'And this is Mosman!': genteel Warringah rocked by election rancour

In the well-heeled Sydney seat, the independent Zali Steggall has become a lightning rod for local insurgents and Tony Abbott stalwarts alike, writes Anne Davies

Australians are not big on advertising their political allegiances. So the proliferation of Zali Steggall posters around the Sydney northern beaches seat of Warringah must be causing the incumbent, former prime minster Tony Abbott, some serious heartburn.

There are literally hundreds around the electorate: on mansions, in windows of apartments, in storefronts and on building sites.

In the streets of Manly and at pre-poll centres, the turquoise T-shirts of the independent Steggall often outnumber the Liberal-blue supporters two to one or more. And then there are the orange shirts of the activist group GetUp, who are out in force door-knocking thousands of homes with their mainly grey-haired army of supporters.

The only public seat poll during the campaign in Warringah, by Lonergan for GetUp two weeks ago, points to an ignominious end for Abbott.

A view to change: a campaign poster for Zali Steggall in the Sydney seat of Warringah.
A campaign poster for Zali Steggall in the front yard of a house in the Sydney seat of Warringah. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

The Lonergan poll of 805 people taken on 1 May had Steggall romping home, 56% to 44% two-party-preferred.

The fact that it was commissioned by GetUp gives some comfort to those who still think Abbott has a chance, although there are rumours of an internal poll that has been buried because it was so bad for Abbott.

Other signs are also bad for Abbott. His fundraising site, Battlelines, has been struggling to meet its fundraising target of $150,000. With less than two weeks to go it was telling supporters it still needed to raise $51,255, and this week it told supporters it had made progress towards closing the gap but needed another $100,000 for last-minute digital advertising.

Warringah at a glance

Abbott is banking on his support coming from the quiet voters of Warringah: the people who don’t proclaim their allegiance with T-shirts, posters and donations. But he is also facing a groundswell of discontent from moderate Liberals who have organised against him and coalesced around Steggall.

They are angry about the Liberal party’s lack of action on climate change, the failure of Abbott to represent the progressive sentiments of the northern beaches electorate and the party’s dysfunction.

Tony Abbott arrives to debate Zali Steggall at the Queenscliff surf club.
Tony Abbott arrives to debate Zali Steggall at the Queenscliff surf club on 2 May. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

‘They honk and yell abuse’

In the once solidly Liberal area of Mosman, the Abbott stalwarts are enduring a torrid time.

When the Guardian visited the Mosman prepoll two weeks ago, two volunteers handing out how-to-votes for the renegade conservative Liberal senator Jim Molan, who is attempting to “ticket bust” and get supporters to put him above the two Liberals and National on the official ticket, quickly opened up about the abuse they were copping.

“They drive by in cars and they roll down the window, out comes the hand and the middle finger goes up,” says one well-dressed woman in her sixties. “They honk and yell abuse. And this is Mosman!

“Two Queenwood girls came past yesterday and started abusing us about climate change. They were just vile,” says her friend. “Very rude,” says the first woman. “They’d just swallowed the propaganda on climate change.”

Queenwood is an elite private girls’ school in the area. Steggall, a former student, is on the council of governors.

She’s also a former Olympian, a barrister, the daughter of a local solicitor in Manly and spent most of her life in the beachside suburb except when she was training to be a skier in France.

A pre poll booth in Brookvale. Seat of Warringah. NSW. Australia.
Outisde a pre-poll booth in Brookvale. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

She has become a lightning rod for all the discontent and frustration that this well-heeled electorate feels with its MP of 25 years.

The Liberal party and the rightwing conservative group, Advance Australia, backed by Maurice Newman and other businessmen, have been attempting to portray Steggall as a stooge of the Labor party, GetUp, Alex Turnbull ( the son of the former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull who was unseated by the Abbott forces in late 2018) the environmental movement, the Greens and/or Stop Adani.

It has pushed out a four-part video, which warns that GetUp is as insidious as the communist party and is using brain-washing tactics to capture well-meaning supporters.

But the truth may be much simpler than an elaborate Green-left conspiracy.

About a year ago, several people in the community, many of them disaffected moderate members of the Liberal party, started organising to get rid of Abbott because of the role he had played in blocking meaningful action on climate change, including undermining his own party’s national energy guarantee.

It snowballed.

The group People of Warringah had existed since the last election, when another independent ran and got 11% of the vote. Voices of Warringah formed about 12 months ago. The North Shore Environmental Stewards also formed, which included several prominent Liberals members. Late last year the groups met and agreed on an informal preselection process, rather than see multiple independents run. They backed Steggall.

