The Liberal party is being challenged by independents in a swathe of mostly inner-city seats.
With polls suggesting independents are a chance to win normally blue-ribbon seats including Wentworth, North Sydney, Kooyong, Goldstein and Curtin, the counterattack has been fierce.
But what do Liberals mean when they label their opponents “fake independents” – and is it a fair criticism?
What is an independent?
Prof Graeme Orr, a politics expert at the University of Queensland, says an independent is a candidate “not endorsed by a registered party”.
Parties must be governed by a constitution, endorse candidates, have 1,500 registered members and use their name on the ballot.
Where did they come from?
Although historically independents tended to be breakaways from political parties, independents have had success organising without prior party affiliation.
Cathy McGowan won the seat of Indi in 2013 and was succeeded by Helen Haines, using a community organising model of conversations around kitchen tables that became the “voices of” movement.
Zali Steggall won Warringah from former prime minister Tony Abbott in 2019, ushering in a new wave of “teal independents”, who take their name from the distinctive blue-green colour used by many of them in their advertising, targeting progressive Liberal-held seats.
What do the Liberals say?
The Liberals have seized on everything from independents’ financial backers to their voting record, past party membership and refusal to say who they would make prime minister to argue they are “fake independents”.
On Thursday Scott Morrison told Sky News:
They’re anti-Liberal … I mean, they’re not running against the Labor party. They’re only running against the Liberal party. And some of them used to be members of the Labor party. They make no secret of that. This is an anti-Liberal party funded by big money with Simon Holmes à Court.
Climate 200 backing
Climate 200 is a fundraising vehicle convened by businessman and activist Simon Holmes à Court, which aims to raise at least $20m for community candidates running for more action on climate change and integrity issues.
Holmes à Court has rejected suggestions the candidates are “in cahoots” or under any form of direction from Climate 200.
He told the National Press Club:
They are truly independent, and we have no influence in what they will do in the next [period] immediately following the election. Nor do we seek to … If we were to try to undermine independents, not only would none of them want anything to do with us, but we would be living a lie and I can’t … The candidates will make their own decisions, they will have a mandate from their communities.
Liberal party ads and some MPs have criticised the candidates and Climate 200 for having unknown funding sources, or disclosing donors without revealing how much they are receiving.
Orr says they are simply playing by the same rules as everybody else, as the Commonwealth Electoral Act does not have spending limits or mandate real-time disclosure, unlike many states.
“In the past, the Liberals seemed happy with that – either due to their liberal philosophy or perhaps their donors’ interests,” he said.
“[There’s no sense] complaining that Simon Holmes à Court won’t legally have to declare all donors for some months or that independents are spending up to seven figures – they knew Clive Palmer spent big at the last election, and they didn’t do anything about it.”
The teal independents are mostly running on a near-identical platform of greater action on climate change, improved integrity including a national anti-corruption commission, and better treatment of women.
They have also on occasion announced policy together, such as North Sydney’s Kylea Tink and Mackellar’s Sophie Scamps joining Steggall on Friday to announce a target for new electric vehicles and fuel efficiency.
Orr says if enough independents are elected to parliament, their combined bargaining power and “simpatico minds” on policy may see them evolve “customs, if not rules” about how to pursue common goals in parliament.
“They could end up forming a parliamentary bloc but it still doesn’t mean they meet technical requirements of a party.”
Past party membership
Perhaps the most potent charge in seats that usually vote Liberal is that several independents have been members of Labor: Monique Ryan (Kooyong) was a member from 2007 to 2010, and Kate Chaney (Curtin) joined in 2021 but is no longer a member.
Chaney told Guardian Australia:
I grew up in a very Liberal family and then through the course of my adult life, I’ve felt less represented by the Liberal party and really just deeply disillusioned with the system. I joined the Labor party briefly, but I was dismayed by the ‘us and them’ tribal approach. And really, I think there are good people in both parties but the system is what’s not working.
On her website Ryan says she “briefly joined the Labor Party once when Kevin Rudd said he’d ratify Kyoto … but I am not Labor”.
“In vain hope I even signed up to the promise of ‘Kevin07’ as a member, but like many Australians, I was disappointed. When Kevin Rudd walked away from climate action, I walked away from him,” she says.
The Liberals have also targeted independents for their voting history: at the ballot box for the newcomers, or in the parliament for those who are already MPs.
According to a parliamentary library analysis, Haines voted 68% of the time with Labor, and Steggall 66% with Labor.
But as both note, this figure is inflated by votes on procedural motions including crossbenchers voting against the government gagging debate.
I’ve been a swinging voter for my life. Yes, I have voted Liberal. I’ve voted Labor. I think I voted Greens once. At the last election I actually can’t remember how I voted.
Although the independents are criticised for allegedly voting for parties of the left, some Liberal discontent is triggered by the sense these candidates have good Liberal pedigrees and should be running for them.
Chaney’s grandfather was in the Menzies government and her uncle, Fred Chaney, was deputy to Malcolm Fraser.
Spender is the daughter of the former North Sydney MP John Spender, a frontbencher under John Howard and Andrew Peacock, and the granddaughter of Sir Percy Spender, a cabinet minister under Robert Menzies and Arthur Fadden. But Spender says: “I’ve never found that either party really represents what I stand for.”
Not saying who they would make prime minister
The Centre Alliance MP Rebekha Sharkie has announced her intention to approach the Liberals to form government in the event of a hung parliament, and Steggall has suggested she would be more likely to do so if Scott Morrison were dumped.
But for the most part, the independents have not said who they would make prime minister if they hold the balance of power, drawing predictable ire from opponents:
Tim Wilson’s opponent, Zoe Daniel, says: “This election is in the hands of the voters and I will not pre-empt their decision.”
“I have no premeditated position on which major party I would support in a hung parliament situation,” she explains on her website.
The question has featured prominently in candidate debates.
Spender says: “I haven’t made up my mind. It depends what happens at the negotiating table on the day. I’m open to work with either side of government.”
Tink says: “It will be my job as the independent for North Sydney to get the best possible deal I can around the things North Sydney are sending me to get that deal on.”
Orr agrees that “disclosing your hand before the election is not a great idea, either in terms of increasing your voter base or to leverage policy” in negotiations.
“It makes no sense to say in advance that you’ll only deal with one side or another in government.”
The veteran political commentator Barrie Cassidy argues that is in fact the true mark of an independent. “You’re a fake independent if you slavishly say you will only back one of the major parties.”
Liberal MPs are engaged in obvious hyperbole labelling their opponents “fake independents” but are entitled to argue the case.
If independent candidates are silent on who they would prefer to lead in a hung parliament, they may receive partisan attacks, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t independent of the major political parties.