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  • Writer's picturepeter grose

Been there, got the T-shirt

Updated: Jul 15, 2022

Sunday 22 May 2022

It will not have escaped your attention that Australia held a national election yesterday, nor that the odious Trump-aligned climate change denier Scott Morrison ("Scotty from Marketing") was unceremoniously tossed out as Prime Minister, to be replaced by the justifiably modest Anthony Albanese of the Labor Party. Happily, I've been in Australia for the last few weeks, so I've been in the thick of it.

Last night was a good night for independents, for the Green Party and for climate change activists generally. As the ABC's Fran Kelly told viewers a couple of hours ago: "This was a climate-change election." Amen to that. Even better, the good guys WON.

As I wrote an age ago (on 20 May 2019) the climate movement in Australia has discovered a brilliant new tactic for tossing out the deniers, often against all odds. It involves backing independents, particularly middle-class professionals like barristers and doctors, against the right wing coalition of the Australian Liberal Party and the National Party. If you want to read what I wrote on 20 May 2019 it's at the bottom of this entry.

These independents have an impressive track record for turfing out the right wing deniers in safe Coalition seats. As you can read below, the independent Zali Steggall (pictured above, with your humble scribe) chucked out Tony Abbott, a former Coalition Prime Minister , from the genteel Sydney middle-class seat of Warringah. The other great triumph back in 2018 was Dr Kerryn Phelps' defeat of the Coalition in a by-election held in the super-safe Sydney seat of Wentworth. This seat had been in Coalition hands for 119 years until Dr Phelps arrived on the scene. Dr Phelps lost narrowly to the Coalition's Dave Sharma in the general election in May 2019. Last night the exotically named Allegra Spender, another independent, soundly defeated Sharma to bring the seat back into independent hands. For the record, Zali Steggall also won with an increased majority. (The pic above was taken at her victory party.)

Now apart from the lessons drawn in my 2019 blog entry, there's plenty more to learn from Zali Steggall in particular. Here, in no particular order, is my version of why she won:

Good local MP.

Zali Steggall busted a gut for her constituents. I offered my services to her campaign by e-mail on 13 May. I had a reply the same day. I've had nine e-mails subsequently. In one of the e-mails she claimed that in her three years as MP: "We handled over 19,500 cases assisting residents and businesses with everything from NDIS (National Disability Insurance Scheme) and aged care plans to tax and visa processing." That's a bit over 20 cases a day. If accurate, that's impressive.

Good branding

For a while I puzzled over continual references in the media to "the teals" until it was explained to me that the independents had taken teal blue as their distinctive colour. I'm wearing a teal T-shirt in the pic above.

The Coalition even did themselves a disservice by trying to pass their candidate off as a teal.

Zali Steggal's most serious opponent in yesterdays election was Katherine Deves from the Coalition. Apart from blotting her copybook early in the campaign with a misfired attempt to open up the culture wars by slagging off LGBTs (nobody was buying this, and it just made her look silly) Ms Deves was a bit of a Zali look-alike. As well, she used a paler blue than the usual Liberal navy blue in her posters and advertising,. It was almost, er, teal blue. The effect, when you arrived at a polling station was the opposite of that intended. The place seemed overrun by teals, some genuine, and some ersatz. like Ms Deves' supporters This must have reinforced the idea that Zali Steggall had an irresistible army of friends and supporters willing to serve her anywhere and everywhere.

Good organisation

I've only once before seen organisation like it, and that was when Tony Blair won in a landslide in the UK. At the time we lived in Monmouthshire, on the Welsh border, and in the year before the election I had three phone calls from the Labor Party (and none from any other party). The first call asked who we thought we'd vote for. We said Blair. The next two phone calls simply asked if we still felt the same way. We said we did.

Then very near the actual election day Blair came to Monmouth to address a meeting. We weren't invited. Instead, according to the local paper, the invitees consisted entirely of undecided voters. Mr Blair went to work on them and the rest is history. His candidate won Monmouth and Mr Blair secured the first of his three terms as Prime Minister.

Team Steggall seems to have read from the same hymn sheet. As I wrote above, they were quick, friendly, courteous and diligent when I offered to help hand out leaflets on election day. Everything worked smoothly. We were met on arrival and handed a bundle of leaflets. Our shift was from 10:15 to 1 o'clock. Sharp at 12:45 our replacements arrived, introduced themselves, took over our leaflets and got to work. Now that kind of organisation requires knowledge of what to do, and a team of sound people to do the actual work. Ms Steggall seemed to have both in abundance.

