View from The Hill: Independent push against Frydenberg

Josh Frydenberg holds his seat by a high margin, but has a determined challenger. Joel Carrett/AAP

View from The Hill: Independent push against Frydenberg

A high profile independent candidate, Oliver Yates, is expected to run against Treasurer Josh Frydenberg in the heartland Liberal seat of Kooyong in Melbourne.

Yates, who lives in the electorate, is a member of the Liberal party and a former international banker and former CEO of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation. At present he works for several firms on renewable energy projects.

Son of Bill Yates, a colourful character who held the Victorian seat of Holt in 1975-80 and was earlier a member of the House of Commons, Yates has made swingeing attacks on the Liberals, saying in a recent Guardian article that the “party is in need of desperate cultural reform”.

Challenger Oliver Yates. Clean Energy Finance Corporation

On climate change, which would be central to his campaign, he wrote in an earlier Guardian piece: “Refusing to reduce emissions as cheaply as possible is irrational, immoral and economically reckless.”

Frydenberg had a very solid 58% of the primary vote in 2016, and would not be at risk unless his primary vote was pushed well under 50%. But Liberals were shocked when at the Victorian election the seat of Hawthorn, which is within Kooyong, was lost to Labor.

Yates’ expected challenge and an anticipated announcement by former Liberal Julia Banks that she will run against Health Minister Greg Hunt in Flinders follow the unveiling of Zali Steggall’s bid to oust former prime minister Tony Abbott in Warringah.

The political crows have been circling Abbott, but until the appearance of Steggall – a Liberal-leaning born-and-bred local – the political odds were on him.

Now the Liberal disruptor is himself target of a major disruption, with the outcome uncertain.

The House of Representatives voting system makes it hard for independents to break through, so they are still a relatively rare breed in the lower house. However they are more common than previously and now the times are more auspicious for them than ever before.

Once established, they are hard to shift. So we can expect independents Rebekha Sharkie in Mayo and Andrew Wilkie in Denison to be back after the May election.

Banks’ prospects in Flinders would not seem high, although union-commissioned polling has been bad for Hunt, who backed Peter Dutton’s challenge to Malcolm Turnbull.

Banks presently holds the seat of Chisholm. Last year she deserted the Liberals to go to the crossbench citing the leadership change and bullying.

Hunt had 51.6% of the primary vote last election; ABC election analyst Antony Green says that post-redistribution he is on about 50.5%. But the ALP vote is around 27% and Hunt seems in more danger from Labor than from an independent.

Two of the most interesting contests involving independents will be Indi in north eastern Victoria, and Wentworth in Sydney.

Cathy McGowan famously tipped out Liberal frontbencher Sophie Mirabella from Indi in 2013. McGowan, with a long background in the area, and backed by the grassroots “Voices For Indi” forum, was completely dug in by 2016. She would have won again this year.

But she had set in place a process for a community selection of a successor and earlier this month that produced Helen Haines, 57, from Wangaratta, a public health researcher. McGowan then confirmed she would not stand.

Indi will test whether one independent can pass on the “community candidate” heritage to another.

All the McGowan infrastructure is in place for Haines. On the other hand, by definition an independent candidate must establish themselves as an individual.

Haines will have to demonstrate her personal credentials, and convince voters that the local area will have a stronger “voice” in the next parliament if it has an independent than if its member comes from the Coalition (Labor can’t win the seat).

McGowan’s “voice” has been enhanced in this parliament because of the tight numbers. The crossbench has the crucial balance of power in these last months because the parliament is now “hung”.

The numbers in the next parliament are unlikely to be as close which would reduce the clout of a crossbencher.

In Wentworth, Kerryn Phelps was greatly helped to her 2018 byelection win by voters’ anger at the treatment of the seat’s former member Malcolm Turnbull. She was also assisted by the Liberal candidate Dave Sharma, a former diplomat, not being a local.

By the time the election comes in May Phelps – who won by just 1850 votes - will enjoy the advantage of incumbency but have had less than a year to establish herself as member.

In this contest there are two interesting questions. Will a sizeable number of the locals have got over their rage about Turnbull, and reassess their vote? And will some people, in a seat where voters like to have a high flier, decide to switch to a candidate with prospects of rising through the Liberal ranks in the next few years?

Some might see the Wentworth contest as one in which the voters are spoilt for choice.

Wentworth voters reacted against the loss of a former prime minister – in Warringah, many voters just want their ex-PM to shuffle off. Steggall, a former Olympian (in winter sports) and a barrister, will run hard on climate change, and attack Abbott’s views in general as out of touch with his constituents. She says Warringah is conservative economically and financially but progressive socially (as shown by a 75% yes vote on same-sex marriage).

As with Indi - although in a much less developed form - there is a community group backing Steggall - and she says she wants to give people in Warringah “a real choice for a voice”.

UPDATE: ALP leads 53%-47% in Newspoll

The government has started the year with a Newspoll that’s better than the final one of last year but still very bad. Labor leads 53% to 47% in two-party terms compared with 55% to 45% in December. The Coalition’s primary vote improved from 35% to 37%; Labor primary vote fell from 41% to 38%.