsed candidate (there is a Voices for Nicholls group, but it has decided not to back any candidates). He was raised in a Catholic, dairy-farming family. Once there were 250 dairy farms nearby. Only two are left. It is a heritage he shares with McGowan, who wrote in her book that the dairy-farming kids were bullied on the school bus. “I knew it wasn’t just about me; it had everything to do with the fact that we were not them, we were the ‘other’. We were Catholics, and we were dairy farmers’ kids,” she wrote.

Priestly laughs when asked if it is a coincidence that two people seeking to overthrow decades of Liberal–National Party domination in rural Victoria both come from Catholic dairy-farming backgrounds. Is this a revolt of the outsiders?

“I hadn’t thought about it that way,” he says. Historically, he acknowledges, it was easier for ordinary people to break into dairy farming. It made that sector more diverse, and perhaps less conservative, than the landed squattocracy.

McGowan is an inspiration, he says, and a sign of what is possible. But the seat of Nicholls is different to Indi: more conservative and also more multicultural, thanks to the migrants who came to work in the irrigation-reliant fruit industry.

Accepting any funding from Climate 200, or indeed from any lobby group or organisation seen as progressive, would be the “kiss of death” for his campaign, Priestly says. But when it comes to climate change, he has to be frank with the electorate. He backs the Business Council of Australia’s target for a 46 to 50 per cent emissions reduction by 2030. That’s more ambitious than Labor’s policy of a 43 per cent cut by 2030. “I prefer to make the comparison with the Business Council of Australia,” he says. Labor is “irrelevant” in Nicholls.

Independent candidates are not new, but Haines’ succession of McGowan in Indi suggests that the current foment may be more than transitory. Added to this is the quality of the candidates. All of those interviewed for this article were people of significant achievement, intelligence and character. They would stack up well against the average backbencher – and many of the frontbenchers – from the major political parties. Indeed, they are the kind of candidates that any party might be glad to attract. There is not a crank among them.

It goes beyond the candidates too. In three weeks of tracking the campaigns, I met dozens of the volunteers working behind the scenes – distributing corflutes, running the websites, organising the meetings. Many of these volunteers have previously been members of political parties. They are the kind of people who once, deciding that change was needed, would have joined a party and worked through its structures – attending branch meetings, selecting candidates, attending party conferences and advancing policy ideas.

Why not do that now?

The answer comes back the same across all the community groups and campaigns: the people involved have lost faith in the capacity of the political party system to represent them. There are stories of being ignored by their MPs, or of having meetings with them and liking the response, only to find that their issue hit a “brick wall” when it was taken to Canberra and confronted the realities of internal party politics.

Jim Middleton, formerly political journalist for the ABC and Sky News, is now working as a media adviser for Climate 200, as well as for some of the Climate 200–backed candidates. He comments that the main political parties are in a sense “over” as mass movements. The times when an ordinary member of the public might affect policy through active involvement in a political party have passed. Branch stacking and factional deals have even robbed them of the surety of having a role in picking candidates. The result, in the words of Goldstein candidate Zoe Daniel, is that there is now a “fever pitch” of “feeling disconnected from leaders, and feeling unrepresented”.

If there is a single issue that links these disparate campaigns, it is climate change. They see and experience it differently, but from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific, from the Adelaide Hills to the Darling Downs, these candidates have been pushed to nominate largely because of the perceived incapacity of the current Australian political system to achieve meaningful action on the issue. It is not only climate change that has led them to conclude that the party system is broken, but it is the one issue they have in common.

Rewind history. If Labor had succeeded in passing the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme in 2010 (in other words, if the Greens had voted in favour rather than killing it); if Kevin Rudd had fought and won an election on the issue, rather than dropping the policy; if the Abbott government had not wound back the carbon price agreed between the Gillard minority government, the Greens and independents; or even if the Morrison government had taken a 2030 target for emissions reduction to the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow last year, then most of this independent foment would probably not be happening. Instead, there has been a repeated failure of the party system.

According to the Lowy Institute’s 2021 Climate Poll, 60 per cent of Australians believe global warming is a serious and pressing problem, and we should begin taking steps now, even if this involves significant costs. A majority of Australians now say the government’s main priority for energy policy should be “reducing carbon emissions”.

And yet our democratic system has not achieved the necessary change. This is partly because a political party must still, when it comes to getting elected, appeal to a broad base. It must be funded, and it must win not necessarily a majority of the vote but a majority of seats – especially marginal ones, including those where action on climate change does not have majority support.

Historically, independents such as McGowan and Andrew Wilkie have succeeded partly because of a local issue, or a despised or out-of-touch incumbent MP. As Simon Holmes à Court observes, “This is the first time where the independents themselves, as a movement, are saying it’s about national issues rather than electorate-specific issues.”

Unlike a federal party candidate, an independent only has to worry about their own electorate. And in that lies the strength and the limitation of this potential change. But perhaps, also, its danger.

At the time of writing, Climate 200 has funded 18 candidates for the forthcoming election, including the established MPs Andrew Wilkie (independent) and Rebekha Sharkie (Centre Alliance), and some of the new crop judged to have the best chance of success, including Kylea Tink, Allegra Spender and Monique Ryan. Climate 200 will almost certainly back Jo Dyer, although it would say only that they were “in discussions … about how we might best support her campaign”.

