Independent politicians, particularly women, are becoming a strong voice against the ineptitude of our Federal Government, writes Professor Kerryn Phelps.
Coincidentally, last week was also the third anniversary of my first speech in Parliament after being elected as the member for Wentworth. Our campaign showed, with an unprecedented almost 20 per cent swing, that a seemingly entrenched conservative urban electorate could support a local independent who represented and articulated their values and would not be constrained by Party dictates.
It was also the anniversary of Julia Banks leaving the Liberal Party to serve the remainder of her term as an independent and deliver the balance of power to the crossbench, where we were able to pass the Medevac Bill as a response to the politically-created humanitarian crisis of indefinite detention of refugees on Manus Island and Nauru.
Cathy McGowan defied the odds in 2013 to win the rural seat of Indi and managed to hold the seat in the subsequent election in 2016, then successfully pass the independent baton to Helen Haines in 2019.
Zali Steggall took on former Prime Minister Tony Abbott and won the seat of Warringah in 2019. Both Ms Steggall and Dr Haines will be defending their seats in the upcoming Federal Election in 2022. They have both been strong voices holding the Government to account.
It is no coincidence that the independent campaigns around the country are largely driven by women with women as the community-endorsed candidates.
Women have long felt disenfranchised by the political system and in their thousands were mobilised in the March4Justice calling for systemic change following the leadership shown by Janine Hendry, Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins.
If politics is the art of the possible, the emerging independent movement is sensing the very real possibility of success at the next election.
The independent movement is tapping into a deep frustration in communities around Australia from cities to rural areas about the current state of politics that has awakened a generation of voters and stirred them into action.
The Liberals and Nationals are on the nose with many “small l” Liberal voters.
From lack of accountability to pork-barrelling, lack of action on climate change to the “it’s not a race” vaccine “strollout”, avoiding the establishment of purpose-built quarantine to the mounting trillion dollar debt that will pass to the next generation to pay back, this iteration of the Liberal Party is not what many former supporters even recognise.
Labor has been consistently ahead in the polls, but will they win enough seats to take a majority or will we see enough of these strong independent women elected to take the balance of power in the 47th Parliament?
Communities that are looking to leadership on climate action are not seeing the right signals coming from Labor. There is a similar but lesser frustration with Labor on its refusal to rule out new coal or gas projects.
Throw the United Australia Party’s seemingly unlimited funds and likely preferencing of Coalition candidates into the mix and anything could happen.
So the scene is set.
The independent movement has grown from “kitchen table” conversations to town hall meetings to well-organised grassroots campaigns with eyes firmly set on the target and the will to go the whole way to Canberra.
The so-called moderates in the Liberal Party, feeling the heat, make grand statements but when it comes to standing their ground on matters of principle, like lack of action on climate change or removing support for fossil fuel projects or the need to debate a federal integrity commission or end discrimination against LGBT students and teachers, they fail to actually do anything and compliantly vote with their colleagues and Nationals Coalition partners.
As Allegra Spender told the gathered crowd of supporters on the weekend:
Everyone knows we cannot afford one more electoral cycle of spin, denial and inaction on climate change, inaction on women’s representation and inaction on the economic opportunities of the green revolution. If the local member is not up to the task then he needs to get out of the way.
Wentworth is not radical and I am not a radical at all. But there are those who are trying to paint me and this wave of independents as such.
To them, I would say: trying to protect the environment or our children is not a radical choice; ensuring that our businesses are at the forefront of innovation is not a radical choice; having equal representation of women and men in Parliament is not a radical choice; and making sure that our institutions have transparency and integrity is not a radical choice.
Zoe Daniel in her launch speech said:
We, the people of Goldstein, with our brains, our hearts, and our courage, can bring about smart, forward-focused climate policy, transparent economic management, create accountability and take steps towards genuine equality for women.
We can do a thousand other things by raising our voices.
Where were the modern Liberals when they had a chance to support Helen Haines’ legislation for a National Integrity Commission?
Nowhere to be seen, nowhere to be heard.
They were far from standing up for integrity, honesty and truth — they were actively blocking it.
The exception last week was the courageous action of Bridget Archer, the Liberal member for Bass in Tasmania, when she crossed the floor to second Helen Haines’ motion to debate the Integrity Bill. Granted, she is in an extremely marginal seat and government accountability will be one of the top election issues, but that took guts. It is also what representative democracy should be. Representing the values of your constituents. I sent an email to her office to commend her for taking such a principled stand.
We approach the new year with a sense of the potential for what could be.
The independent movement has awakened, and its growing influence is not to be underestimated.
Professor Kerryn Phelps AM is a general practitioner, an advisory board member and conjoint professor at NICM Health Research Institute, a Climate 200 advisory panel member, an OzSAGE member, a City of Sydney Councillor, former Federal Member for Wentworth and former president of the Australian Medical Association. You can follow her on Twitter @drkerrynphelps.
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