Will the teals take seats in NSW?

| August 14, 2022

The federal Liberals are in a parlous state, after an election that was not just lost to Labor but where “teals” stripped them of a batch of traditional seats.

In coming months the Liberal Party faces fresh assaults, in state heartland electorates, from a similar “community candidate” movement.

Victoria goes to the polls in November, and New South Wales in March. The Liberals – in opposition in Victoria, in government in NSW – could have a good deal to fear if the tide runs again for teals.

In theory, the Victorian opposition should be in a strong position against the ageing Andrews government whose multiple skeletons are on view. In practice, it’s a shambles. Liberal leader Matthew Guy is unimpressive, and he’s now mired in the messy aftermath of a scandal around his former chief of staff’s seeking funds inappropriately.

In NSW, the Coalition government has a record that should be saleable. But it has been scandal-ridden, most recently losing two ministers, one of whom, Stuart Ayres, was deputy Liberal leader.

Ayres was caught up in the saga of John Barilaro’s appointment as trade commissioner to New York. The tortuous ins and outs of the Barilaro affair have been aired at a parliamentary inquiry this week, with the former deputy premier and Nationals leader (who eventually withdrew from the job) casting himself as an injured party.

These scandals (and many others) in the two states are political manna for the community independents movement. The public hate such shenanigans and, as happened with the federal election, community independents will make integrity and the quest for a better kind of politics a core part of their campaigns.

Last weekend former Indi independent Cathy McGowan ran an online post-federal election convention to promote community independents. It attracted 467 participants from more than 100 federal electorates, and the discussion groups included one on each of the two state elections.

Simon Holmes à Court’s Climate 200, which provided crucial funding for the teals, will likely be a player in the state contests. In July it polled key Victorian seats. It found potential support for teal-type independents in the Liberal seats of Sandringham, Brighton, Caulfield and Kew, and the Labor seat of Hawthorn. Climate and integrity resonated. For example, “integrity in politics” was nominated as the most important issue by the second or third-largest number of voters in Caulfield, Brighton and Sandringham.

Local groups have been searching for candidates. An August 7 advertisement in The Sunday Age declared “Bayside deserves independent voices” and encouraged potential candidates to come forward.

“Our communities made history in May when we elected an independent Zoe Daniel to represent us in the federal seat of Goldstein,” the advertisement said. “Polling shows that an independent can also win the Victorian seats of Brighton, Sandringham and Caulfield.”

We see from this how the push for state independents is leveraging off the federal success. But it’s notable the Voices of Goldstein group that supported Daniel will not back a state candidate. Federal teals have a political interest in reinforcing the message of their personal “independence”.

Regardless, in state areas where teal-type candidates will run, there’ll likely be ready-made volunteer cohorts to support them. Many citizens, energised by the federal successes, seem anxious to take part in what they see as a new brand of politics.

In NSW, the group North Sydney Independent (NSI), which chose successful federal teal candidate for North Sydney Kylea Tink (but is now at arm’s length from her), is looking at the three Liberal seats in the area – Lane Cove, Willoughby and North Shore. NSI co-founder Denise Shrivell says the group could back community candidates in one or even all three seats. The group will have a launch on August 28.

Shrivell says the group is finding a “mismatch” between the views of the MPs – two of whom are conservatives and one a moderate – and “the views and interests of the local community”.

“People are dissatisfied,” she says. Unsurprisingly, “issues around integrity are very top of mind. People are looking at what is happening in NSW and are fed up”, although health, education, over-development and privatisation are also concerning these voters. More generally, “people in North Sydney have caught the democracy bug,” she says.

One major problem for the community candidates in NSW is the state’s optional preferential voting system: this means they could not rely to the extent the federal teals did on preferences bumping them over the line.

As in the federal election, Climate 200 will wait until candidates emerge. It will then assess their individual suitability, the viability of their campaign structure, and their prospects of victory, before deciding whether to provide support. Holmes à Court says it “could support three to six candidates in Victoria and possibly more in NSW”.

It needs to choose carefully. One reason for the teal successes at federal level was that the candidates were so impressive – mediagenic professional women. It could be more difficult to find equivalent talent for state contests, which are less attractive to high flyers.

Climate 200 has its own credibility to preserve. It doesn’t want a triumph at the federal election to be followed by state pushes that flop spectacularly.

Stricter funding rules at state level impose greater constraints on the assistance Climate 200 can give. Beyond modest donations, the organisation will have to encourage donors to directly support particular candidates.

If community candidates do well at these elections, there might be potential down the track in Western Australia, where one would expect a swing in 2025 against Labor’s massive majority. The WA Liberal Party has been almost wiped out at a state level, and there is a teal federal MP, Kate Chaney, in Curtin.

Although she personally wouldn’t be involved, Chaney says some of her supporters have expressed an interest in a state effort. “By 2025 the community independent movement may have developed in a way that makes it an attractive option for communities who want to see a different type of representation,” Chaney says.

Independents have long had significant presences, and often been in the balance of power, in various state parliaments. In Victoria and NSW, both sides are said to be concerned about independents generally at the coming elections.

What’s special about the teals and other “community candidates”, arising from “voices” and similar groups, is they are part of a loose web, linked by some common funding, networking and the issues on which they campaign. This doesn’t make them a “party”, as their opponents claim, but it does make them a “democracy movement” of sorts. Success in the Victorian and NSW elections would create fresh momentum for this movement, including at the federal level for the next election.

Federally, the community-candidate movement has eaten away at the Liberal Party’s progressive wing, cutting a swathe through the moderates in the parliamentary party.

The federal Liberals now face the existential question of how to juggle appeals to outer suburbia, where Peter Dutton feels most comfortable, and to the urban areas, currently lost, that used to be the party’s “blue ribbons” (including for fund-raising), and which are vital to winning government.

We should introduce a caution. Just as many people underestimated the chances of the teals federally, there is a risk of over-estimating their state prospects. But if the independent movement does erode the Liberal base in core areas at state level, it will be all the harder for the party to re-group nationally.

Although part of the federal teal success was due to “strategic” voting by some Labor supporters, victories for state community candidates in Victoria and NSW would reinforce the message that Liberal supporters are migrating to a new political force.

For the Liberal Party, the implications would be alarming for the long term.

This article was published by The Conversation.