There are also local insurgents.

Zali Steggall
Olympics ski champion turned barrister turned independent Warringah candidate Zali Steggall. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

Mark Kelly, who owns a surfboard company in Manly, is behind the Vote Tony Out T- shirts and tote bags, which started appearing about a year ago.

“A lot of it is just me. It’s true grassroots. I put in $10,000 for the first lot of T-shirts but now I’m sitting on $35k of stock downstairs.”

Kelly has sold more than 6,000 T-shirts and he thinks it will approach 7,000 by election day. The hotspot for sales is Mosman.

Kelly says he never gives the T-shirts or stickers away. He says it’s important that people are committed and can talk about why they want to vote Abbott out.

Unlike Getup, which marshals volunteers to talk to people they don’t know, Kelly says he has been encouraging his group to talk to their peers and family.

“There’s only 100,000 people in Warringah, but I want the other 25 million in Australia to ring people they know in Warringah and start having conversations with them, along the lines of: ‘You’re responsible for this, now can you help us fix it?’” Kelly says.

Manly resident Mark Kelly has sold more than 6,000 Vote Tony Out T-shirts.
Manly resident Mark Kelly has sold more than 6,000 Vote Tony Out T-shirts. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

The question is whether Steggall’s support is as deep across the electorate as it appears to be in Mosman and Manly. Warringah is an electorate with different parts.

‘I am a moderate liberal’

In village-like Manly, where there are a mix of young renters and wealthy older residents, there has been a historic willingness to embrace independents such as Peter Macdonald and David Barr in the state seat.

Wealthy Mosman and Cremorne should be blue-ribbon Liberal, but the well-educated population appear to be the most angry about the Liberals’ lack of action on climate change, and Abbott’s stance on same-sex marriage.

Areas such as Killarney Heights and Frenchs Forest are middle-class suburbs with a mix of older residents and young families with big mortgages. In 2016 the booths in these areas returned a 55%-58% primary vote for Abbott, compared with 51.6% overall.

If Abbott’s primary falls below 40% due to moderate Liberals defecting, he is in real trouble, as there will be limited preference flows to him. Labor, the Greens and the other independent, Susan Moylan-Coombs, are putting Steggall ahead of Abbott on their how-to-vote cards.

Abbott’s strategy is to try to shore up his support among voters through a mix of fear that a vote for Steggall will deliver Labor’s agenda on taxes, franking credits and negative gearing, while also running on his record as a good bloke who delivers for his electorate.

His Facebook page and local material has centred on his contribution to the community: the pollie pedal, which raises money for local charities; millions in grants he secured for the local surf clubs; and a famous incident in which, as a volunteer firefighter, he saved a constituent’s house.

A Warringah resident disagrees with a Tony Abbott volunteer at a pre-poll booth in Mosman.
A Warringah resident disagrees with a Tony Abbott volunteer at a pre-poll booth in Mosman. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

He has also made his support for the building of the tunnel to replace the Spit Bridge a major focus, even though the northern beaches tunnel is a state project.

The federal government has splashed $50m towards the total $14bn price tag. But after 25 years, even this largesse is hard to sell.

“There is quite a bit of cynicism about the tunnel, because its been trotted out every election,” Steggall says. It has been at the centre of his campaign every time since 1994.

While Abbott has gone hyper-local, the Liberals’ official line of attack on Steggall is to warn that a vote for her is a vote for Bill Shorten.

When queried about whether this was accurate, given Steggall is not directing preferences, Abbott responded in a Manly forum that the loss of any Liberal seat takes Shorten closer to The Lodge.

The appearance of her posters on building sites is proof that the CFMEU building union is backing Steggall, he says.

The third-party attacks on Steggall, led by Advance Australia, are more pointed. They link Steggall to Shorten and misleadingly quote her saying she has never voted Liberal in her life.

“What else would they do?” Steggall says. “I am a moderate liberal. Again it highlights how unwilling the far right is to accept that they have moved away from moderate liberals. They view anyone who is not with them on the far right, as left,” she tells the Guardian.

“I haven’t got anything to do with GetUp, I haven’t got anything to do with the Labor party,” she says, sounding a little exasperated.

“I know much has been said that I haven’t voted for Tony Abbott at the federal level. I … I voted Liberal at state and local elections. As far as federal elections have gone, I knew that his policies are just too conservative for me, and I viewed it as a protest vote because I knew this electorate would never go any other way than conservative,” she says.

