Can the independents upset Australia’s political status quo?
As trust in the major parties declines, independents hope to win over voters in Saturday’s election.
Sydney, Australia – With Australia’s 2022 federal election just days away, attention is focused on independent candidates standing in constituencies across the country who could emerge as key players in the formation of a future government, particularly if the result is close.
Opinion polls show the gap between Scott Morrison’s incumbent Liberal National coalition and its Labor rivals under Anthony Albanese is narrowing as more than 17 million Australians get set to vote on May 21.
Morrison is defending a one-seat majority, and fading confidence in institutions, higher expectations of those in government and generational change mean Australians are less politically loyal than ever before.
“People are less rusted onto the major political parties,” said Ian McAllister, an expert in Australian politics from the Australian National University (ANU), because of “declining party identification and party loyalty” and “declining trust in politicians [and] declining satisfaction with democracy”.
Just 39 percent of people in Australia now vote for the same party throughout their lives, according to McAllister, compared with 72 percent in 1967.
At the same time, he says the “rise of career politicians” in Australia – politicians who are motivated by their own career ambitions rather than a commitment to public service – has contributed to undermining trust in government.
“There seems to be a disillusionment with politics and even democracy around the world,” said Ben Oquist, executive director of the Australia Institute. “It’s a realignment of politics, its post-materialist values.”
Changing the game
It was the perceived lack of political leadership that prompted Kate Chaney, an independent candidate for Curtin in West Australia, to take the step into politics in January.
She argues that Liberal and Labor are focused on “winning rather than actually leading.
“I think both parties suffer from a lot of the same problems in terms of being short term, and reactive and driven by polls,” she said.
Another independent, Kylea Tink for North Sydney, one of the city’s wealthiest areas, argues that there has been “little to no commitment” from the government on some of Australia’s most urgent issues.
“In terms of faster action on climate … bringing integrity into the federal government … regearing our economy to be forward-focused, and … addressing the systemic inequality issues we have as a nation,” she said.
Chaney and Tink are among a group of mostly female independent candidates who have become known as the ‘Teal Independents’, taking on mainly male Liberal candidates in some of Australia’s wealthiest electorates.
They are “reacting against a lack of action on climate change from centre-right politics in Australia, and the lack of action on integrity issues,” Oquist said, “and also … concern about how women have been treated in politics”.
Because of these shortcomings, says Chaney, Australians are also “standing up and saying ‘We actually think that we can do better than the representation that we’re getting’”.
“There’s momentum here, and there is a deep sense of disillusionment and desire for change,” she said.
What Australians want
ANU’s McAllister says people have traditionally decided their vote based on policies towards health and education, as well as issues unique to their own area.
However, he says motivations are changing with voters increasingly concerned about “cost of living management, [the] economy, government debt, that type of thing,” as well as integrity in federal politics and climate change.
Many independents have latched onto such issues.
In Curtin, Chaney is focusing on long-term policies for the economy and climate change.
“We’ve lost 10 years [on climate change] to politics because it has become a political hot potato and neither party is really prepared to take any action,” she said. “We should be a renewable energy powerhouse. We’ve got endless sun and wind … and we’re not thinking of it in those terms at the moment.”
Tink has noticed her constituents want their politicians to have more integrity.
A bill was introduced into parliament in 2020 for a Federal Integrity Commission, which would serve as an anti-corruption tool for federal politics. It has been a significant point of debate in the 2022 election.
For Tink, federal politics has long fallen short in terms of accountability and transparency.
“What we’ve seen is a series of what can only be described as rorts,” she said, “and … pork barrelling and waste[s] of money, is it’s all going on, and it’s going on unchallenged.”
Despite the apparent desire for change among the Australian public, McAllister is sceptical about whether the independents can convert anger into votes.
McAllister organises the Australian Election Studies survey, a survey of voter patterns that takes place after every federal election.
“What we find in the surveys that we conduct is that about one in 10 people will cast [a] protest vote … or about one in eight, one in seven,” he said. “They tend to do it once, or maybe twice during the course of their voting lives. They don’t do it a lot.”
“Over the last couple of elections, the proportion of people that consistently voted for one of the major parties is round about … 90 percent,” he added.
But Oquist disagrees.
He says there are six key electorates in Australia where independents stand a chance of winning seats. Chaney’s and Tink’s are two of them.
“There’s been a trend over many years now for a kind of decline in the establishment of the Liberal National Party Coalition and the Labor Party … I think there’s every chance that trend continues,” he said.
The close contest has raised speculation that Saturday’s poll will lead to a hung parliament where no party has overall control.
That could put winning independents in a strong position to push change on the Liberals and Labor whether on climate, political advertising and financing, or women’s issues.
“I think if there is a hung parliament, you can expect policy changes in those areas,” Oquist told Al Jazeera. “And even if there’s not, I think those issues will be higher on the political agenda, and therefore likely to see more action.”
McAllister believes that change could come even without a new wave of independents in parliament.
“What history does tell us is that major political parties, when they see a potential threat, they tend to adapt to it,” he said.
“The major political parties we have today in Australia, and also actually in Britain, United States and a lot of other countries are also the same parties that were knocking around in the 19th century,” he added. “That gives you some indication of how adaptable they are.”
In fact, according to Tink changes have already been taking place thanks to the pressure from the independents.
“[Independents] are consistently calling this government to account around climate action, integrity in federal politics, the shape of our economy and the way inequality is addressed in our nation,” she said, “I think any movement that we’ve seen, therefore, on those four major topic areas, arguably, is credited to the rise of the independents.”
They have “brought that important third voice in”, she added, a voice that says to the federal government that they cannot ignore the Australians they represent.
This third voice would be invaluable in a new government, Chaney argues, because it would “hold both parties to account and be the conscience of the Parliament”.
Chaney, Tink and the other independents are hitting the streets in a last-ditch effort to pull in the votes before Saturday.
Chaney is convinced if they win, it will fundamentally change the dynamic within parliament and help strengthen Australian democracy.
“At a basic level, I can vote in accordance with the interests of my electorate and my conscience rather than in accordance with the interests of a party,” she said, “and I think that’s really the fundamental basis of a representative democracy.”