I'm not saying these three attributes are enough to secure re-election. But without all three the chances of being reelected are close to zero. Ms Steggall begins her second term as Manly Warringah's Member of Parliament tomorrow. QED.

PS 23 May 2022

It looks as though another independent candidate Dr Sophie Scamps has won the seat of Mackellar from the Coalition. Counting is still going on, so the result is far from certain. But her lead is now so commanding that it is hard to see how she could lose. Mackellar is the sister constituency of Warringah, where Zali Steggall holds sway. Mackellar begins where Warringah leaves off, and includes the very wealthy Palm Beach zone of Sydney's northern beaches. Dr Sophie, as she likes to call herself, fought the election largely on climate change. Hah! Woman, doctor, Independent, climate activist, winner. You get the picture.

Monday 20 May 2019

It’s a pity Australian elections aren’t watched more closely by the rest of the world. There was an election in Australia on 18 May, at which the right-wing Liberal-National Party Coalition scored an unexpected win. Already the story has disappeared from the international press. The New York Times, for instance, rated it not worth a mention today, let alone an analytical piece dissecting the result.

Ignoring for the minute Scott Morrison’s unexpected win and the boost it has given to Aussie share prices generally and to fossil fuel industries in particular, there were three results that merit a closer look. The first was Warringah on the north side of Sydney Harbour. Warringah includes the hilly and expensive harbour suburb of Mosman, much beloved by Sydney’s doctors, lawyers and accountants, as well as the increasingly fashionable beach suburb of Manly. There the climate change denier and former Prime Minister Tony Abbott was defending one of the largest and safest Coalition majorities in the country at 11.1%. He lost in something of a landslide to the oddly named Zali Steggall, a barrister and former Olympic skier. Running as an Independent, Ms Steggall beat him 58-42, a swing against Tony Abbott of 13%. Ms Steggall fought largely on the issue of climate change.

Then there was Wentworth, another expensive Sydney suburb, this time on the south side of the harbour. It was won seven months ago in a by-election by Dr Kerryn Phelps, another Independent, who overturned a 20% Coalition margin to take the seat away from the governing party for the first time in 119 years. It looks as though Dr Phelps has lost this time, though at the time of writing there was not much in it and there were still votes to be counted. Whatever the final result, it will be pretty close, meaning that what was once the safest Coalition seat in the country is now marginal and winnable by anti-Coalition forces. Again, climate change was the big issue.

Finally, there was Dickson in Queensland, where the hard-right sitting MP Peter Dutton, another climate change denier, fought off a strong campaign by the opposition Labour Party and actually increased his majority over the Labour Party’s Ali France. Ms France lost 46-54.

So what conclusions flow from this? The first is that there has been a tectonic shift of sentiment amongst middle-class voters. They no longer accept the argument that climate change is some kind of left wing hoax. They are now actually worried by the fires, floods, droughts and hurricanes they see on the television news every night. They worry about the world their children and grandchildren will inherit. These worries now run deep enough to shake political allegiances.

But there is a more subtle message hidden in the three results above. I would argue that they show that tribal sentiment still matters. Lifelong voting habits are simply too powerful to lead middle-class Australians to make the leap from, say, the right-wing Liberal-National Party coalition to the left-wing Labour Party. We can infer from this that middle-class American voters will not jump from voting Republican to voting Democrat, and middle-class Brits will not stop voting Conservative and start voting Labour, however much the Democrats and the Labour Party sound off on climate change. That mammoth switch, quite simply, is a chasm too deep and too wide for those middle-class voters to cross in a single leap.

What they will do, however, is vote for someone with no political label who looks and sounds a bit like themselves. It is no coincidence that the two seats that actually changed hands went to a barrister and a doctor, both running as Independents. The comfortable middle-class voters of Warringah and Wentworth weren’t ready to break the habit of a lifetime and embrace the Labour Party, or the Green Party or, indeed, any other party. But they could just about face voting for a doctor or a lawyer who wore the politically neutral Independent label.

Led by the activist organisation GetUp, Tony Abbott in Warringah, Dave Sharma in Wentworth and Peter Dutton in Dickson all faced similar ferocious campaigns. As a result, Tony Abbott lost to an Independent barrister, Dave Sharma was run pretty close by an Independent doctor, and Peter Dutton actually increased his majority over a Labour Party journalist. The conclusion is obvious. Yes, the middle class has come a long way on the issue of climate change, but not far enough to switch votes from Right to Left. However they’ll desert the right-wing climate change deniers in droves if they are offered the chance to vote for a respectable Independent.

For those of us who think climate change is one of the biggest issues facing the world, the Australian results might be a signpost towards a more effective way to use the ballot box to bring about change.

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