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Saturday, February 24, 2024

PM turns blue heartland teal

By Peter Hartcher SMH’s Chief Political Editor

When other independent candidates for federal parliament started to colour their campaigns teal, some of Zali Steggall’s supporters got very protective. They urged her to intervene. It was her colour, after all.

Teal was the colour of Steggall’s 2019 campaign when she defeated Tony Abbott with a mammoth primary vote swing of 13 per cent, and 18 per cent after preferences.

It was a signal achievement not only because she’d humbled a former prime minister. She’d taken the bluest of blue-ribbon Liberal territory. The Liberal Party and its conservative predecessors had held the area around Sydney’s northern beaches seat of Warringah for as long as the federal parliament had existed.

Why teal? The colour symbolises Steggall’s political pigmentation, she says – it’s a mix of blue and green. Blue represents traditional conservative values and green the environment.

But Steggall wasn’t proprietorial. She was happy for the new wave of blue-green candidates to adopt her colour. And, critically, she was more than happy to offer them the lessons she’d learned in how to construct a campaign.

It’s a bit like a franchise,” she tells me. “You replicate a model that works, but you do it independently. The people who attack us and say we’re a party are missing the point.” There are some strong common elements that give the appearance of a party. Including their policy priorities and the fact they all have received money and other help from Simon Holmes a Court’s Climate 200 group.

Zali Steggall is not the first independent, progressive liberal to take a once-safe Liberal seat. Before Steggall there was Cathy McGowan, the independent who defeated the Liberals’ Sophie Mirabella to take Indi in 2013. Indi had been held by conservatives since 1931.

McGowan has retired, succeeded by Helen Haines. This is the first time that an independent has been succeeded by another independent. The voters aren’t missing the Coalition, it seems. And Indi isn’t literally a teal seat – the Haines campaign colour is orange.

In two weeks’ time, there will be more. The Steggall success in Warringah three years ago appeared to be a bit of a one-off, a very specific repudiation of Tony Abbott. It turns out to have been the tremor preceding the earthquake.

There are six truly competitive “teal” candidates running for seats in the House of Representatives in this election. It seems likely that two or three will win their seats, and possibly four.

All are running against sitting Liberals. Giving rise to John Howard’s dismissive tagging of them this week as “anti-Liberal groupies”. They are not true independents, according to the Liberals. They are Labor-lite, or Labor in disguise. This sort of condescension shows that the Liberals have learned nothing since 2019, says Steggall.

Scott Morrison at Todd Park with the Kogarah Cougars junior rugby league club in the seat of Cook.
Scott Morrison at Todd Park with the Kogarah Cougars junior rugby league club in the seat of Cook.Credit:James Brickwood 
I
t’s “incredibly insulting” to the people who voted for her, many of them formerly lifelong Liberal voters. “Many people feel the Liberal Party left them,” not the other way around. “I think there’s a realignment under way,” says the former Olympic skier and barrister. “To describe seats as historically Liberal is assuming the current Liberal Party reflects the values traditionally associated with the Liberal Party.”

The claim that most offends Steggall, however, is that Warringah and the other Liberal-held seats at risk of going teal are “Liberal seats by right”, as Peta Credlin, Abbott’s former chief of staff, puts it.

“Arrogance, laziness and entitlement,” exclaims Steggall. “The idea that these are Liberal seats ‘by right’ says it all – sheer hubris compared to the real principles of what we should stand for.”

The most extraordinary fact of this election campaign is that the Liberal leader dare not campaign in the Liberals’ traditional heartland seats. Morrison may be the head of the party, but he’s lost its heart.

The prime minister is such a liability that he spends his efforts scouting to win red seats in anticipation of losing traditionally blue. He’s forced to seek votes in the marginals because he is losing the centre as it turns teal.

“The sure-fire way for Scott Morrison to lose seats in Sydney and Melbourne is to go and campaign in them,” says a senior Liberal minister. Morrison has visited Wentworth but only to visit his mother, who lives there, rather than to lose more votes for the Liberal member, Dave Sharma, by campaigning there.

And there is some basis for this. The teals broadly speaking are not pro-union, socialist or redistributive. In Steggall’s case, she has voted with the Coalition 51 per cent of the time on legislation, on her count. In Helen Haines’ case, it’s 90 per cent. But, like Steggall, Haines’ most urgent priorities are an integrity commission and climate action.

Steggall describes her electorate of Warringah as “aspirational – people of all income levels work hard to get ahead, they don’t want the traditional socialist way of viewing the economy”.

That might fit the traditional Liberal profile, but she continues: her supporters “like competition, free trade, small government, opportunity” and they dislike Morrison’s extraordinary debt and deficit accumulation and his “autocratic” tendency to intervene in the market, she says. Morrison has abandoned all of these Liberal principles, she says.

The Liberal seats falling to teal independents have long been bastions of rock-ribbed conservative voters, highly educated, wealthy, with swags of business owners, professionals and entrepreneurs. They are electorates that produced prime ministers and the party’s proudest offspring.

In Sydney, the blue-ribbon Liberal seats at risk of turning teal are Wentworth, formerly Malcolm Turnbull’s seat, North Sydney, held by Trent Zimmerman, and northern Sydney’s Mackellar, held by Jason Falinski. In Melbourne, the Liberals in greatest trouble are Tim Wilson in Goldstein and Josh Frydenberg in Kooyong. Yes, the seat of Robert Menzies, the party’s founder.

If it should lose some or all of these, the composition of the Liberal caucus will become more right-wing populist and even less traditional Liberal. If it should lose Frydenberg, a moderate and the leading candidate to replace Morrison, Peter Dutton’s claim on the post-Morrison leadership becomes much firmer.

In the short run, the bottom line is this: is it realistic that Morrison could negotiate with the teal women who could be the pivot of power in the next parliament? Steggall publicly has said she’d find it difficult to work with him.

“I absolutely have a duty to talk to both sides and give them the opportunity to see where they come to on policy positions,” she tells me.

But I’ve observed him for three years now and I’m less than impressed with his moral compass and integrity. He’ll run any argument to get a political win. On climate change, he’s completely posturing. I can’t genuinely criticise the government position and then turn around and say Morrison is the man to lead Australia for the next three years. That would be hypocritical of me.”

Likewise, the other teals, to campaign for their imperatives, are campaigning against Morrison. If he’s counting on their support to form a minority government, he should start work on a Plan D.

This article was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald

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