Zali Steggall
Zali Steggall and Peter Macdonald (Image: Twitter)

The Boathouse, a cafe in Santorini blue and white, sits in a little nook called Shelley Beach, just before a sliver of Manly coast erupts into North Head. When I get there it’s packed with older holidaymaker-types and their immaculate little dogs, as well as the odd unruly bush turkey who has to be chased away. It’s in this salubrious spot that I meet independent candidate for Warringah and Tony Abbott’s challenger-in-chief Zali Steggall. 

Following our interview Crikey can proudly reveal the following exclusive: Steggall is no leftie. Her analogies are 100% corporate or sporting. Of Abbott’s time hanging around parliament since he ceased to be prime minister she says “in the corporate world, people know it doesn’t work out if you go from being CEO to account manager” and, later, “in the corporate world, after 25 years people know it’s time for some fresh eyes.” I neglect to tell her about the whole “war office” idea after she says the constant pitching of politics in Warringah as a “battle” is “disrespectful to the armed services”. 

It’s not the first time Abbott has faced a competitive “progressive centre” independent challenger. In 2001, Peter Macdonald, a former Manly mayor and state parliamentarian (independent both times) ran Abbott the closest anyone ever has. Macdonald has thrown his support behind Steggall. He told Crikey there are similarities and differences between the campaigns.

“I ran two years after stepping down from state parliament, so I had a track record, and whether people liked me or didn’t, they knew who I was,” he said. “Zali is a political unknown. In many ways I think it’s a harder job for her — because people are asking ‘who is Zali?’ and she has a limited time to really build brand recognition.”

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The lack of an established political profile makes her vulnerable to just the kind of campaign Abbott is very good at.

“There’s a vacuum there, and it can be filled with nonsense,” Macdonald says. “There weren’t any dirty campaign tricks when I ran, but I think that might be because he didn’t feel threatened that time.” 

Since arriving in Warringah, a handful of subscribers in the area have been sending Crikey the various marketing material they’ve been receiving from Abbott — the consensus is it’s the greatest volume he’s ever sent them.

Apart from personal newsletters warning of the dangers of voting for a non-Liberal candidate, there’s a letter from John Howard — whose involvement in a campaign is always a sign of something — citing Abbott’s performance as health minister and the dangers of a Shorten government:

Further, there have been grubby episodes including one involving Steggall’s ex-husband, and another with Advance Australia’s weirdo mascot Captain GetUp rubbing up against her poster like a bothered cat. 

Steggall, in the face of this, has not retaliated with personal attacks of her own. But there is an undeniably personal tinge to some of the work being done on her behalf. Apart from Vote Tony Out’s “dinosaur” stunts, and the day Steggall and I speak, GetUp (who are opposing Abbott rather than backing Steggall) have ended a shocker of a week by having to pull an ad, in which an Abbott impersonator in lifesaver gear ignores a drowning woman.

“It’s really unsatisfactory way to do politics, to play the man,” she says. “I don’t support [the ad], it’s in poor taste and disrespectful to livesavers. But I can’t control any of it. And of course, Abbott always goes personal himself.” 

I suggest being at the centre of such a bad tempered campaign must be exhausting.

“It’s a very long job interview,” she says with a laugh. “I’m used to the long haul. In my sporting career I would train for 11 months for a race that lasts a minute and a half. So I know all about a long preparation phase.”

I’d gotten to the Boathouse early, hoping to spot Steggall as she arrived and gauge what I could from that. There had turned out to be a school of red herrings before I saw her. There are many women — upright and athletic, well dressed, neither young nor old — walking the beach who resemble Zali Steggall. 

Indeed, as much Steggall’s pitch is “sensible centre”, it’s “working local mum” — she mentions her teenage kids regularly as a catalyst for her desire to bring about action on climate change. At the Manly business forum you could sense the room warming to her as she said she wanted better than a 50-50 chance for her kids.

A local voter with a background in marketing tells me it’s one of Steggall’s most potent weapons.

“The Zali effect is working with mums in this electorate because of the Zali story,” she tells Crikey. “Olympian, then barrister, the short marriage, two kids, divorce after only four years. Then running for office. She is what so many of the women in this area dream of; their own voice. Their own life. Their own success.” 

Steggall doesn’t want to change the system, she thinks it could be managed better.

Beyond the climate change pitch (which she does not see as a left/right issue) and talk of more compassion towards refugees, her liberal/conservative (not Liberal/Conservative) policy pitches — small government, “competitive economic policy”, regulation of union power, opposition to tax reform of the kind pitched by Labor — would do little to win over the wider anti-Abbott left. But then, the wider anti-Abbott left largely don’t live in Warringah, so they’ve never had much of a say in the matter.

If she heralds any kind of revolution, it’s a structural one. Like Kerryn Phelps in Wentworth, she represents the “recognisable liberal challenging the Liberals, with victory or loss depending very much on the quality of the campaign and the candidate” that Guy Rundle argued could herald an “Australian spring” in these pages last year.

And given the scalp she must claim, her campaign is a test of just how disenchanted rusted-on voters are with the major parties and just how much can be achieved with that disaffection. The Liberals are the main targets now, but expect the crosshairs to fix on Labor if they take power. If she wins, this kind of campaign could destroy the notion of safe seats.

In a policy sense, she would most likely affect modest change. As a candidate, she could change everything.