Can the Centre Alliance hold? Rebekha Sharkie faces 'betrayal' claims after universities vote

The South Australian MP treads a narrow path amid changing demographics in her seat of Mayo and accusations of Liberal sympathies

“You’re just stooges for the Liberal party,” one comment reads. “You are a sellout,” another says.

The Centre Alliance MP Rebekha Sharkie’s Facebook page has been swamped with hundreds of angry comments in the wake of the party’s decision to support the federal government’s higher education reforms.

Many of the comments have a tone of betrayal, accusing the member for Mayo of being “Liberal lite”, a loaded term from a South Australian electorate that was once blueblood but emphatically rejected the Liberals at the 2016 election. Sharkie coasted to victory as a member of the now-defunct Nick Xenophon Team, a group voters admired for taking the fight to the government.

The higher education changes will more than double the cost of humanities degrees, while slashing the cost of others, including nursing and teaching. The education minister, Dan Tehan, says the changes “will incentivise students to make more job-relevant choices, that lead to more job-ready graduates”.

The opposition says the changes will make it harder and more expensive to go to university, and crossbench senators Rex Patrick (who quit CA in August to run as an independent) and Jacqui Lambie bitterly criticised the deal.

But with CA on board, Sharkie’s Senate colleague Stirling Griff will deliver the government the vote it needs.

Sharkie has long faced the “Liberal lite” tag, thanks to rumours that the federal Liberal party is wooing her to join them (which she says she will never do). The fact that she is a former Liberal staffer has helped fuel the accusations.

She says people have a right to comment on her decision, but she made it after extensive research and consultation.

“I don’t have an ideological bone in my body,” she says.

‘Two very different Mayos’

Mayo, which sprawls from the Adelaide Hills to the Fleurieu Peninsula and Kangaroo Island, was a Liberal stronghold from its inception in 1984. The veteran Liberal and former foreign affairs minister Alexander Downer held the seat from then until 2008, when Jamie Briggs took over.

During that time, the demographics of the seat shifted. Clem Macintyre, an emeritus professor of politics at the University of Adelaide, says dependable Liberal voters including farmers and establishment “Old Adelaide Families” (known locally as OAFs) had kept it safe, but their numbers were diluted by young families moving to the fast-growing centre in Mount Barker.

Dairy farmers were replaced by more left-leaning artisanal cheese and wine makers.

“What was once a fairly traditional, predictable farming vote has become a less certain electorate and one that sees different opportunities, and is chasing different markets,” Macintyre says.

When Briggs was forced to resign from the ministry after a late-night incident in a Hong Kong bar, Mayo was ripe for change. Sharkie defeated Briggs by 55% to 45% of the two-party-preferred vote.

She has since held the seat in the face of two challenges from Alexander Downer’s daughter, Georgina, who flew in from Melbourne to contest the seat and has since returned there. (Alexander Downer’s father, Alick Downer, and his grandfather, John Downer, were also politicians, making the Downers one of the original OAFs.)

Focus group research from the University of Canberra’s institute for governance and policy analysis in 2018 found Sharkie and Downer were “perceived to represent two very different Mayos”.

“Downer represents old ‘blue ribbon’ Mayo (as did the disgraced Jamie Briggs), home to the Adelaide elite, and Sharkie represents new Mayo which is associated with changing community demographics which include households from a much broader range of income groups including young families who are looking for active community minded representation,” it found.

John Schumann is best known as the man who sang Redgum’s classic I Was Only Nineteen. But he was also the first person to give the Liberals a scare in Mayo.

As an Australian Democrat, he very nearly unseated Alexander Downer at the 1998 election.

“There was a time when the electorate of Mayo was the province of the bunyip aristocracy,” Schumann says. Now, though, it’s “economically, socially and culturally diverse”.

Sharkie bears the brunt

That shift away from the Liberals helps explain why Sharkie is bearing the brunt of the attack, even though Griff’s upper house vote is the crucial one. CA initially opposed the education bill, but won a range of concessions for South Australia, including $160m in funding for universities, and 12,000 extra places over four years.

Sharkie says other concessions that tipped her vote include protections for regional and vulnerable students, an end to the funding freeze that has been in place since 2017, and a promised formal review after 18 months. She also hopes there will be a further funding announcement for university infrastructure.

“Our choice was to sit with the status quo, and not support the legislation, when the universities told us that further freezing was going to mean serious job losses and campus closures next year.”

She echoes the government’s point that humanities students can bring down the cost of their degrees by including some of the cheaper courses.

But Sharkie is hardly a fierce advocate for the legislation.

“It’s by no means perfect, at all,” she says. “But in a perfect world we would seek to dramatically raise funding, and the government has absolutely no appetite to do it.”


Tory Shepherd

The GuardianTramp

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