Warringah Abbott
Independent for Warringah Zali Steggall (Image: AAP/Bianca De Marchi)

At the party anointing Zali Steggall as the new member for Warringah, one man was conspicuously not having quite such a good time. He was wearing an “It’s time” shirt, and constantly coming over to me check on other seats “What the fuck is going on in Lindsay? How are we doing in Reid? Chisholm? Jesus…”

Poor guy, he must have thought he was going to have the greatest night a Labor supporter ever had around here.  

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Warringah was supposed to be a sign of how far the sickness had spread, the point at which the wave broke. If Tony Abbott could be dislodged from this most blue ribbon of Liberal seats, surely it would be the last act of a blowout that had wiped out many far more marginal seats for the Coalition. As it turned out, he was thrashed. But Warringah was the outlier.

In his concession speech, Abbott himself identified at least part of the reason why.

When climate change is a moral issue we do quite badly, when its an economic issue, we do very well.

Whatever else can be said about them, it has to admitted that the people gathered in the Manly Novotel ballroom, whooping and cheering as he conceded, are not people who have any reason to be nervous about their jobs during a transition to renewable energy.

The lack of cut-through from those agitating for climate change action anywhere outside the inner cities is probably the defining failure of the 2019 election. The Stop Adani movement claimed its only scalp 1600 kms too far south. 

Wealth was a factor throughout. In Warringah, quite a few, mostly very well off people decided they wanted Abbott gone. That’s not to concede the idea promoted by Advance Australia that it was sinister foreign money, in aid of some green left conspiracy that did for Abbott. It was a legitimate, extremely widespread grassroots movement. Nowhere else that I’m aware of had so many disparate groups crop up spontaneously around a single issue. It’s just that “grassroots” in Warringah means something very different to what it means elsewhere. The grassroots here are extremely sturdy.

And, of course, what a target they had.

“We try to be positive, but people hate Abbott, they hate him,” a tipsy woman who had campaigned for Steggall told me on election night. “I was just gonna, you know,” she points a finger gun at her temple “if we re-elected that misogynist, climate denying …  but we did it.” She trailed off into a grin. It was personal. It was always going to be. To hear the people in this room talk, you’d never think Abbott had held the seat by such comfortable margin for nearly a quarter of a century.

None of this is a slight on Steggall — she ran a quite remarkable campaign, and she seems to have the makings of a considered and thoughtful politician. Her economic policies will most likely sync fairly well with the Coalition, but her advocacy for action on climate change will be all the more crucial now.

So what felt as though it would be a revolutionary, momentous occasion savours somewhat of anti-climax, ultimately a side consideration in the face of much larger questions.

A collection of engaged and wealthy groups got organised and took down a high profile, unpopular target. Such a formulation did not (in most cases could not) happen elsewhere. So Warringah didn’t end up telling us anything much about where Australia is at, much less did it represent some great progressive victory. If anything, it served to confirm something we already knew: in this country, if you get organised — and have access to a decent chunk of money — you can get quite a bit done.

Charlie Lewis has been reporting from our special Warringah bureau for the length of the election campaign. Read his full coverage here.

Peter Fray

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