Climate 200 is also supporting two Senate candidates for the ACT – former professional rugby union player David Pocock, and law professor and human rights advocate Kim Rubenstein. Holmes à Court acknowledges that, ultimately, these two are effectively competing against each other for a single spot. When the election comes closer, he says, the organisation will have to judge which of them is best placed to win. Climate 200 is also funding a Senate campaign by the Local Party’s Leanne Minshull in Tasmania. It has spread its attention widely, but deliberately not, as Holmes à Court puts it, in “those seats where most people think action on climate change has already gone too far”.

The organisation was established in the lead-up to the 2019 election by Holmes à Court and others wanting to overcome the vested interests that, in their view, were delaying meaningful action on climate change. This election, its chosen strategy is to raise money – there are about 9000 donors – and to fund community independents as “the most strategic and impactful avenue for achieving progress”. At the time of writing, Climate 200 has raised a war chest of just over $7 million, with a target of $15 to $20 million.

Holmes à Court says he was frustrated when he addressed the National Press Club in February. “I spent 30 minutes explaining how we are nothing like a party, then was hit with a bunch of questions that showed many of the press gallery cannot see the movement through any other lens. A few editorials just couldn’t get their heads around no-strings-attached donations. That’s a sad reflection on politics.” Climate 200 is nothing like a political party, he says, because it has no hold on the candidates. If elected, they will go their own way.

Climate 200 would look less exotic, and perhaps be better understood, if it was in the United States, where political action committees, or PACs, are an established part of the system. PACs raise and spend money on political contests without having a formal connection to the parties or the candidates. Holmes à Court says that one of his inspirations was Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig, who founded a PAC fundraising group in the US with the aim of achieving fundamental reforms that went against vested interests. “Yes, we want to spend big money to end the influence of big money … Ironic, I get it. But embrace the irony,” said Lessig.

But if Climate 200 is not a political party, it is also not quite as hands-off as Holmes à Court suggests. As well as money, it provides strategic communications advice, and there are individuals who are shared across parts of the movement. Jim Middleton provides his services to both the organisation and some of its candidates, including Daniel and Tink. Another shared resource is Damien Hodgkinson, who is director of Climate 200 and also the former financial controller for Zali Steggall, the Climate 200–backed independent MP for Warringah. His dual role hit the headlines when an Australian Electoral Commission review uncovered a $100,000 cheque from The Kinghorn Family Trust that had been recorded as eight separate donations, each below the disclosure threshold. It was a bad look for Steggall, and for Climate 200.

As well, the very existence of Climate 200 has an effect. One of the latest independents to emerge is Kate Chaney in Western Australia. A community group in Curtin approached Climate 200 in January, inspired by the other campaigns it was funding. “They weren’t ready,” says Holmes à Court. “We had a few conversations with them about what we thought a campaign looked like and how we might help. And we said come back to us when you’ve got a hundred grand in the bank and you’ve got a candidate. And with our guidance they very quickly got themselves together.”

He insists that Climate 200 does not identify candidates or run campaigns. Rather, existing campaigns come to the organisation and make their case. They are unlikely to receive funding unless they can show that they already have a head of steam. “We are not a funder of early-stage start-ups.”

The organisation conducts a vetting process, including polling and focus groups in electorates. Before it funds a candidate, Climate 200 has to be convinced they have a chance of winning. Its assessment is “part art, part science”, but it means there are some electorates, the ones most reliant on coalmining, for example, that Climate 200 is unlikely ever to touch.

So what would an independent-steered parliament mean for people who live in electorates not represented by Climate 200’s priorities? The independent foment is not really a movement of outsiders. Rather, it is made up of people who once might have been welcomed into the magic circle of political influence, but have fallen out or left, and are trying to get back in on their own terms.

The bus to Kylea Tink’s office in Crows Nest, on Sydney’s North Shore, was nearly empty as it travelled across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, but once it entered the electorate she is contesting, it filled up quickly with kids wearing the boater hats, ties and blazers that form the uniforms of some of the country’s most prestigious schools. Tink’s own children attend two of them, as she confesses that evening at a campaign event at the Hunters Hill Hotel, when asked a question about her policy on public education.

So far, there is no foment of independent community candidates in poorer electorates such as Watson, which takes in the multicultural Western Sydney suburbs of Bankstown and Lakemba, nor in Gough Whitlam and Mark Latham’s former seat of Werriwa, which takes in the urban fringe of Liverpool, or Maribyrnong in the western suburbs of Melbourne.

If all of the new crop of independents were elected, they would do a great deal for gender balance in the federal parliament, and would add some diversity in professional experience. But they would do nothing in terms of other kinds of diversity. They are nearly all middle class and white.

“Bourgeois revolution” is a term used in Marxist theory to refer to the fact that overturning a feudal system must start with the privileged. But who said this was a revolution? This is a movement of people who tend to promise that, if elected, they will consider legislation and policy proposals “on their merits”. And they have a largely consistent idea of what that might mean.

Holmes à Court urged the National Press Club audience to “enjoy” the fact that the candidates Climate 200 was backing were not media trained, and would give straight answers to straight questions from journalists.

