Most Australian elections at the federal level are close-run affairs and it is likely this will be the case again on Saturday.
But this election could have significant outcomes beyond whether Scott Morrison or Anthony Albanese lead their respective party to victory.
First up, the Liberal Party is facing challenges in what used to be some of its safest seats. One example illustrates the point. Without question, Josh Frydenberg is one of Australia’s finest politicians in the modern age. But the Treasurer and deputy Liberal Party leader is facing a serious challenge to hold Kooyong in eastern Melbourne against an attack from an anti-Liberal candidate who identifies as independent.
Simon Holmes a Court is a multi-millionaire who presides over the Climate 200 action group. Monique Ryan, the Climate 200 independent candidate for Kooyong, is a senior medical professional. When former Liberal leaders such as Robert Menzies and Andrew Peacock held Kooyong, it was most likely that wealthy Australians in business and the professions would vote Liberal.
Not any more. In a perceptive column in The Age on Wednesday, Julie Szego (who is no political conservative) commented on the strange reality of the battle for Kooyong: “Frydenberg is associating himself with the underdog … while Ryan … hammers status and authority by constantly referring to herself as ‘doctor’.”
In the May 2019 election, Frydenberg fought off a challenge from Greens candidate Julian Burnside QC. Not so long ago, Burnside might have been described as a member of the Protestant Ascendancy in Victoria – having been educated at Melbourne Grammar and becoming a barrister doing extensive work for what the left used to call “the big end of town”.
Nowadays however, some wealthy Australians want to bring down the Coalition government – even though the alternative is an Albanese Labor government that could have to rely on the Greens and/or some left-wing independents to form government. Moreover, whatever his recent political metamorphosis, Albanese’s background is in the Labor left.
If Frydenberg prevails over Ryan, he is likely to do so with the support of individuals whom Szego noticed at his campaign launch on May 1: a dry cleaner, a widow campaigning for stroke victims, a mother whose disabled son had been helped by the member for Kooyong and a former Labor-voting community housing resident who regards himself as a Frydenberg “bestie”.
If Frydenberg loses, it will be a devastating loss for the Liberal Party. But if he prevails over another left-of-centre professional, it will be a sign that with the support of the less well-off and less successful in the community the modern Liberal Party can survive political challenges from wealthy anti-Liberal activists.
Frydenberg is one of Australia’s best known politicians. Kristina Keneally is another. The former NSW Labor premier is contesting Fowler in western Sydney, which was won by Labor’s Chris Hayes in 2019. Normally, Fowler would be regarded among the safest of Labor’s seats. Not any more.
The decision of Labor’s national executive to support Keneally as Labor’s candidate in Fowler has met with local resistance. Especially since, before her recent move to Liverpool, Keneally resided at Scotland Island on Sydney’s northern beaches – a long way from Liverpool. During the campaign, the ABC and Nine newspapers have given widescale and sympathetic coverage to the so-called teal independents who are running against sitting Liberal Party candidates.
However, as mentioned in this column on April 22, scant attention was paid to Dai Le who is running as an independent against Keneally in Fowler. Le, a refugee from South Vietnam who arrived with her mother in Australia in 1979, was expelled from the NSW Liberal Party years ago for contesting a local government election against an endorsed Liberal Party candidate. In short, she is a genuine independent, neither anti-Liberal nor anti-Labor.
It is a huge task for Le to prevail over the high-profile Keneally on Saturday. However, if she does it will send a message to the powers-that-be in the ALP that it cannot parachute well-off and well-educated outsiders into traditionally safe Labor seats. Especially those that have a high proportion of small-business owners and members of what used to be called the working class along with many Australians who were born outside the country or whose parents fit into this category.
Just as a loss in Kooyong would be a serious blow to the Liberals, so would the defeat of Labor in Fowler. All the more since Labor attained 64 per cent of the total vote in Fowler in 2019 compared with the Liberal Party’s 56 per cent in Kooyong.
Labor also faces a challenge in Parramatta (northeast of Fowler). There, Labor has dropped in Andrew Charlton as its candidate – denying local branch members a preselection following the retirement of popular Labor member Julie Owens. Charlton is being challenged by Liberal Maria Kovacic. Charlton is a wealthy and well-educated man who could well be successful in politics. But until moving to Parramatta recently, he lived in affluent Bellevue Hill in Sydney’s eastern suburbs.
During their time as Liberal Party leaders contesting elections, John Howard, Tony Abbott and Morrison made gains in western Sydney. The lesson for Labor should have been to take such seats more seriously. Just as the lesson for Liberals is that most of their safe seats are not so safe any more.
The Liberal Party has recognised this challenge – hence the focus on retaining seats in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide previously regarded as relatively safe. The decision of Labor to impose Keneally and Charlton on Fowler and Parramatta is a risk. It may work out, in which case both will have a chance to become well-known local members. But it may fail, with serious repercussions for Labor.
Whatever the outcome, the result of the 2022 election is likely to have an impact beyond whether Morrison or Albanese forms a government next week.