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Article

Can Independents break the addictive appeal of voting habits?

There’s an element of excitement to a candidate not tied to a party line. I quite like the idea of voting Independent. It is empowering.

The concept of the Independent candidate feels like a breath of fresh air in Parliament. Mainstream political parties have been somehow more disappointing than usual lately. Key issues like effective climate change policy have been ignored or under-addressed. There’s an element of excitement to a candidate not tied to a party line. I quite like the idea of voting Independent. It is empowering. It can send a strong message. It can be a good way to emphasise what issues really matter to you. But I’m enough of a cynic to not get too excited. Frustration can be enough to break voters out of well-practiced political tendencies. But is it enough to permanently break a voting habit?

The inner-Sydney constituency of Wentworth offers a cautionary tale to the unblemished promise of an Independent. It was once largely unremarkable. Small in scale and predictably conservative. The Liberal Party, or its early predecessors, had held the seat since Federation itself. The very definition of a safe seat. Or at least it was until the 2018 by-election.

A brief refresher for those justifiably overwhelmed by the revolving door of PM’s we’ve had prior to 2018; this was the election where Malcolm Turnbull was ousted and Scott Morrison first elected. So Turnbull resigned from politics altogether and the Liberals sought to fill his seat with Dave Sharma. What they did not expect was a challenge, one with genuine public support, from Independent political candidate Kerryn Phelps. And suddenly a Liberal winning-streak that had lasted over a century was broken. Morrison’s Liberals were forced into a minority government. Wentworth, as the memes proclaimed, had fallen.

The reasons for Phelps’ success will sound familiar to anyone following Independent candidates in 2022. Anger at the Liberals, frustration with lack of action towards climate and refugee policy, general distrust of mainstream politicians… I could go on. As a woman independent from any party line, Phelps held the promise of genuine political change. So did Wentworth shrug off its Liberal history and kick-off a new era of political action?

Not quite.

Seven months later, in May 2019, Phelps lost the Federal election to Dave Sharma. Wentworth was a Liberal safe-seat once more. The voters, content they had made their point, largely returned to familiar voting habits.

This particular political tale holds some lessons for rising Independent candidates. We are once again seeing rising agitation towards the Liberals, wider support for climate change policies and very frustrated voters. The problem will be in sustaining this frustration.

Voting for a party time and time again can feel comfortable. There’s safety in familiarity, virtue in loyalty. But if you want long-lasting political change, you need to change your political habits in the long-term.

The long running aims of reshaping the Australian government are not possible without the continued support of constituents.

In 2022, Wentworth is once again in the throws of a tight political race. Sharma once again faces off against an Independent candidate; Allegra Spender. Her policies focus on supporting businesses alongside climate action, and she stands a genuine chance of winning. Wentworth has shown even the safest of seats can break tradition. The challenge will lie in not just breaking tradition, but in actively forging a new path.

 

This piece was submitted to Farrago as an opinion piece.

 
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