The Politics    Thursday, December 9, 2021

Running scared

By Rachel Withers

Image of the member for Wentworth Dave Sharma Image © Joel Carrett / AAP Images

Member for Wentworth Dave Sharma. Image © Joel Carrett / AAP Images

Dave Sharma and the “moderate” Liberals are starting to sweat over their independent challengers

Wentworth MP and “modern Liberal” Dave Sharma is starting to seriously sweat over the growing independents movement, it seems. In an op-ed in The Australian this morning, Sharma hit out at the “single-issue” independents running in once-safe Liberal seats across Melbourne and Sydney, questioning their backers – “of inherited privilege” – and suggesting that if they really cared about their chosen issues, they’d be challenging Labor and Greens seats too. (Sharma conveniently ignored the fact that it is MPs such as him who have been disappointing their constituents, leading frustrated communities to field their own candidates.) Sharma’s central argument against voting for independents such as his opponent Allegra Spender is that independent MPs are impotent: they promise much but ultimately can do little. As many have been quick to note, however, it is the so-called moderate Liberals who don’t much deliver on their promises, regardless of what they might like to put on their brochures. Former Liberal backbencher and one-time crossbencher Julia Banks, someone well placed to know the difference, was among those calling Sharma out. “I KNOW you have voice & power to effect law reform as an Independent,” she tweeted. “Dave has to vote with Barnaby.”

Sharma, as usual, talks up the bare minimum he has achieved on climate by working behind the scenes. But the member for Wentworth has failed to even achieve the emissions-reduction targets he wants, let alone those that his constituents demand. Imagine what an independent member for Wentworth with the balance of power might be able to do. The fact that Sharma uses his previous role as a diplomat to make his point comes at an awkward time; over in another paper, a group of around 90 ex-diplomats has published a full-page ad calling for Australia to take decisive and urgent action on climate change. Sharma’s name is, notably, not among them.

Sharma is not the only metropolitan Liberal running scared. So too are the other men facing challenges from impressive, well-resourced independent women. In a segment on Sky News today, high-profile “moderates” Jason Falinski, Tim Wilson and Trent Zimmerman attempted to undermine their opponents’ independence and values, implying that they looked “more like franchises than independents”. “I actually don’t think it’s good for the country to extinguish moderate voices from inside the Liberal party,” said North Sydney MP Zimmerman. “It’s not the responsibility of the Australian people to ensure there’s balance within the political parties,” replied his opponent, former charities chief executive Kylea Tink. 

Falinski, meanwhile, pushed back against the idea – noted by his challenger, Dr Sophie Scamps – that he has voted with Barnaby Joyce on climate policy. “Barnaby votes with me,” he told Sky, a line he also tried in The Australian yesterday. “I was in favour of net-zero by 2050 and Barnaby Joyce was against it,” Falinski commented. It’s perhaps not the greatest example, considering the government was too afraid to put that target to a vote, lest its own MPs cross the floor against it.

Sitting independent MP Zali Steggall has noticed the uptick in defensiveness among Liberal MPs, asking whether there was “an audit of how many opinion pieces Sharma & co have written”. “How many laws or policies have you enacted?” replied a testy Senator Andrew Bragg. The Warringah MP appears to have avoided a high-profile challenge from former NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian, who is likely to soon end the speculation. Some suggest the talk of her possible candidacy was all a deliberate distraction to focus attention away from the campaign launches of several independents this week.

We’re yet to hear anything from treasurer and Kooyong MP Josh Frydenberg, who today gained his own independent challenger. Professor Monique Ryan, the director of neurology at the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne, has announced her run, also expressing frustration that her local member votes with Joyce. “Every day I go to work and make difficult decisions to help Australian children. Is it too much to ask our government to do the same?” she asked in a statement. Ryan is already picking up formidable endorsements from Kooyong constituents, including journalist Alan Kohler. Frydenberg is yet to respond publicly, but the Murdoch media is doing it for him, with The Australian’s Rachel Baxendale last night penning a tenuous hit piece against Kooyong Independents campaign director Ann Capling. (The 2016 “probe into nepotism”, one learns once one reads beyond the headline, was focused on the man who hired her for a provost role, with nothing adverse to be read into her “abilities or suitability for appointment”.)

There’s little wonder that the “modern Liberals” are nervous, especially since respected former Liberals are now throwing their weight behind the movement. Ian Macphee – a minister in the Fraser government and the member for Goldstein for 16 years – yesterday announced his intention to vote for Wilson’s independent challenger, Zoe Daniel. Former Wentworth MP Malcolm Turnbull appears ready to do the same, after a few years of politely supporting Sharma. Speaking at the launch of a new project from the Accountability Round Table last night, the former PM (a family friend of Spender’s) appeared to directly contradict his once-preferred successor. The independent challenges, he said, are a “very, very healthy development”, with disaffected Liberals “now getting the opportunity to vote for the sort of candidates that share their values”. “I think a bit more diversity in our parliaments would actually make a very big difference,” he added. It’s a big call about a group that Sharma would have us believe would be able to deliver little.

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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