The Teal independents are still riding a wave of media adulation. The coverage suggests a new, more idealistic way of practising politics. But when MPs emphasise the primacy of their own electorates, the unity of the nation is overlooked, writes Mark Sawyer.
There are plenty of challenges awaiting the new members of Australia’s 47th parliament, challenges particular to each. Labor has the complicated task of governing in an environment of austerity and without a Senate majority. The Greens have the opposite problem: harnessing their newfound power in a way that helps the progressive cause and does not embolden the right. The Opposition is cactus of course.
Then there are the Teal independents. Whatever problems they face, beyond staff allocations anyway, a hostile media isn’t one. The exception is News Corp, of course, but not uniformly even there; and some niche outlets. A soft profile of Josh Frydenberg by News Corp’s Herald-Sun during the election campaign was lashed as propaganda. Starry-eyed media coverage of the Teals doesn’t seem to attract the same opprobrium.
The ABC’s Geraldine Doogue, a giant of journalism, goes deeper than most into complex issues. But on ABC Radio National at the weekend she and her guest, journalist Kalinga Seneviratne, mused that a similar movement to the Teal independents might help Sri Lanka. Seneviratne has already lauded the Teal phenomenon for The South China Morning Post, and told Doogue he had suggested to a Sri Lankan friend that the movement ”could be a template for Sri Lanka”. Yes, the Teals would guarantee not only political probity in that crisis-torn nation, but a supply of food and energy.
Meanwhile Monique Ryan, the Teal independent who ousted Frydenberg in Kooyong, was profiled in the Good Weekend magazine published by Nine newspapers. Melissa Fyfe gave an in-depth portrait of a person with a formidable track record in medicine, specifically pediatric neurology. In fact, a person who has done more for humanity than 99% of elected Australian politicians ever will (it does appear in some cases that medicine’s loss is much more than parliament’s gain).
Ryan’s feat in ousting a Liberal MP, the sitting treasurer no less, was remarkable, so the air of triumphalism was unremarkable (as it is for much of the Teal coverage). Nor was the angle that the Teals are not politicians, a comforting one for anyone who believes in the tooth fairy.
Frydenberg would not comment for the article, but that didn’t stop Fyfe making some pretty heroic assumptions about his conduct in what was a hard-fought campaign:
It’s certainly true that it was harder for Frydenberg to malign a doctor who has spent years looking after children with life-shortening and often fatal muscle and nerve diseases.
No campaign for old men
In fact the article bristles with barely concealed contempt for anyone who didn’t sign up wholeheartedly to Team Ryan (which presumably includes the 59% of Kooyong voters who didn’t give her their first preference). We read about the “Gooms”, ”a term Ryan and team gave the Grumpy Obnoxious Old Men who would scowl or lecture her during the campaign (with their wives often winking at Ryan supportively behind their backs.” The modern mantra ”We pay our respects to our elders” has a get-out clause: does not apply to old (mainly white) blokes. Seriously, were there no female voters who didn’t buy the Teal pitch? Presumably they were old too. ”Young, educated professionals moving in” were the electorate’s salvation, according to Ryan’s backers.
And the article is replete with sarcastic references to the assumed state of her Hawthorn electoral office after Frydenberg’s team departed.
“You can probably hear the sound of shredding from here,” she jokes …
“I think I’ll be lucky to get more than a packet of prawns in the air-conditioning vent,” she deadpans …
“We’re going to have to have a smoking ceremony. And probably an exorcism,” she muses. “And then a really big party.”
Spoiler alert, the new office works out OK:
He [Frydenberg] left “a couple of highlighter pens and a ruler”, she says, but thankfully no prawns in the air-conditioning vent. “I’m still looking for the bottle of Veuve and the chocolates. I’m sure they’re here somewhere.”
(Since the matter of office transitions is such a pressing concern, it was odd that Ryan did not pledge to pursue new rules for such transitions, perhaps even as part of an integrity commission. The files of the outgoing member do not, as of right, belong to the incoming member.)
The delicate matter of funding from that rich guy is neatly dealt with:
She ain’t no puppet, either, which is how many, including Frydenberg, cast her: a puppet specifically of Simon Holmes à Court, Kooyong resident and convenor of Climate 200, the crowdfunding vehicle that boosted the teal campaigns.
There was a much-quoted statistic that rarely gets elaborated the media:
She was appalled at the $12 billion worth of fossil-fuel subsidies and the sway the industry seemed to have in Canberra.
And a nice shot at the former Liberal health minister (whose response is not recorded).
For two years, she’d unsuccessfully lobbied then health minister Greg Hunt to establish newborn screening for spinal muscular atrophy.
Books are being written about the Teal phenomenon. But at some point the media will have to put away their sense of excitement and examine it without the rose-coloured glasses.
A change of expectations
By the way, no article about Kooyong can fail to mention that it was the seat of Australia’s longest serving PM, and founder of the Liberal Party, Robert Menzies. What doesn’t get unpacked is the nature of the former blue-ribbon Liberal electorates now held by Teals. A closer look reveals a fascinating element of these electorates and their political representation.
The electorates are among Australia’s most wealthy, but with privilege came a certain modesty of expectations. A certain diffidence, even. Yes, Menzies came from Kooyong. But between his retirement in 1966 and the rise of Tony Abbott in 2013, it’s notable how many Liberal also-rans represented what are now Teal seats. Andrew Peacock, Joe Hockey, John Spender, John Hewson, Paul Hasluck and Julie Bishop are among the best known. Successful politicians, but of the second tier. Some led their party, some had trouble persuading their colleagues they were leadership material, and had even more trouble persuading the nation. Some of those named were more successful in the diplomatic corps than in electoral politics. Hasluck made governor-general. Before Frydenberg, Kooyong was held by Petro Georgiou, a progressive moderate, for 17 years. He didn’t land a ministry from John Howard.
It might read as mysticism more than hard political analysis to imagine that these electorates, in recognition of their privilege and atypical nature ,did not seek a special place in the national firmament. But generally speaking, until 2013, PMs represented seats situated squarely in middle Australia: Higgins, Lowe, Werriwa, Wannon, Wills, Blaxland, Bennelong, Griffith, Lalor. That changed when Abbott, representing Warringah, became PM, followed by Malcolm Turnbull from Wentworth.
Whether Australia’s two richest electorates produced successful PMs is a subjective matter, to say the least. What isn’t a matter of opinion is that, for the first time, members of parliament representing Australia’s richest neighbourhoods do not sit in the same party room as the MPs representing Maranoa or Grey or Mallee or Wide Bay or any of Australia’s poorest electorates.
Hard to get a sense of triumphalism about that.