Kerryn and members of her "purple army” conceding. Photo: Supplied

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BY MERRILL WITT

The newly elected Prime Minister Scott Morrison credited the “quiet Australians” for the Coalition’s surprising election win. But the campaign to dislodge Independent Kerryn Phelps from the formerly safe Liberal seat of Wentworth was anything but quiet.

In the final few days leading up to last Saturday’s election, Wentworth voters were bombarded with mail-outs and robocalls from Liberal candidate Dave Sharma. Accusations also flew from both sides about who was responsible for derogatory or racist emails and other abuses.

Given that her campaign was likely outspent by a factor of 10 to one, the fact that she lost the seat by the slimmest of margins is perhaps the real unsung “miracle” of this election result.

Dr Phelps’ narrowly lost re-election bid and the history-making wins of two other Independents, Warringah’s Zali Steggall and Indi’s Helen Haines, are a reminder that our democracy still offers opportunities for Independents to get elected when their campaigns are supported by the local community.

Community-shaped agenda

Ms Haines acknowledged the important role the people of Indi played in her election win when she said in her acceptance speech that “the agenda was community shaped. It was not an agenda brought to us by a big party but an agenda brought to us by the people, and foremost in that agenda was action on climate”.

Passionate locals also played an essential role in framing the messages of the Phelps and Steggall campaigns. When Ms Steggal called her election “a win for moderates with a heart,” she could have just as easily been describing the “Purple Army” of volunteers and supporters for Dr Phelps.

With their mix of economically conservative and socially progressive policies, Phelps, Steggall and Haines filled a space vacated by the two major parties at this election.

Their opposition to most of Labor’s tax changes proved to be a good read of public anxiety about the impacts. In the wake of Labor’s unexpected defeat, the clumsy design of its proposed closure of  “tax loopholes” is being blamed for alienating “aspirational younger voters” and panicking older ones.

The Independents also amplified voters’ concerns about the lack of action on climate change, identified in opinion polls as one of the biggest issues in the election.

During the course of the campaign, Phelps, Steggall and Haines joined four other Independent candidates to issue a joint statement pledging to pursue a number of climate change actions in the next parliament. Top of the list of 10 measures was a commitment to oppose the proposed Adani coal mine and call for “a roadmap to move Australia to 100 per cent renewable energy, with an aim to achieve at least 50 per cent by 2030”.

The Independent candidates’ naming of key actions to address climate change stood in stark contrast to the Coalition’s meagre and contrary set of policies.

Their coherent set of proposed measures was also easier to understand than Labor’s conflicting policies on energy and the environment.

Labor’s ambiguous signalling about whether it would allow the Adani coal mine to go ahead, for example, had the combined effect of infuriating environmental groups and antagonising the unions. The influential activist group “Stop Adani” called the Party’s environmental policies “a joke,” and the powerful Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union demanded Labor candidates in Queensland sign a pledge outlining their support for coal jobs.

In his concession speech, Ms Steggall’s vanquished foe, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, tried to frame the debate around climate change action as class warfare. “Where climate change is a moral issue, the Liberals do it tough,” he said. “Where climate change is seen as an economic issue we do, as tonight has shown, very, very well.”

Abbott offers an unsophisticated reading of the election results, but his musings underscore the failure of both the major parties to properly understand and communicate to voters the economic benefits of taking action to address climate change.

Climate change #1 issue

Responding to research that rated climate change as the number one issue in an ABC poll of more than 100,000 voters, Australian researcher Rebecca Huntley told the Guardian that “Voters are searching for the party that can provide a pragmatic and tangible approach and they are asking whether the political system can deliver solutions”.

Perhaps the election of more Independents could help to end the dysfunction in our federal parliament.

As Dr Phelps poignantly observed in her concession speech, “the sensible centre isn’t defined by right vs left; it’s right vs wrong. A functioning crossbench curbs the excesses of the government of the day. It isn’t about the balance of power so much as the power of balance. It is politics done differently, driven by the needs of our electorate and our nation, not major party ideology.”