I tried to “enjoy” this with Tink, Allegra Spender, Zoe Daniel and others, and subjected them to what I meant as a middling-tough interview, including questions on policies they have not previously spoken about. Predictably, Daniel, with her journalist’s background, did best. Priestly was also impressive. The performance of the others was mixed.

I asked, for example, about public education and tax. Spender assured me that public education was an issue in Wentworth because it has some of the most expensive private schools in the nation, and only one public high school. “I am a big supporter of public education.” When asked about tax, she started by saying that she did not yet have a tax policy. But, pressed, Spender said she had been against former Labor leader Bill Shorten’s proposals to reduce the negative-gearing tax concessions available to owners of investment properties. She said she was in favour of growing business and a healthy economy, because that would benefit all.

You’d have to be blind, walking around Wentworth and North Sydney, not to see that any candidate proposing increased taxes on the rich would probably not get elected, or would serve only one term.

So what about investment in public education in Sydney’s west? Spender spoke about the philanthropic work she has done in disadvantaged schools, as chief executive of the Australian Business and Community Network, which runs programs aimed at raising students’ aspirations and connecting them with corporate mentors. Why were there no independent candidates in those electorates? She said she did not pretend to speak for those communities, and nor should their capacity be underestimated.

So how would she propose to pay for government programs and more investment in public education? She talked about tackling government waste – starting with subsidies to fossil-fuel programs. And beyond that? Everyone knew there was lots of government waste, she said.

Having worked as a journalist reporting on multicultural communities, Daniel says she “sees” the whiteness of the group of Climate 200–supported independents. She says, reasonably enough, that she can only take responsibility for her own decisions and campaign, but she hopes the emergence of independents will bring an “opening up” of the system, a change that may spread more broadly.

But surely in the disadvantaged electorates of our major cities, there will be fewer people who can afford to spend many hours working for free to support an independent candidate. This, after all, was the rationale for the Australian Labor Party: to represent people lacking cultural capital and wealth. That legacy of disadvantage was able to be overcome because the party was founded with the backing, financial support and organising abilities of the trade union movement.

I put to Spender that this representation was the reason for the Labor Party, which holds most of the poorer electorates in our cities. No matter how far Labor might have strayed from its roots, who would represent the poor, working Australians and recent arrivals if Labor did not?

“Are you asking me how well Labor represents people?” she asked. Not quite, I said. She talked some more about the work she had done in disadvantaged schools. I said: “There is a difference, isn’t there, between corporate philanthropy and social justice?” Spender hesitated for a second before nodding her agreement.

What about housing affordability? She agreed it was an issue. Surely that could not be addressed without also looking at negative gearing and capital gains tax concessions? She did not concede the point. There were many issues affecting housing affordability. She would rather focus, for example, on the supply of housing. And so we moved on.

Perhaps Spender was being coy when she said she didn’t have a tax policy, or perhaps she did some rapid thinking. But four weeks after our interview, she gave a speech demanding an inquiry into reforming taxes on business, including the corporate tax rate, payroll and stamp duties. “This is a key issue for me and when it comes to putting my vote where it counts, I’ll be looking very closely at what the major parties have to offer on the issue of taxation,” she said. But at the time of writing, she had said nothing about revenue raising, or tackling the deficit.

It is refreshing, in these cynical times, to encounter political idealists, and most of the volunteers behind the independent campaigns deserve that description. But, as is the way with idealism, there can be an intolerance to anyone who raises quibbles and complications. Those who do so are likely to be told that they are thinking in terms of old politics, or that they don’t really understand what is happening here because it has never been seen before. This movement, they say, is necessarily better than tired old party politics and the worn-deep ruts of political journalism.

For those keen to see a change of government, there is a too easy assumption that, if the independent candidates are elected and hold the balance of power, they would not support the Coalition to form government. This is, of course, exactly the slur thrown by the Coalition: a vote for an independent in Kooyong or Goldstein or Wentworth or North Sydney is effectively a vote for Labor. Monique Ryan, contesting Kooyong, has been attacked because she was once a member of the Labor Party.

But Tink and Spender are not only habitual Liberal Party voters. They are culturally Liberal, in the same way that a union activist might be described as culturally Labor. Tink was raised by small business–owning parents in the NSW country town of Coonabarabran. “I was raised to believe that a vote for the Liberal Party was a vote for good business and you’d get good economic outcomes,” Tink tells me. “I was also raised to believe that there was a sort of statesmanship that came with being part of the Liberal Party. You know, it was a kind of high visionary ground that was taken by that party, with an outlook for the longer term. That impression probably continued through my university years and through my early business years.” She was politically active some years ago in campaigning for refugee children to be freed from detention, but it was climate change that caused Tink to question her assumptions about the Liberal Party. A key moment came in September 2019 when Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that, as she puts it, “regardless of what the NSW government wanted or the people of NSW wanted, there would be a new gas-fired power station built in the Hunter Valley. And if the NSW government didn’t do it, the federal government would do it.”

Tink says she was immediately struck with “this sense of how wrong that decision was. I thought, That’s a really bully-boy move.”

She says her “business brain clicked on”. Surely the power station would be a stranded asset, “a great big white elephant … I went, Now this is bad, bad economics, you know? And this is a government that’s supposed to be good for business. What is going on?” She began to think about and watch politics more closely and critically.

