As major parties scrape the barrel, independents sense an opportunity


Another Labor candidate, Luke Creasey, who is running for the seat of Melbourne, was spared disendorsement despite sharing a pathetic joke about rape.

Illustration: Simon LetchCredit:

There have been other casualties, not least Steve Dickson of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, whose comments at an American strip club revealed an attitude to women as loathsome as the party’s racism, but this was no surprise compared to the problems in the major parties.

A long way from the leadership campaigns of Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten, the minor scandals told Australians that Labor and the Liberals were having trouble finding and vetting the candidates they need to represent middle-of-the-road Australians.

The fact is most Australians do not make light of rape, do not hate gays and do not deride Muslims. Is it too much to expect the major parties to make sure their candidates live the same values?

If you scrape the bottom of the barrel, do not be surprised if voters throw the dregs back in your face.

This phase of the campaign is not new – dirt units always mobilise in the days after ballot papers are printed and it is too late to withdraw candidates – but it is more telling this year.

That is because the dodgy candidates from the “mainstream” parties are such a contrast with the independents who have chosen to reject those same parties.

The Coalition is far more exposed than Labor to this threat – and not just because Kelly O’Dwyer, the employment minister retiring at this election, famously told her colleagues that many voters regarded the Liberals as “homophobic, anti-women climate-change deniers”.

Most of the significant independents are seeking electorates held or previously held by the Liberals and Nationals: Julia Banks in Flinders, Helen Haines in Indi, Kevin Mack in Farrer, Rob Oakeshott in Cowper, Kerryn Phelps in Wentworth, Zali Steggall in Warringah, Alice Thompson in Mackellar and Oliver Yates in Kooyong.

Only one, Andrew Wilkie in Clark, has a seat previously held by Labor.

Labor candidate for Melbourne Luke Creasey.

Labor candidate for Melbourne Luke Creasey.Credit:Justin McManus

Wilkie is close to a certainty, Oakeshott and Mack are real chances and Haines may be able to inherit Indi from Cathy McGowan.

Yet the long shots reveal the trouble the Liberals are having in keeping supporters they once took for granted. For Thompson to replace Jason Falinksi in Mackellar, Yates to unseat Josh Frydenberg in Kooyong and Banks to defeat Greg Hunt in Flinders would be a staggering collapse for the Liberals.

Victories for Steggall and Phelps would be so expensive for the Liberals they would be a form of political bankruptcy. This is not just about the fate of Tony Abbott in Warringah.

In the business world, this sort of failure would trigger claims a company was trading while insolvent. Defeats in Warringah and Wentworth will raise questions about whether the Liberals ran out of political capital before the campaign even began.

Zali Steggall's focus on climate and social issues appeals to the wealthier voters in the seat of Warringah.

Zali Steggall’s focus on climate and social issues appeals to the wealthier voters in the seat of Warringah.Credit:James Alcock

The scale of this danger is measured by the comparison with Labor. The infighting in the Labor caucus in 2010 wrecked the government and contributed to the rise of Adam Bandt in Melbourne (replacing Lindsay Tanner) and Wilkie in Clark (previously the seat of Denison, where he replaced Duncan Kerr) in that year.

If you destroy trust in your party among your faithful supporters, you allow independents to poach those voters with a message about personal integrity.

What is especially revealing about the national contest is the way most of the independents are intensifying their campaign on climate change. Seven of them signed a joint statement, brokered by the Australian Conservation Foundation, to oppose the Adani coal mine and urge deeper cuts to emissions.

The independents are making a rational decision to go harder on climate change based on feedback from their electorates. They may be wrong. It is also possible they are riding a tidal wave that swamps the government.

But this is not the only message from the independents. Asked how they would decide whether to support one party or another in a hung parliament, several named a national integrity commission as a top issue.

“Number one is integrity. On the ground, people are talking to me all the time about the fundamental loss of trust in major parties, in politicians and in parliamentary process,” Haines told me.

Others said the same thing and overwhelmingly preferred the Labor policy to set up a tougher integrity commission than the Coalition.

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None of the independents said they would side with the Liberals in a hung Parliament, even though most of them are running for Liberal seats. Naturally, most hedged on their final position. Only one, Yates, said the Liberal weakness and division on climate change made it impossible for him to support that party.

A hung parliament seems an unlikely prospect given Labor’s long lead in the opinion polls. Yet Australians elected a hung parliament after the leadership coup of June 2010 and came close to doing the same after the challenge of September 2015.

If they repeat history on May 18, the decisive issues for the formation of the next government will be climate change and integrity. The early signs are that Labor would prevail.

In that scenario, the Liberals would have leisure to think about the supporters they drove away – and the candidates they chose instead.

David Crowe is chief political correspondent.

David Crowe is Chief Political Correspondent of the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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