A women gyrates in front of Tony Abbott supporters ahead of a debate between Abbott and Zali Steggall at the Queenscliff surf club.
A women gyrates in front of Tony Abbott supporters ahead of a debate between Abbott and Zali Steggall at the Queenscliff surf club. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

“I am for small government, competition. I think we need to support small businesses to be more efficient and competitive. You need to strike a balance between workers’ rights and pay, but it can’t be at the expense of business being effective.”

The reason she is gaining support is simple: she has a plan on climate change and Liberals are fed up with the party’s lack of action.

The missing MP

Other candidates have struggled to gain oxygen in a race between a former Olympian and a former prime minister.

Kristyn Glanville, running for the Greens, is an environment and planning lawyer. “What motivates me to run is I did a lot of pro-bono work for refugees.” Australia’s policies are “retraumatising” them, she says.

“I just feel I had to be able to tell my children and grandchildren that I hadn’t stayed silent on all these issues.”

Running for Labor is Dean Harris. He says his campaign has “plans to address the issues rather than just holding on to power”.

“Transport is a big issue in the community,” he says.

Tony Abbott signage joins the traffic jam.
A truck with Tony Abbott signage joins the traffic jam. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

“I have spoken to a lot of transport experts who say you don’t get people off the road by encouraging them to take more trips by car. Experts say that there’s a good case for light rail or heavy rail, connecting into Chatswood.”

It may be the fight of his life, but Abbott has been strangely low key in the campaign. He has has been largely unavailable to the mainstream media and he has avoided most of the community forums.

He has attended two debates with Steggall hosted by Sky News and has done some solo appearances at community meetings.

The reaction to Abbott, a consummate performer at these gatherings, has been polite but sceptical.

One question in particular seems to arouse passions in the audience: why did he abstain from voting for same-sex marriage, when his electorate voted 75% in favour?

At a Manly precinct gathering he explained there were two theories of representation: that the representative should take soundings from his electorate and take their views to Canberra; or that the representative should act according to his conscience. Abbott belongs to the latter school. It was the closest the audience came to booing.

And that is at the heart of it: Steggall has outlined a platform that she will push for if she becomes the MP for Warringah. So has Abbott over the years. The question is whether the voters of Warringah are prepared to buy his version of conservative politics for another three years.


Anne Davies

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
'Hindsight is a wonderful thing': how GetUp's election campaign fell flat
In the wake of the Coalition’s shock victory, the tactics of the progressive activist group have come under scrutiny

Michael McGowan

25, May, 2019 @10:10 PM

Article image
Australian election: Tony Abbott loses his Warringah seat to Zali Steggall
Independent knocks former PM out of parliament with pro-climate action campaign

Anne Davies

18, May, 2019 @11:34 AM

Article image
Warringah voters complain about free copies of Daily Telegraph as election rancour boils
Supporters of both Tony Abbott and Zali Steggall accuse the other side of underhand tactics

Anne Davies

18, Apr, 2019 @11:50 PM

Article image
Independents Kerryn Phelps and Zali Steggall buoyed by NSW election results
High-profile federal candidates point to progressive swings in Sydney’s east and north shore as evidence climate change remains key issue

Anne Davies

24, Mar, 2019 @1:42 AM

Article image
Liberal activists target Tony Abbott's seat over climate change policy
Sydneysiders urged to join party in former PM’s seat to ‘shift the politics’ and speak up for the environment

Anne Davies

02, May, 2018 @6:00 PM

Article image
Liberal MPs complain about GetUp at inquiry into 2019 election
Christian Porter calls for the activist group to be classified as a related body of Labor

Paul Karp

21, Oct, 2019 @11:05 AM

Article image
Can James Mathison beat Tony Abbott in Warringah? | Ben Raue
Manly has form on electing independents but the TV presenter will have to lure some of Mosman’s Liberal voters to steal his seat

Ben Raue

31, May, 2016 @1:13 AM

Article image
Tony Abbott’s worst fear as Zali Steggall gets off to flying start in Warringah
The athlete-turned-lawyer who has deep roots in the electorate is set to zero in on the former PM’s weak spots

Anne Davies

27, Jan, 2019 @4:42 AM

Article image
Clive Palmer candidate wants to preference Tony Abbott in a blow to Zali Steggall
United Australia’s Suellen Wrightson says choice in Warringah is between Liberal party and ‘the GetUp mob’

Sarah Martin

24, Apr, 2019 @2:32 AM

Article image
Zali Steggall to challenge Tony Abbott for Warringah seat
Olympics ski champion turned barrister has support of several grassroots groups in her bid to oust the ex-prime minister

Anne Davies and Paul Karp

27, Jan, 2019 @4:00 AM