When she was contacted by the local community group North Sydney Independents, she didn’t need to take up the offer of a weekend to think about it. “The answer was already yes.”

Across the harbour, Spender’s father and grandfather were federal MPs and then diplomats. Her mother was the fashion designer Carla Zampatti. Spender herself has been a management consultant at McKinsey & Company, and managing director of the family fashion business. She was approached by the Wentworth Independents community group in the middle of last year, and said no at first. The turning point came as she watched the government’s contortions in the build-up to COP26, as Morrison tried to get the National Party to agree to a 2050 emissions reduction target.

“I had a little mental model in my head, which was like, if they do something decent on COP26, then I won’t move … But when they came out with no additional target to 2030, and it was clear that Barnaby Joyce basically sets the agenda for Australia’s climate action, I was so disappointed. I honestly thought they would do better. And so I just thought, Someone has to do this.”

Meanwhile down in Melbourne, Zoe Daniel describes herself as a classic swinging voter, influenced by a mix over the years of policy considerations and her assessment of the talent and integrity of the teams on offer. She says she has been described as “centre right”, and that “perhaps that’s right”, but says she’s probably voted Labor and Liberal a similar number of times.

Daniel also initially said no when approached by Voices of Goldstein to run. A crucial element was her 15-year-old son, who persuaded her that if she could do something about climate change, then she should. He asked her how she would feel in 20 years’ time if she didn’t even try.

Meanwhile in Nicholls, Rob Priestly had been thinking about running for a while. “It was something in our household that we had decided wouldn’t happen.” Again, it was partly the lead-up to COP26 and the National Party intransigence that pushed him to a decision.

So what would happen if any of these candidates, from traditionally conservative voting electorates, held the balance of power and had to decide whether Labor or the Coalition should form government?

Tink responds that asking that question is “like asking me what I am going to feed the horse that wins the next Melbourne Cup”. There are too many variables. Perhaps one party will be clearly ahead in the vote. Perhaps there will be one independent, or many. And it will depend on what’s on offer, from a policy point of view.

The same answer, minus the Melbourne Cup reference, is given by both Daniel and Spender. They will not be drawn.

But surely on climate change Labor is much closer to their position than the Coalition? All of these independents are calling for an emissions reduction target in the region of 50 per cent by 2030. As well, Labor has committed to establishing a federal anti-corruption commission with teeth – and integrity in government is also one of the independents’ frontline issues. But they all make it clear that none of that means they will necessarily back Labor. They refer, obliquely, to the nature of their traditionally conservative voting electorates.

Daniel says she has been upfront about her policy priorities, so hopes the electorate would understand on what basis she made any balance-of-power decisions. She also says, first in private in this interview and later on social media, that asylum seeker policy is a conscience issue for her. She is not necessarily against boat turnbacks, but is against indefinite detention and thinks temporary protection visas need to be reviewed. Tink and Spender agree. They favour an independent review of refugee policy.

Perhaps that might be a tie-breaker, if there is a tie and it is their job to break it. Or perhaps, for Spender at least, it will be taxes on business.

The candidates referred to the possibility that either or both of the major political parties might change leader, and that this might influence their choice. Senior Labor figures interviewed for this article said that they didn’t doubt that Tink and Spender, at least, would favour the Coalition, and indeed that their electorates would expect this. “You would probably want to replace Scott Morrison with Josh Frydenberg. They wouldn’t like Peter Dutton. And Frydenberg would make some changes and give the party a bit of a makeover on the issues that matter to them, and that would be that,” one said.

If it’s reasonable to ask if Tink, Spender and Daniel could really back Labor to form government, given their history and the nature of their electorates, the same question can be asked in reverse of Jo Dyer, running in the South Australian Liberal-held marginal seat of Boothby. Dyer is culturally Labor, and has unsuccessfully run for preselection as a Labor candidate in the past. She is running as an independent now because she “stopped believing that Labor is the answer”. Labor, she says, has lost the ability to advocate for ambitious policies. It was “spooked” during the Howard years and now “they are so nervous and worried about being wedged … that they’ve vacated the field on key policy areas. And it’s not just that they don’t have ambitious policies themselves, they won’t even discuss them.”

But if she held the balance of power, could she consider backing the Coalition?

“It’s about what, in policy terms, not who,” Dyer responds. “But that said, what has been promised by this current government is so far away from what is needed that I find it difficult to imagine that a re-elected minority Coalition government would be more persuasive. You want to look at what is best for your electorate, obviously, and is best for the country. But on all of the areas which are really fundamentally important to me … the Coalition has performed exceptionally poorly.”

And that raises another issue. Assume that Dyer, Tink and Spender are all elected. There is no reason to think that they would necessarily agree, either with each other or the rest of the existing crossbench. What would Greens leader Adam Bandt, for example, have to say to Spender, once they moved beyond climate change? What would Dyer have in common with Bob Katter? If they cannot agree, might they squander the balance of power?

Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Or it’s not the only thing that matters.

At her campaign event at the Hunters Hill Hotel on the night of our interview, Tink trotted out what had become her standard line about her Liberal opponent, Trent Zimmerman. She liked and respected him, she said. But whatever his personal views, he always voted the same way as Barnaby Joyce. He had never crossed the floor at any time in his career.

