One of the Morrison government’s biggest challenges in this election campaign is the rise of the “teals”, a group of 22 independents who have received funding from Climate 200.
Running on platforms of science-backed climate action, integrity reform and real progress on gender equality, they are challenging Liberal MPs in urban electorates traditionally considered Liberal party heartland.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, who is facing a serious threat from medical doctor Monique Ryan in the inner-Melbourne seat of Kooyong, has repeatedly used the term “fake” independents to describe these challengers. Former Prime Minister John Howard has similarly accused them of “posing” as independents. Prime Minister Scott Morrison says they are the “voices of” Labor and the Greens.
This strategy of playing the woman and not the ball – as well as the advertising spend in electorates like Kooyong – suggests the Liberals are concerned. They have some good reasons to be.
The teal appeal
It is certainly true these independents are running in Liberal, not Labor seats. But as Climate 200 convener Simon Holmes a Court argues, they are running with the goal of dislodging government MPs (which of course, happen to be Liberal).
It is worth noting that not all the Climate 200-backed independents use the teal colour for their campaigns. North Sydney’s Kylea Tink uses pink, while Indi’s Helen Haines uses orange. Yet, the choice of teal for most campaigns – a colour between blue and green – does give an indication of their message to the moderate Liberal voters they are trying to attract.
The teal independents are speaking directly to moderate Liberal constituents who are frustrated with the (blue) Liberal Party’s positioning on social and environmental issues.
While these same voters may never vote Labor or Greens, many are alienated by Morrison and his government, particularly on climate change and women’s issues.
It is significant that 19 of the 22 Climate 200 candidates are women, all of whom have had highly successful careers in their own right. High-profile candidates include Ryan (Kooyong), a professor and head of neurology at the Royal Children’s Hospital, Zoe Daniel (Goldstein) a former ABC foreign correspondent, and Allegra Spender (Wentworth) the chief executive of the Australian Business and Community Network.
The teal independents are not political staffers taking the next step towards inevitable political careers. These are professional women making a radical sideways leap because, they say, this is what the times require. It’s a compelling story.
To receive Climate 200 funding and campaign support, teal independents have agreed to run on three key policies - climate, integrity, and gender equality - and have demonstrated they have the backing of their communities.
Holmes a Court has been at pains to argue his organisation is not a political party – it is a platform to support independents based on their commitment to the three main goals. As he told the National Press Club in February:
The movement is nothing like a party – there is no hierarchy, no leader, no head office. No coordinated policy platforms.
So, how do the independent candidates measure against the Coalition, Labor and the Greens? I have reviewed the policy platforms of Spender, Ryan and Daniel as three of the most high profile new independent candidates.
On climate, Spender proposes to cut emissions by “at least 50% by 2030”, while Daniel and Ryan want 60% by 2030, and Daniel adds an 80% renewable energy target by 2030.
These targets are more ambitious than both the Coalition and Labor, but less ambitious than the Greens, who want 75% emissions reduction by 2030, and net zero by 2035.
On integrity in politics, all three independents variously demand a “strong”, “effective” anti-corruption body “with teeth”, greater transparency around tax-payer funded programs, reform of political campaign funding rules, and truth in political advertising. These policies largely align with Labor’s integrity policies, which include a National Anti-Corruption Commission by the end of 2022. They also align with those of the Greens, who add a role for the National Audit Office to audit all government programs.
Finally, all the teal independents have a range of policies to increase women’s safety and equality, including childcare, parental leave, better pay for caring professions, women’s rights at work and programs to end family violence. On these policies, and simply the way they recognise the urgency of this issue, the independents are also more aligned with Labor and the Greens than the Coalition.
The Liberal response
The Liberal Party is certainly taking this challenge seriously, diverting campaign funding and resources to seats that it would otherwise consider safe.
For example, it is spending up big on nine-metre-wide billboards to “sandbag” Kooyong, a seat that has been held by that party since Federation. In Wentworth, Dave Sharma’s posters use the same colour teal as his challenger, Spender, and have no Liberal party logo. In Goldstein, a stoush over election signs ended up in court.
Another way they are taking it seriously is by trying to undermine the authenticity of the independents. If voters are seeking something different from the major parties, what better way to sway them away from changing their vote than suggesting their local independent isn’t really independent?
On this, the Liberal party is incorrect. It is better to locate these candidates within a lineage of independents that includes Tony Windsor, Cathy McGowan, and Kerryn Phelps. Their goal is to use the power of the cross-benches in a hung parliament. A Labor majority would, in fact, diminish their power if elected, and work against their ambitions.
The power of independents
Major polls are suggesting a tight race between the major parties. A hung parliament, with independents holding the balance of power, is a highly possible outcome post May 21.
Despite fear campaigns from both major parties, it is worth remembering that Australia’s last minority government was one of the most successful, passing more legislation than any modern government before or since.
Windsor and Rob Oakeshott have both said they decided to support Julia Gillard’s government because she treated them with respect during negotiations in 2010, unlike her opponent, Tony Abbott.
This is a lesson that the Liberal party would do well to heed again.