How independents Dai Le and Monique Ryan turned their voters away from Liberals and Labor

Independent MP Helen Haines says the influx of seven new independent MPs, most in once secure Liberal seats, reflects voters’ hunger to be represented by community champions rather than party apparatchiks.

“People want their MP to tell the truth of their constituency, not the truth of the party,” Haines said.
“It’s called the House of Representatives for a reason, it’s not the ‘house of parties’.”

Haines represents the regional Victorian seat of Indi, which independent candidate Cathy McGowan snatched from Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella. Haines followed McGowan into parliament in 2019, becoming the first independent in Australian history to succeed another independent to a federal seat.

Independent MP Helen Haines succeeded Cathy McGowan in the Victorian Indi regional seat.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Haines, a former midwife who grew up on a dairy farm, achieved an impressive 8% swing towards her in this election. Best known nationally for championing a federal anti-corruption commission, she says the outcome was a reward for her interest in hyper-local issues such as telecommunications infrastructure and inland rail. Then there was his army of enthusiastic volunteers, who knocked on virtually every door in the towns of Wodonga and Wangaratta.

In much of the national election coverage, teal independents running for blue ribbon seats have been portrayed as an amorphous group funded by Simon Holmes, a Climate 200 fundraising arm of Court. But while the teals have certainly run on a common political platform – strong action on climate change, integrity, women’s rights – their campaigns have been led by grassroots activists.

Pediatrician Monique Ryan, for example, decided to run to Kooyong after seeing an advertisement in age by local groups looking for a candidate to run against then-Treasurer Josh Frydenberg. “I raised my children in Kooyong, where they loved growing up and going to school,” Ryan said in his campaign materials. “I can’t think of a better place to raise a family, which is why we chose to do it here in Hawthorn.”

Monique Ryan benefited from a passionate grassroots campaign in Kooyong.

Monique Ryan benefited from a passionate grassroots campaign in Kooyong.Credit:penny stephens

However, it is not only the independent candidates who have won big by differentiating themselves from the big parties. Haines points to the success of Liberal MP Bridget Archer, who retained the usually unstable seat of Bass in Tasmania.

The former local mayor rose to national prominence in the last legislature for crossing the floor to vote for a federal anti-corruption commission and against the government’s religious discrimination bill. While campaigning for re-election, Archer stressed that she was not a “drone” and that she was working for the people of Bass rather than the prime minister.

“Bridget Archer won a lot of publicity and respect for being an outspoken advocate for her local community who was willing to speak her mind,” said Richard Eccleston, professor of political science at the University of Tasmania.

“The bigger picture nationally is that politicians from the main parties are on their toes. Even though voters don’t have a strong opinion on the issue, the fact that she was sincere and engaged and willing to speak out was significant. She’s not just a party creature, toeing the party line.

Tasmanian Liberal MP Bridget Archer retained Bass' marginal seat after running across the floor on high-profile issues in the previous Parliament.

Tasmanian Liberal MP Bridget Archer retained Bass’ marginal seat after running across the floor on high-profile issues in the previous Parliament. Credit:James Brickwood

Eccleston says Archer carried on a tradition of political “mavericks” in Tasmania who won the respect of voters by challenging their party’s orthodoxy. He points to longtime Labor MP Harry Quick, who was eventually kicked out of the party for failing to pay his dues.

At this point, it looks like the Liberal Party will only win one new seat: Gilmore on the New South Wales south coast. Star candidate Andrew Constance, former New South Wales state treasurer and transport minister, leads Labor incumbent Fiona Phillips by around 300 votes.

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No one could accuse Constance of parachuting into the area, given that his former state seat of Bega straddles the federal electorate. He sharply criticized the federal government’s response to the 2019-20 bushfires, saying Morrison received “the welcome he probably deserved” when confronted by residents of the devastated town of Cobargo.

This resulted in awkward encounters alongside Morrison on the campaign trail, but appears to have paid off with voters.

During her campaign, Constance vowed to be “fierce in my portrayal of the people of Gilmore”, saying, “I’m not going to sit there like a wallflower, I’m going to call it that.” And I care about the community in which I have lived most of my life. Our people deserve the best.

It was a different story for the Liberals in Bennelong, a North Sydney seat the party had lost only once before – in 2007, when Maxine McKew sensationally beat the then Prime Minister , John Howard. Former tennis star John Alexander won the seat back in the next election and restored it to safe Liberal territory through vigorous grassroots campaigning and diligent courting of community groups.

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His retirement opened an opportunity for the Labor Party, which chose the well-known former mayor of Ryde, Jerome Laxale, as its candidate. His opponent was liberal Simon Kennedy, who grew up in the area but kept a low profile after living overseas and in the eastern suburbs for several years.

Influential local groups, who had previously supported Alexander, turned to Laxale because of their established connections.

“I’ve known the Labor candidate for 10 years and Simon Kennedy for maybe four weeks,” said Hugh Lee, chairman of the Eastwood Chinese Seniors Citizens Club, as Election Day approached.

Felix Lo, President of the Australian Asian Association of Bennelong, said: “John Alexander has worked very closely with our Chinese community – he’s always been there and we love him. Jerome is a bit the same.

By contrast, Lo said, Kennedy seemed to have “come out of nowhere.” Laxale won the seat with an 8% swing.

Labor's Dan Repacholi won Hunter's marginal seat on a promise to be a champion of the local coal community.

Labor’s Dan Repacholi won Hunter’s marginal seat on a promise to be a champion of the local coal community.Credit:Pierre Stoop

The Coalition had hoped to take the coal mines regional seat of Hunter after Labor suffered a whopping 14 per cent against it in the last election. Following the retirement of veteran MP Joel Fitzgibbon, Labor has chosen former Olympic shooter and coal miner Dan Repacholi as its candidate.

Repacholi, who is two meters tall and sports a distinctive bushy beard, was anything but a polite candidate. It was revealed that in past social media posts he had called India a “shit hole” and said opponents of coal mining should “sit in the dark and freeze” in winter. Such sights would be unpleasant in the city center, but Repacholi’s style proved well suited to Hunter. He won the seat with a slight sway towards him.

As Helen Haines prepares to welcome the swath of new Independent MPs to Canberra, she expects to see even more arrive in the upcoming election. “This idea has taken root now,” she says. “It’s not just about MPs going to Canberra and voting to the party line. We really are in a whole new world.


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