But that very night, Zimmerman, Sharma and three other Liberals did indeed cross the floor, to vote with Labor and independents on amendments to the religious discrimination legislation, which would otherwise have allowed schools to discriminate against and vilify transgender students. Many believe that the Liberal MPs would not have crossed the floor if they weren’t facing a challenge from the socially progressive independents.

The Liberal Party is already making a late lunge back towards the centre of politics on the issues that resonate in these electorates: returning funding to the ABC, for example, and making some prominent announcements on the environment. It seems the independents are already having an effect.

So can the independents win, and how many of them might win? The present crossbench is made up of Helen Haines from Indi, Centre Alliance’s Rebekha Sharkie from Mayo, Zali Steggall in Warringah, Bob Katter in Kennedy, Andrew Wilkie in Clark and the Greens’ Adam Bandt in Melbourne. Climate 200 hopes to add two or three to that number. Insiders say the best chances are Daniel and Tink, and perhaps Chaney.

Then there are the rural candidates in the southern Murray–Darling Basin. They are wild cards, running beneath the radar of the political pundits, and mostly not engaging with or assessed by groups such as Climate 200.

The requirements for an independent to win are roughly similar in all seats. First, the candidate must get a sufficient first-preference vote to land in second place – that means at least 25,000 to 30,000 votes. Then, victory depends on the flow of preferences. Most of the independents interviewed for this article said they would not allocate preferences and would do no deals. But the inner-city contests will probably be decided by whether the Greens allocate preferences to the independents ahead of Labor. In the rural electorates, preferences from Pauline Hanson’s One Nation and the United Australia Party will be important.

Bandt says that preference decisions will be made locally, and closer to the election, but “I think our party would talk to anyone who’s like-minded. I think we are keen to see an end to this Liberal government.”

He thinks the Climate 200 independents would be “broadly swimming in the same direction” on climate change. He hopes to find common ground on social questions. Perhaps optimistically, he thinks they might even agree on aspects of economic policy.

When so many believe that the system is broken, it is easy to lose sight of what political parties can do well, and why they were developed in the first place. They are broad alliances. They can, at their best, serve as a forum for a contest of ideas and principles, with the policy that emerges being one that the whole party can live with and persuade the electorate to support.

Two issues – tax reform, and the religious discrimination bill – demonstrate the strengths and weaknesses of the party system, and the potential strengths and weaknesses of a parliament steered by independents.

One way or another, the need to increase government revenue is bound to come before the next parliament. There is the pandemic response to pay for, and broad consensus that tax reform is overdue. A political party such as Labor can at least in theory pursue a policy such as a change to negative gearing, as it did at the last election. It can argue the case – although, as Dyer observes, it now seems to have lost the will and ability to do so. On the other hand, an independent representing North Sydney, Goldstein or Wentworth would probably serve only one term if they veered in the direction of more taxes on the wealthy. It is hard for independents to advocate for policies in the national interest if they go against the interests of their own electorate. But a party running in all electorates can hope to appeal to the nation as a whole.

Rob Priestly acknowledges the issue. There are currently two models for deciding government spending in regional Australia, he says. The “infrastructure Australia” model allocates money on the basis of returns, which means the regions will always miss out because of their lower population. The National Party tries to counter that with a model that he describes as “find a way to get a bucket of cash and then hand it out more on the basis of politics than need”.

Priestly is interested in exploring another way. He wants to set in bedrock the principle that government must provide an equitable level of services to all Australians, and then allocate the spending in an entirely transparent fashion. And if it is transparent, he says, he trusts the voters will see the benefit, and a candidate like him may not need to depend on what amounts to pork-barrelling.

“I don’t need to have the Goldilocks answer,” Priestly says. “But I am talking to some deep thinkers on this topic, and I might be able to launch a policy that deals in a more structured way with these things than we have in the past.”

The need for political parties to consider all electorates can also be a weakness. It is the essence of the wedge that Labor, in particular, has learnt to fear. Labor was at risk of being wedged on the religious discrimination bill because of the party’s need to appeal both to social progressives and to the religiously conservative communities of the western suburbs.

In a piece of strategic smartness, Labor avoided the “wedge” and, with the help of the Liberals who crossed the floor, effectively killed the legislation without actually opposing it. In this, Rebekha Sharkie was key. She wanted a broader amendment that would have ended religious schools’ ability to discriminate against gay and transgender staff as well as students. Labor would not support that, which meant it had no chance of success. The amendment that was passed – to remove the right to discriminate against gay and trans students only – was drafted with Labor.

But the fact that Sharkie moved it made it easier for the Liberals to cross the floor than it would have been if they had been backing Opposition legislation. Once again, the fact that there are independents in parliament has already had an effect on the ecology – in this case, helping MPs overcome some of the disadvantages of being part of a party. The role of an independent helped Labor out of a fix, and meant Liberals could cross the floor without supporting Labor.

There have been other changes thanks to independents. Their push for a federal ICAC, and Helen Haines’ bill to establish one, has shifted the conversation. But there are limits. The mantra of independents is that all legislation would be considered “on its merits”, without the shackles of party solidarity. This sounds appealing, but it obscures the fact that there are some issues – perhaps even most issues – where there are competing merits, and that it is helpful to have a basic political philosophy. Perhaps even that much abused term, “ideology”, which is correctly used to mean the assertions, theories and aims that together make up a sociopolitical program. Such ideologies are supposedly the foundations of political parties. Ideologies – competing ideas about what it takes to make a good society – are why it is possible for good people to disagree on questions of “merits”.

