Rebekha Sharkie follows Indi example after unseating Jamie Briggs in Mayo

The Nick Xenophon Team candidate’s election victory has unnerved the Coalition, with Christopher Pyne warning the South Australian seat would suffer as a result

Sixteen hours after winning the previously unshakeably Liberal seat of Mayo, Rebekha Sharkie was asked if she would be a one-hit wonder.

It was a dig at the Nick Xenophon Team candidate’s hard-fought victory and also beside the point: Sharkie’s stated objective, since she nominated to run against former Liberal frontbencher Jamie Briggs, was to make Mayo marginal.

Like independent MP Cathy McGowan, who won the safe Liberal seat of Indi from Sophie Mirabella in 2013, the aim was to make the Liberal party fight over a seat that was previously considered in the bag.

“I look at Cath McGowan, she came in on just a handful of votes and she’s worked very, very hard,” Sharkie told reporters in Stirling, in the Adelaide Hills, on Sunday. “I will be working just as hard.”

Christopher Pyne, Briggs’s former colleague and fellow South Australian MP, echoed the parting words of Mirabella in 2013 and said Mayo would suffer as the result of Sharkie’s election.

What did Sharkie make of that?

“Look, I don’t particularly agree with Christopher Pyne’s statement, and if Mayo suffered because it was no longer a Liberal seat and that suffering was caused by a Liberal government, I think that would be really disappointing,” Sharkie said.

Nick Xenophon, standing next to his new parliamentary colleague in the local bookstore inexplicably chosen as a press conference location, was less measured in his response, chiming in to call Pyne “a consummate student politician”.

Nick Xenophon and candidates
Nick Xenophon speaks to the press in front of his team candidates Rebekha Sharkie (left), Skye Kakoschke-Moore and Stirling Griff on Sunday. Photograph: Brenton Edwards/AFP/Getty Images

“If he is saying that the people of Mayo will be punished for supporting Rebekha, then that’s something I’ll be taking up directly with the prime minister,” Xenophon said.

Briggs is the most high-profile loss yet to emerge from the federal election, the final fallout of which may not be known for some days.

He inherited the blue-chip seat of Mayo in 2008, picking it up in a byelection prompted by the resignation of the former foreign affairs minister Alexander Downer. Downer had held it since the creation of the seat in 1984.

Until Saturday, Mayo had been under threat only once, from Democrat and Redgum frontman John Schumann in 1998. Downer won that election by 300 votes. Sharkie, with most of the votes counted, has a margin of 5.5%.

After a tough fight tonight hasn't been our night, thanks to those who supported me and my best to the new member, its a great electorate

— Jamie Briggs (@BriggsJamie) July 2, 2016

Briggs conceded with a tweet at 7pm on Saturday night, offering “my best to the new member”. Sharkie, about to do a live cross on television, was shocked.

“Right, well, thank you for letting me know,” she said. “I’m still in shock but now the hard work really begins for Mayo.”

The seat was named for Helen Mayo, the first woman elected to the Australian University Council. In its 32-year history, Sharkie is its first female MP.

She has more in common with McGowan than orange electoral posters and beating out a safe Liberal MP. The new crossbench colleagues both face the prospect of deciding the new government in the event of a hung parliament, and both have declined to show their hand.

I will not be making any deals with any party. The prime minister is confident he will form majority government #indivotes

— Cathy McGowan (@Indigocathy) July 3, 2016

Xenophon dismissed questions about minority government as “completely hypothetical” and said he had not been asked to support either party, though he did speak to both leaders on Sunday.

Sharkie’s short-term priorities were more tightly focused than deciding the fate of the government: she needed to rent an electorate office, she said, or maybe two, so people did not have to drive too far; she also needed to schedule meetings with community groups.

It was a 100-day plan consistent with the grassroots nature of her campaign.

She mortgaged her house to run and according to the Huffington Post clocked up 400,000km driving around the 9,315 sq km electorate, which stretches from Springton and Kersbrook in the Adelaide Hills down to the Fleurieu Peninsula and Kangaroo Island.

That community campaign won her the seat, helped in no small measure by the enormous popularity of Xenophon himself and dwindling goodwill toward Briggs.

Once considered a rising star in the Coalition ranks, Briggs was forced to resign as minister for cities in December after a female staffer accused him of inappropriate behaviour at a Hong Kong bar.

Sharkie was a staffer for Briggs for six months in 2008, in between working for then SA opposition leader Isobel Redmond. She told the Australian, in an interview soon after Briggs’s resignation, that she didn’t feel their “personal values aligned” and “there were things said that were misogynist in nature”.

It’s fitting, then, that Brigg’s successor joins a wave of women elected to federal parliament.

Female candidates won five of the 13 seats that changed hands this election, although two (Macquarie and Lindsay) had also previously been held by women. Natasha Griggs’s defeat in Solomon means the net gain of female MPs in those seats so far stands at two.

Female candidates were also a chance to pick up the seats of Cowan and Herbert for Labor, although those votes remain too close to call.

Since 2012 Sharkie has worked in the youth sector, including Youth Connect, a program that was defunded by the Abbott-Hockey budget of 2014. It was in attempting to get that funding back that Sharkie met Xenophon and, late last year, agreed to run.


Calla Wahlquist

The GuardianTramp

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