Susan Moylan-Coombs Warringah Abbott

Indigenous broadcaster Susan Moylan-Coombs has launched her campaign to unseat former prime minister and current special envoy for Indigenous affairs Tony Abbott from the blue-ribbon Liberal seat of Warringah. Abbott has held the seat for 25 years, and it’s been held by the Libs for all but three years since the end of the World War II.

When Kerryn Phelps stunned Liberal golden boy Dave Sharma in the Wentworth byelection last year, analysis immediately began over which seats could be the next to fall to a high-profile independent. Inevitably, with its high-profile and unpopular local candidate, Warringah quickly became a favourite. In the weeks following Phelps’ win, high-profile names were tossed around, and a slew of grassroots organisations emerged with the common goal of ousting Abbott.

Moylan-Coombs, who announced her intention to run right before Christmas, is the first independent to put herself forward.

So, who is she?

Moylan-Coombs is a Woolwonga and Guirindji woman. Her ancestors, the Woolwonga people, barely survived an attempted extermination in 1884; the Gurindji people were pioneers in Indigenous land rights.

A member of the Stolen Generations, Moylan-Coombs was adopted by the high-profile Coombs family at the age of three. Her adoptive grandfather was HC Coombs, the first governor of the Reserve Bank and and highly influential adviser to Gough Whitlam, and the her adoptive father was former NSW Bar Association president John Coombs. She has lived in the Northern Beaches area of Sydney for the best part of 50 years.

In 1976 she was elected the first Indigenous captain of Harbord Public School and the first female Indigenous lifesaver at South Curl Curl Beach in the late 1970s.

Moylan-Coombs has a decades-long career in broadcasting, including stints as executive producer of the ABC’s Indigenous programs unit, and head of production at SBS’ NITV. She was a producer for the ABC’s broadcast of both Paul Keating’s 1992 Redfern Park address and Kevin Rudd’s Stolen Generations Apology in 2007. More recently, she served as founding director of Gaimaragal Group, an organisation dedicated to health and wellbeing of Indigenous communities.

The first big fight

The launch of her campaign has been defined by the noteworthy optics of a member of the Stolen Generations going up against a man who has the role of special envoy for Indigenous affairs — particularly an envoy who says things like “in 1788 [Australia] was nothing but bush”.

Moylan-Coombs has said that Australia Day is a “long-open wound that splits the nation in two every summer … As an Indigenous woman, I know we need to talk about the truth and trauma of this anniversary to understand why its ‘celebration’ feels like pressing on a bruise to First Nations people every January.”  

Elsewhere, she has gone further:

As First Nations people, we don’t feel included in a day that celebrates a turning point in our belonging in this country. We don’t like to use the word genocide but that’s actually what happened … It’s just traumatic every time.

Abbott has responded, well, Abbottly:

[We] shouldn’t try to rewrite history or pretend the past didn’t happen. January the 26th 1788 marks the beginning of modern Australia and is the right day to celebrate our achievements as a nation and to look forward to an even better future.

Can she win?

Moylan-Coombs appears to be aiming for the same sensible centrist ground that Phelps found so fertile. “Party politics has failed Warringah. The party that represents this seat has stopped listening to the people. They are in a policy death spiral,” she said, pointedly claiming she’s been criticised for being “not left enough and not right enough”. 

ABC psephologist Antony Green has suggested that Moylan-Coombs “does not bring the sort of high profile required to win a seat like Warringah”. However, as noted above, her biggest asset may be the stark contrast between her and Abbott.

In Wentworth, Phelps was able to tap into community frustration at the Liberals’ inaction on climate change. Drawing from this playbook, Moylan-Coombs has argued for the need to consider the environmental and social impacts of economic policy. Abbott is notorious for his obstinate climate scepticism — he recently described a shift to renewable energy as akin to “primitive people killing goats to appease the volcano gods”.

There is evidence that, like the Liberals in Wentworth, Abbott may be falling further out of step with his constituents’ views on climate change. Community groups like Voices of Warringah, Vote Tony Out, Think Twice Warringah, People of Warringah and North Shore Environmental Stewards (which have led grassroots efforts to oust Abbott) are leaning hard on climate change as a potential rallying point.

Can Moylan-Coombs win in Warringah? Write to [email protected] and let us know what you think. Use your full name to be considered for the comments section. 

Peter Fray

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