But too many people look at the parties these days and see nothing of that. No ideals or ideology. No courage. Just a machinery of power.

It’s the best kind of day in Hobart – clear and cool, the water in the harbour sparkling, the Salamanca Market under way and, on the Elizabeth Street Pier, a campaign event for the Local Party. Perhaps only in Hobart would such an organisation be able to attract more than 70 people to an event on a sunny afternoon largely on the strength of personal connections and hope for a better democracy.

There are T-shirts, corflutes and refreshments. A platter of smoked salmon sandwiches has to be whisked away, because one of the Local Party’s key “issues” (not policies), along with climate change, pokie machines and prisons, is the environmental impact of salmon farming.

The Local Party was founded by Leanne Minshull and Anna Bateman. The two women are experienced political campaigners who have flown largely under the radar of the political elite precisely because they have operated on the edge, with minor parties and independents. Both have worked for the left-leaning think tank The Australia Institute.

Bateman, a journalist and documentary maker, worked on the campaign of former rural independent Tony Windsor and was until recently on the staff of Senator Jacqui Lambie. Minshull has a background in shareholder activism, and was one of the famous “Gunns 20” sued by the woodchip company for her activism. She also worked for the former federal Greens leader Bob Brown.

Minshull is contesting for the Senate with the backing of Climate 200. Bateman is a candidate for the lower house seat of Franklin, a Labor-held seat. She hopes to make Franklin “the new Clark” – a reference to Andrew Wilkie’s neighbouring electorate. But Minshull’s Senate campaign is clearly the focus, and the main chance. If Climate 200 is a political organisation without being a party, the Local Party is another kind of hybrid, perhaps even an oxymoron: a “party of independents”.

Minshull explains the party over cups of tea at the Fern Tree Tavern, the pub she runs with her husband. Perched on the slopes of Mount Wellington, the pub, says Bateman, once resembled “something out of Wake in Fright”, but under Minshull and her husband it has become more like a community centre. One senses that the “issues” the party is pursuing reflect the conversations around the tables on a Friday night, together with the preoccupations of the candidates. Being a publican is helpful if you are running for office, Minshull acknowledges. This is Hobart, and everyone knows the Gunns 20, and lots of people know the owner of the Fern Tree Tavern.

Local Party MPs, says Minshull, would not value party solidarity at all. Instead, they would vote with their conscience on every single issue. Crossing the floor “would not be this big hoo-ha”. The constitution of the Local Party, 10 pages long, states that it exists to “promote participatory democracy”. Parliamentarians would commit to spending their electoral allowance on running at least two “citizen juries” a year. These involve randomly selected voters considering an issue, briefed with expert advice and policy options. Bateman and Minshull say that the conclusions of the juries would bind their votes.

So if it is a party of independents, why have a party at all? Part of the reason, they say, is that the system favours parties. You don’t get a presence above the line on the Senate ballot paper unless you have a party structure. But it is also because, after a lifetime in politics, Minshull and Bateman wanted to force, or at least inspire, other parties to be more democratic.

What if the citizens’ juries came up with decisions that went against their deeply held principles? Minshull says she would be careful about the topics for the juries. She would not, for example, hold a jury on the death penalty. The party is pushing the Tasmanian government to hold one on the proposal for a new jail in the state’s north. I ask her the questions about tax policy that I have thrown at all the candidates. She says it would be a good citizen jury topic – not so much tax, as “revenue raising”. She would hold a statewide citizen jury exercise, and if possible decline to give her support to any proposal until the process was complete.

It all sounds radical – perhaps a little crazy.

But Minshull’s Senate bid could be crucial to the makeup of the new parliament. The latest polling suggests that, thanks to Clive Palmer and One Nation, we might end up with a Senate hostile to action on climate change and a federal ICAC.

Tasmania is one of the easiest states in Australia from which to secure a Senate seat. With support for the major parties dropping, the contest for the state’s final Senate seat will be between Minshull, the Jacqui Lambie Network’s Tammy Tyrrell, a One Nation candidate, and Liberal Party powerbroker Eric Abetz, who has been dropped to the hard-to-win third position on his party’s ticket.

Climate 200 has made its assessment. It conducted a telephone poll last December and found that 21 per cent of Tasmanian voters were already aware of the Local Party, despite it being new. When made aware of the party, 8 per cent of respondents said Minshull would get their vote. There are reasons to be sceptical of what amounts to push polling, but if the figures are even close to accurate it would make the race for the last Tasmanian Senate seat too close to call. Climate 200 has backed Minshull’s campaign to the tune of $50,000 so far.

Might this be an answer to the problems of independents called on to decide national policy, and the problems of political parties unable to move for fear of annoying a section of voters? The Local Party is an attempt to shift the entire process – to force or inspire other parties to be more democratic, more responsive to citizens. To learn once again how to persuade.

You’d have to say it’s an unlikely bid. But right now, with this fever pitch appetite for change, and in Tasmania, it’s perhaps not impossible.

