Zali Steggall Waringah Tony Abbott
Barrister and former world champion skier Zali Steggall (Image: AAP/Luke Costin)

Three months on from Wentworth and another three before the likely date of the federal election, the wave of independent candidates challenging traditionally safe Liberal seats shows no sign of subsiding.

Over the long weekend alone, Tony Abbott gained yet another challenger in Warringah, in the form of barrister and Olympic skier Zali Steggall. Bank executive and Liberal Party member (for now) Oliver Yates emerged as a likely starter against Treasurer Josh Frydenberg in Kooyong, and reports suggested Julia Banks, the Liberal turned independent member for Chisholm, will shortly announce her intention to run against Greg Hunt in Flinders.

The prime ministerial captain’s call of installing Warren Mundine as the Liberal candidate for Gilmore in southern New South Wales has also prompted Grant Schultz, who was elbowed aside to make way for Mundine, to announce he will be going it alone.

With Labor appearing set for a clean-sweep of conventional battleground seats, the further prospect of a blue-ribbon rebellion has encouraged suggestions the Liberal Party faces a calamity unlike any it has suffered before.

However, not everyone is convinced. Writing in The Weekend Australian on January 19, Gerard Henderson accused elements of the media of having a “fixation” with independents that belied the unlikelihood of a post-election hung parliament, and the prospect that the Coalition might actually be able to claw back a few seats from the current crossbench.

There would certainly seem a strong chance of either the Liberals or Nationals recovering Indi with the retirement of Cathy McGowan, who has held the seat as an independent since she defeated Sophie Mirabella in 2013.

Nor is Kerryn Phelps assured of re-election in Wentworth — she was only narrowly successful in October, and history suggests independents can often struggle to replicate their byelection feats in the very different environment of a national election campaign.

Nearly half the independent or minor party candidates who have won federal or state byelections over the past three decades were defeated at the subsequent general election, and another quarter had their margins reduced — not a luxury Phelps can afford, given her margin of 1.2%.

Under compulsory preferential voting, independents typically have two hurdles to clear: they must poll well enough to finish ahead of the weaker major party, and the primary vote of the stronger major party must not be so high that they require only a trickle of preferences to make it to 50%.

The first of these presents a formidable obstacle for Grant Schultz, as a finely poised marginal seat like Gilmore is one in which neither major party is particularly easy to overtake. Julia Banks will likewise have a hard time overcoming Labor if she indeed runs in Flinders, with a poll conducted for the CFMMEU last week suggesting Labor might well be strong enough to take the seat in their own right.

As for the second hurdle, recent history suggests Coalition members squaring off against independents are likely to struggle if their primary vote falls to the low forties.

Out of 30 federal and state seat results as far back as 2007 in which the final preference counts were between the Coalition and a minor party or independent, Coalition candidates held on whenever their primary vote remained above 45% (eight cases in all), but lost when it went below 40% (17 cases).

In the five cases where they landed between 40% and 45%, Coalition candidates were batting one from five.

Given Josh Frydenberg’s substantial 58.2% primary vote from 2016, Kooyong will not be an easy mark for an independent.

But it could well be a different story in Warringah, where Tony Abbott managed only 51.6% in 2016, and has made few new friends since.

Certainly there is no shortage of locals hostile to Abbott and keenly alert to the opportunity.

Steggall is the fourth independent to have declared her hand in Warringah, and by the count of one seasoned local observer, there are no fewer than nine groups active in the electorate whose objective can be abbreviated as “ABBA”: “any bastard but Abbott”.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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