Australia Growing dissatisfaction with federal politics sees Coalition seats under threat from independents

13:27  15 september  2021
13:27  15 september  2021 Source:   abc.net.au

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a person holding a suitcase: Voices of Hume is one grassroots community movement hoping to make a change at the next federal election.  (ABC News: Jess Davis) © Provided by ABC NEWS Voices of Hume is one grassroots community movement hoping to make a change at the next federal election.  (ABC News: Jess Davis)

In safe Coalition seats across the country, change is in the air as dissatisfaction with the status quo intensifies.

Spurred on by the success of a small number of federal independents, a grassroots community movement called "Voices of" is growing.

It is modelled on the successful 2013 campaign of Cathy McGowan, who won the safe Liberal seat of Indi in regional Victoria, which was held by a margin of more than 10 per cent.

Her triumph was replicated by her successor, Helen Haines, and Zali Steggall, who beat Tony Abbott at the last federal election.

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It is not easy to unseat the major parties. Just six independent and minor party members were elected to the House of Representatives at the last federal election.

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But there are now more than 30 Voices groups in electorates across the country.

In Angus Taylor's seat of Hume in regional New South Wales, the Voices of Hume group is not afraid to take on the minister, who holds the seat with a 13 per cent margin.

"I do believe the margin can be made up. There is really no alternative to Mr Taylor at the moment," local volunteer Penny Ackery said.

"Mr Taylor has represented us, the Liberal Party has represented us, for aeons. And people are looking for something different, somebody that represents them better."

This diverse electorate stretches from the outskirts of Sydney to the regional centre of Goulburn and has been held by the Coalition since 1974.

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Ms Ackery has been organising and recruiting for what will be a tough campaign, with 500 members signed up and plans to choose their candidate in the next few months.

"Voices of Hume, like Voices of Indi, started small," she said.

"Voices of Hume over the last 12 months has really grown.

"I think whoever is the independent candidate will have a strong campaign behind them, which will make a difference, and I think [they will be] somebody to be reckoned with."

In a statement, Mr Taylor said it was a privilege to represent the people of Hume.

"I remain deeply committed to the people of my electorate," he said.

"In all three elections I've campaigned in, there has always been a mixture of independent, minor and major party candidates. That's what a good democracy should have, and I welcome that."

'Optimism over experience'

It all started with Ms McGowan, who spent two terms as the independent member for Indi before retiring.

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"It was optimism over experience, I think, when we first started. I didn't think we'd win," Ms McGowan said.

"But we hoped to make the seat marginal. And that's what we did."

She is not surprised by the growth of the "Voices of" movement.

"Right across Australia, there's a sense of dissatisfaction," she said.

"And people, particularly in safe seats, are going, 'It doesn't work. You've got to be in a marginal seat.'

"And [there is] the sense of optimism that we actually might get a better political system with more independents, and particularly for the regions, when we see government letting us down all the time."

That is certainly the case in the federal electorate of Groom, in the heart of Queensland's Darling Downs. It is one of the safest Coalition seats in the country, held by a margin of about 20 per cent.

But that is not stopping Suzie Holt, who started Voices of Groom in the hope of shaking things up at the next election.

"I think people are tired because we've got no other option but to vote for the Liberal Party," she said.

"People are really frustrated.

"The biggest one (issue), without a doubt, is that they actually want someone who represents our region, not just the party."

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Each group is different, but they all begin by asking the community what they want through a series of kitchen table conversations.

Across the country, many of the same issues arise, predominantly climate change and transparency in politics.

Chair of Voices of Groom, Meredith King, said the group was already gaining community support.

"We have got people that have been involved with the Liberal Party, the Labor Party, people who have never voted before," she said.

"There's a broad group of people that have come together. There's definitely not a one size fits all."

'Big donors have a bigger say than our voters'

The "Voices of" movement has the federal government worried.

This month, NSW Liberal senator Andrew Bragg wrote to the Australian Electoral Commission asking it to investigate the groups, which he accuses of failing to comply with electoral laws.

But Ms King said she welcomed the senator's call.

"We think these comments are the height of hypocrisy from a senator who voted strongly against increasing political transparency when the opportunity was presented to him in February last year," she said.

"We are a group that is intent on opening up discussion on a range of issues concerning Groom that are currently shut down because of the party line and because big donors have a bigger say than our voters."

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Senator Bragg argued voters should reject independents for another reason.

"An independent member can't be a member of the government. That is a fact," he said.

"And so if people want to see particular initiatives, whether they be policy initiatives or local initiatives pursued, then they need to have a member in their area that is a member of the government.

"Now, in the case of Warringah, that area doesn't have a member of the government and therefore, you know, that area, I don't think, has benefited as much as it could have."

Former independent Ms McGowan disagreed.

"People are actually seeing that if you've got an independent in parliament, they take your issues to parliament," she said.

"They speak about climate change, they speak about energy, they speak about ICAC because we've got too much corruption going on, so I think people are taking enormous courage and seeing the opportunity."

Despite many of the margins being too big to overcome, Ms McGowan said there could be a real fight in some electorates.

"Not all of them are going to be able to put together a sophisticated campaign of the level that's needed to beat an incumbent," she said.

"But the community involvement in politics, at whatever level, will make a difference."

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This is interesting!