People say that the current foment of independents is unprecedented. It isn’t true. In fact something like this happens periodically in Australian politics. Usually – as is the case now – it is mainly a disruption on the right. One of Labor’s great prime ministers, John Curtin, owed his office to two independents: Arthur Coles, founder of the supermarket chain, and Alexander Wilson, who split from the original, anti-Labor United Australia Party to deliver Curtin government.

Perhaps something like that might be about to happen again.

It was after this split in the anti-Labor forces that Robert Menzies drew the pieces together to form the Liberal Party on a tide of post–World War Two idealism. The new party swept to victory in 1949 and went on to rule for 23 years – until Gough Whitlam’s brief and tumultuous time as prime minister.

Whitlam was succeeded by Malcolm Fraser – a hardline anti-socialist and Cold War warrior, but socially liberal and consistently anti-racist. It was later, under the leadership of John Howard, that the Liberal Party began the trek towards the right, partly to try to regain the votes being lost to Pauline Hanson’s supporters. The seats of Kooyong and Goldstein, now at the centre of the independents’ foment, were then held by Fraser government figures Petro Georgiou and Ian Macphee. Both fell out with the Howard regime, largely on issues of racism in immigration policy. Georgiou retired after being challenged for preselection by Josh Frydenberg. Macphee crossed the floor to oppose racially discriminatory immigration policy, and lost his preselection the following year. The right to cross the floor was foundational for the Liberal Party, and part of its central creed of individual liberty and conscience. Under Howard, however, it became a career-limiting move.

Would the Liberal Party be facing the challenge from independents if it were still fielding candidates such as Georgiou and Macphee in liberal-minded electorates? Labor has never granted its MPs the right to cross the floor. For a party born out of the union movement, solidarity was not only pragmatic, it had a moral dimension. That core value probably explains why very few independents come from Labor tradition. Phil Cleary, who held the seat of Wills after Bob Hawke’s retirement, is the only independent to have emerged to the left of Labor. Andrew Wilkie, who entered politics as a member of the Greens, happily calls himself a “lefty”, but is best described as centre left (he was also once a Young Liberal).

Labor has split three times in its history, and each time has been so damaging that there is a determination it should never happen again. The Liberal Party, however, has been constantly giving off splinters, and mostly on the right.

Pauline Hanson was originally a Liberal preselected candidate. Cory Bernardi left the Liberal Party in 2017 to found the Australian Conservatives. Clive Palmer, founder of the modern-day United Australia Party, was part of the Liberal Movement – itself a Liberal Party breakaway – in his youth. He later joined the Nationals, and then went his own way. Now Craig Kelly, elected as a Liberal Party member, is the leader of the United Australia Party.

Candidates such as Spender, Tink and Daniel might well be seen as in line with that tradition of a splintering liberalism. They are the latest disruption. The difference is that they are social progressives rather than being from the right. They have more in common with Fraser, Georgiou and Macphee than with Scott Morrison. A rural candidate like Priestly has more in common with the old Country Party leaders such as John McEwan and Doug Anthony than with Barnaby Joyce.

The independent and minor party vote has been rising steadily since 2007, and at the 2016 election reached its highest point since the Liberal Party was founded. In a 2018 report, the Grattan Institute’s Danielle Wood and John Daley analysed the reasons and concluded they were cultural rather than economic. It was an expression of “outsider politics”. At that time, the independent and minor party vote was dominated by One Nation and the Palmer United Party, together with state-based politicians who had high brand recognition, such as South Australia’s Nick Xenophon and Tasmania’s Jacqui Lambie. An analysis included in the report found that the minor parties had policies that were more in line with public opinion on issues where Liberal and Labor converged. The Nick Xenophon Team and Jacqui Lambie Network were in favour of establishing a federal ICAC before it became Labor policy. Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party favoured legalising voluntary euthanasia. One Nation and Katter’s Australia Party favoured more restrictions on foreign land ownership. But now things have changed, and astonishingly quickly. The area of policy where the parties are now most out of line with popular opinion is climate change.

Daley returned to the issue of independents in another report, published last year, that analysed what he described as a policy “gridlock”, meaning neither side of politics would implement major economic reform. The quality of governance had declined since Hawke and Keating, he said. Unpopular reforms were never implemented. “Reforms that crossed shibboleths – beliefs that mark party or factional loyalty – almost always failed.” Politicians had lost the ability to persuade and explain unpopular policies and the need for change. Party structures, a hollowed out public service, the cynicism of political staffers and a poorer journalism were all to blame.

Daley has given most of his career to advocating for reform, and his report read like a counsel of despair. It was also one of his last reports as director of the Grattan Institute. But Daley nominated one source of hope: the best chance of breaking the gridlock, he said, was for “independent members of parliament to champion institutional changes, particularly when they hold the balance of power”.

He reflected on the record of the Gillard government, which held power with the support of the Greens, Andrew Wilkie and rural independents Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott. As part of a detailed partnership agreement, they demanded a raft of parliamentary reforms including the creation of the Parliamentary Budget Office, which provides confidential costings of policies to all parliamentarians, and serves as an independent source on the implications of election commitments. This, said Daley, was “perhaps the most significant institutional reform to the Commonwealth government in the past 15 years”.

