The quest to elect modern liberal independents in blue ribbon seats, by @margokingston1 for #IndependentsDay

Margo Kingston

Margo Kingston

Co-publisher and editor-in-chief at No Fibs
Margo Kingston is a retired Australian journalist and climate change activist. She is best known for her work at The Sydney Morning Herald and her weblog, Webdiary. Since 2012, Kingston has been a citizen journalist, reporting and commenting on Australian politics via Twitter and No Fibs.
Margo Kingston
- 10 hours ago
Margo Kingston

First published on The Echo May 25, 2021

Anyone remember ‘Modern Liberals’? They’re the ones who stood at the last election in safe Liberal seats like Goldstein in Melbourne (Tim Wilson), North Sydney (Trent Zimmerman) and the formerly safe liberal seat of Wentworth (Dave Sharma). 

The idea was to differentiate from un-modern liberals, you know, the hard right climate change deniers who ended Turnbull’s leadership rather than acquiesce in the party-room backed NEG. 

You know, the silent ones when Morrison announced a $600 million taxpayer-funded gas fired power station with the promise of more to come despite  the contrary advice of a Government task force which advised a new gas plant was not needed and the view of the chair of Australia’s Energy Security Board, Kerry Schott, that the plan was not commercially viable. Silent after energy experts warned the Government’s open-ended intervention in the energy market would depress private sector investment in renewables. Silent after the International Energy Agency said the day after Morrison’s announcement that to reach net zero emissions in 2050 and thus avoid catastrophic climate change “we do not need any more investments in new oil, gas and coal projects”. 

The sickening punchline: The Snowy Hydro Authority, which will expand hydro power under an initiative of PM Turnbull, will now also build the new station. 

‘Modern liberals’ abjectly failed the majority of their electorate – Liberal, Green and Labor – who want strong action on climate change.

Morrison’s move is politically corrupt, of course. Pay no mind to the pressing public interest, just wedge Labor in their marginal seats. Labor has stepped away, frightened. 

After the budget Malcolm Turnbull addressed an energy conference to bemoan its absence of climate change policy before the gas fired power station announcement. Asked what it would take for the Morrison Government to change course he replied: “At this stage I’d say only the prospect of electoral defeat, whether that’s at the hands of the Labor Party, which would seem implausible, or independents who are supportive of climate action.”

Turnbull and John Hewson, two ‘modern liberal’ leaders – are now all in on finding a way to force the Liberal Party to act in the public interest even it means backing quality liberal independents. Morrison thinks he’s got the trick to win the next election, and it’s based on the assumption that moderate liberals in safe seats will hold their noses and vote Liberal.

Cathy McGowan, the retired independent MP for the Victorian regional seat of Indi, put it this way to me last week: “ The Liberal Party has swung right and has swung conservative Christian.” So what are cosmopolitan liberal voters to do? “I say to them, ‘it’s only going to get worse, so how are you going to vote’?”

In safe liberal seats with a significant numbers of moderate liberal voters, we need a modern liberal independent who attracts enough first preference votes from Liberal, Labor and Greens voters to finish second after dragging the sitting Liberal MPs’ vote below 45 percent, then wins on preferences. Like Cathy McGowan did to beat Sophie Mirabella in 2013, and her successor Helen Haines did to succeed McGowan at the last election. And what Kerryn 
Phelps did to beat Sharma at the 2018 Wentworth by election, and what Zali Steggall did to finish off Tony Abbott. 

To do that, community members of different political colours must come together and find a quality independent candidate to back, who will attract liberal protest voters while being attractive enough to left voters to win their first or second preference. 

To do that, voters must care enough to actively participate in their democracy, get educated about how the preferential system works and, most importantly, be prepared to work together across party lines to find common ground.

How? One way is the “Voices for” movement inspired by the 
Voices for Indi group that backed McGowan and turbocharged by Zali Stegall’s success in Warringah.

Denis Ginnivan, a Voices for Indi founder who retired from the group to mentor several ‘Voices for’ groups in all mainland States, told a community conference in Melbourne last week that there are now 36 groups having a go.

McGowan became the unofficial patron of this movement – every seat is different and all groups are unaffiliated and autonomous – after calling a gathering of interested voters in safe Coalition seats in February to explain the Indi model.

cathy mcgowan wangaratta
Retiring independent Cathy McGowan MP (Indi) at Wangaratta. Photo: @jansant

Really, the movement is about nurturing genuine participatory democracy with a view to rehabilitating the democratic concept of representation. You know, the idea that the role of a federal MP is to SERVE and EMPOWER his or her electorate, not advance careers in the party club or self-deal or serve donors in return for a cushy job after politics. 

With enough volunteers and donations, they can attract quality candidates who’d never otherwise think of doing politics to stand with the offer of genuine service, good faith transparent decision making on bills and constant community input. People like Cathy McGowan and Zali Steggall. 

Last week I interviewed architect Linda Seymour, a founder of the movement in the Sydney seat of Hughes, held by climate change denier and pandemic conspiracy theorist Craig Kelly. Before the last election Morrison saved Kelly, who uses his position to soapbox outlandish theories rather than represent his electorate, from deselection by his local branch. 

Her breaking point was Kelly mocking climate change as a factor in the fires (40 degree heat is hard but much harder in Russia, -40 degrees) the day after two young men died fighting them. She began kitchen table conversations, gathered volunteers and is searching for an independent to back. The common ground so far – climate change and the need to bring back integrity through a start a strong federal ICAC.

Can political neophytes create enough momentum for the Morrison Government to feel the heat and change course?

Linda got down to it when her work dried up during COVID and, heaven forbid, she’s having fun getting to know her electorate and meeting new people of all political colours who also want change and are willing to work to get it. 

And that’s the point, really. Tilt at windmills, see what happens. As McGowan never tires of saying, quoting anthropologist Margaret Mead:”Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”


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