The change that refreshes: independents ring the changes in quest to renew Australian democracy

by | May 6, 2022 | Government, Latest Posts

The polls point to the LNP losing their grip on power, but don’t count on a Labor landslide. The big winners may well be found outside the traditional domain of party politics. Kim Wingerei with Cathy McGowan on the independents.

At the 2019 election, the polls predicted a Labor victory. It became one of the biggest upsets in Australian political history. The Liberal National Party coalition fared poorly in NSW and Victoria but rode a wave of anti-Labor fervour in the resources states of Queensland and Western Australia to increase its tiny majority of one seat to three in the lower house (later reduced back to one as Craig Kelly left the Liberal Party in 2021).

There is even less reason to trust the polls this time. As Cathy McGowan, former Independent representative for the Victorian electorate of Indi, points out to MWM:

The polls don’t reflect the much greater diversity of candidates in many electorates, nor do they reflect voter disaffection with the major parties.

A recent local poll by the Australian Institute in the Victorian electorate of Goldstein indicates that independent Zoe Daniels trails incumbent Tim Wilson (Lib) by 1% on first preferences, but leads by 24% on a two-candidate preferred basis. Wilson held Goldstein by a comfortable 7.8% after preferences in 2019.

These are the kinds of potential swings that are not being picked up by the national polling of Roy Morgan and others.

Various polls have indicated strong showings for Sophie Scamps in Mackellar (NSW) and Kylea Tink in North Sydney. On another yardstick, SportsBet has made independent candidate Allegra Spender the favourite to beat Liberal MP in Wentworth (NSW).

Two electorates up the road from Goldstein, federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, who held Kooyong despite a big swing against him in 2019, is also clearly not feeling comfortable facing up to independent Monique Ryan. Throwing the alleged voting intentions of Ryan’s mother-in-law into his campaign launch speech seems more like desperation than the usual Liberal Party safe-seat hubris.

Kooyong has never been held by any party but the Liberal Party and its forebears. It was Robert Menzies’ seat for 32 years, followed by Andrew Peacock for 28. Losing Kooyong will be a massive symbolic blow for the Liberal Party.

Neither Dr Monique Ryan, nor journalist Zoe Daniel are politicians, and therein lies much of their attraction to voters, says McGowan. “They connect with voters in the electorates in ways that the major party generally does not, listening to their constituents rather than candidates who just spruik the party line on the policy issues they think are important.”

McGowan has championed the “Voices Of” movement which has helped the dozens of independent candidates standing at this election. Her grassroots campaign won her the formerly safe Liberal seat of Indi, then held by Sophie Mirabella, in the 2013 election.

“Voices Of” ignites 30 independent movements across Australia

McGowan’s win in 2013 prompted ABC’s Barrie Cassidy to declare it:

A warning to the occupants of safe seats everywhere on both sides of politics.

Nine years later, his warning is proving prescient.

There are at least 23 electorates which have declared “Community Independent” candidates for the lower house in the 2022 election (Wikpedia), including incumbents Zali Steggall (Warringah) and McGowan’s successor Helen Haines (Indi), who are both considered good bets to return.

McGowan is not one to make bullish predictions, but is quietly confident of at least five independent candidates winning a seat in the lower house in total, and many more making once safe seats marginal.

All but one of those candidates are women, likely a reaction to many voters increasingly realise that the male domination of politics in general, and party politics in particular, is hindering change in areas such as climate policy, health care and education.

As former Liberal, and later independent MP, Julia Banks, says in her (very insightful) book Power Play:

Entering politics was like entering another world, one stuck in time and so deficient in trust and rational judgement […] I felt like I was an extra in a nightmare TV series, a hybrid between Mad Men and House of Cards.

McGowan acts as a mentor and advisor to many of the independent candidates. She is seeing first hand how every one of them are “growing into their jobs” as they see how politics can be so very different to the traditional narrative of left and right. “It’s all about the social contract,” McGowan says.

This is what sets the independent candidates apart from the usual party driven way of “doing” politics. “The major parties’ compact with voters is fraying badly,” McGowan says.

Long-time public policy advocate Everald Compton – a sprightly 90-year old Queenslander who has championed many disparate causes, from helping to guide assisted dying laws through Queensland Parliament to promoting the virtues of inland rail – echoes those sentiments:

“I have met every PM since Robert Menzies, been visiting Federal Parliament for 65 years, and over that time I have seen how party politics has eroded trust in democracy and so often obfuscates sound policy and legislative change.”

Compton is now working to support many of the independent candidates and is optimistic on their behalf, suggesting as many as 18 of them will either be elected or at least turn safe seats into contestable seats next time around.

He suggests to MWM that the independents may get together to force changes in leadership in whichever of the major parties emerges as the most likely to form government. He is certain it will be a minority government that will have to rely on the independents.

Some mainstream media commentators have also mooted this as a possibility, or rather warned against it. News Limited papers have been particularly vocal in claiming that the independents are not independent at all, but rather akin to a party, all funded and “directed” by Simon Holmes à Court. His Climate 200 group has provided funding to many of the independent candidates, but beyond the focus on climate change action, an imperative shared by all the independent candidates, there is no evidence he is influencing their campaigns.

“It’s all nonsense,” says McGowan,

the independent candidates are focused entirely on their electorates; they have grown out of their communities and reflect their local community values and don’t have time for hypothetical discussions with candidates in other electorates. Most of them haven’t even met each other.

Other commentators who would rather see the cosy party duopoly of Liberal and Labor preserved, point to the fact that the independent candidates are not prepared to declare which of the major parties they will support.

But why should they? This is the change that the major parties fear, and many commentators fail to understand: independent representatives seek to address each issue on merit – the way representative democracy was always meant to work – without the preconceived dictates of party political dogma designed to win elections rather than for the purposes of sound government and policy development.

Will this election be the beginning of the change and renewal our democracy needs?

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Kim Wingerei is a businessman turned writer and commentator. He is passionate about free speech, human rights, democracy and the politics of change. Originally from Norway, Kim has lived in Australia for 30 years. Author of ‘Why Democracy is Broken – A Blueprint for Change’. 

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