So, what is the likely outcome after the election if the crossbench is larger, swelled by some of this new tide of independents? It is hard to be sure – they may or may not hold the balance of power. But as Cathy McGowan observes in her book, the very presence of independents is powerful. Government often sought her support on legislation, even when it wasn’t needed. Independents change the ecology of the parliament in significant ways, as with the push for a federal ICAC and the pushback on the religious discrimination legislation. It is not only a matter of raw numbers.

If they do hold the balance of power, it will surely mark an end to the lengthy period in which it has been possible to hold government without a credible policy on emissions reduction and climate change. All the independents favour a 2030 emissions reduction target of around 50 per cent.

A federal ICAC is likely, although its precise powers and operation might not be as clear as some think, as there may well be disagreement among the crossbench cohort on this. But issues of integrity in government are not confined to an ICAC; there may also be a push for legislation on whistleblower protection, strengthened freedom of information laws and transparency on political donations.

Also at least possible is an end to indefinite mandatory detention of refugees who arrived by boat. Most of the independents likely to succeed regard this as outdated policy, a relic of different times, no longer relevant to deterring people from making the risky voyage to Australia. These candidates favour an independent review of Australia’s refugee policy.

Most of the independents, including those in rural areas, are also at least open to the idea of an Indigenous voice to parliament. But there is no sign of radicalism in economic policy – no redistribution of wealth or fundamental change to inequality.

Today, Wilkie reflects on the period of minority government under Julia Gillard from 2010. He ended up feeling betrayed by Gillard, who dropped her undertaking to regulate poker machines – a key condition of his support – once she no longer needed him. He welcomes the prospect of more independents on the crossbench. His advice to them, if elected, is to not enter into a formal agreement with either party, should they hold the balance of power. He found he had more influence after Gillard broke the agreement. “It meant I couldn’t be taken for granted,” he says.

Beyond parliament, Wilkie has no succession plan. When he decides to retire – no time soon, he says – the seat of Clark will likely return to the major parties.

So, is the rise of the independents a temporary phenomenon or a longstanding change to our politics? Former Kevin Rudd staffer Lachlan Harris has argued that one in four voters opting to give their first preference to independents and minor parties – as is the case now – is the “magic number” in Australian history. “There’s only been three times the minor party vote has gone over 25 per cent since federation,” he says. “Every time, one of the major parties has [eventually] either collapsed, fused with another party or split. That minor-party vote is an indicator of a desire for change; the pressure that causes the tectonic plates to shift. What the voting data is saying is when one quarter of voters aren’t voting for the majors, the political system itself adjusts.”

So how might it adjust now? Perhaps there will be a new party, or at least a loose alliance of independents, occupying the socially progressive, pro-business ground that the Liberal Party once claimed as its own. Or perhaps the Liberals will move back towards the centre of politics and reclaim that ground.

But if that happens, what will happen to the right? It’s anathema to say it in the polite streets of Goldstein or Wentworth, but the sense of disenfranchisement that is spurring the campaigns of the progressive independents, the scepticism about political elites, is also what fuelled the election of Donald Trump in the United States and Brexit in the United Kingdom.

History suggests another splinter of the Liberal Party is possible, and even likely. There might be a newly invigorated alliance of forces on the right – One Nation and the United Australia Party, perhaps, together with defectors from the Coalition.

If the rise of the independents is a trend, rather than a flash in the pan, we might not like all the results.

After an hour in Stanhope, Rob Priestly has visited most of the businesses in town. At the post office, he discovered that the woman who owns the business knows his family and has already heard about his campaign. At the chemist, the owner agreed to put one of his corflutes in the window, so long as it was not too large. He has visited St Matthews Opp Shop, billed as “amazing and popular” on the town’s website. The op-shop volunteers are clearly considering his pitch.

Priestly will be attending the meetings about the local swimming pool, even though that is a local government issue. It is all an opportunity to get known. Now the day’s heat is getting intense, but there is no rest. He is off to the next town – Tongala, population around 1800, where three years ago Nestlé announced the shutdown of its factory, and 106 locals were made redundant. And there he once again runs his lines, the suggestion of political transformation.

Shepparton News has given equal space to Priestly and the new National Party candidate, agronomist Sam Birrell. Priestly writes about access to health services, which he says are getting worse: “We need our concerns heard in Canberra and a sense of urgency the problem deserves.”

Birrell takes a pot shot, saying some people run for office because they want to be something, and some people run because they want to do something. He is of the latter kind. He argues that the regions need “a team” in parliament to achieve their aims. “That team is the Nationals … Without the Nationals, we wouldn’t have buckets of money that help develop regional Australia … Our opponents in Nicholls are trying to create the fantasy that Nicholls has somehow been ignored. I guess you have to try to paint a bleak picture if you are angling for change and a seat in parliament for yourself.”

It can only get nastier.

It is a mistake, and a lazy journalistic cliché, to talk about the voters making a choice, as though they move with one mind and for one reason. There are as many decisions as there are voters – decisions driven by some combination of habit, hope and fear.

But sometimes it is possible to distil a vibe, a movement, a mood.

In May, in at least some parts of Australia, we will find out which narrative wins: the assurance that the parties that have defined politics for a lifetime are our best hope of representation, or the promise and risk of something new.

Margaret Simons

Margaret Simons is an author, journalist and journalism academic. She has written numerous books, articles and essays, including the Quarterly Essay Cry Me a River: The Tragedy of the Murray–Darling Basin.


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