(Image: Tom Red/Private Media)

Yesterday, as Craig Kelly publicly lambasted Tanya Plibersek, Linda Seymour’s phone lit up.

As the convenor of a group trying to unseat the member for Hughes, she is used to responding to the MP’s unscientific theories about COVID treatments and climate change. But this week, as Kelly’s radio interview with renowned anti-vaxxer Pete Evans went viral and Scott Morrison defended Kelly at the National Press Club, Seymour has been under siege.

So many people engaged with the website of community organisation We are Hughes that she was forced to mute her notifications. Between that and responding to media calls, the architectural project manager barely had time to eat.

Seymour told Crikey that in the past two days, many people had left messages on the group’s website asking to go out leafleting. The problem is that We are Hughes, which was formed by a group of concerned locals last November, doesn’t yet have any leaflets. Or a candidate.

Following on the advice of Voices for Indi and Voices of Warringah — the groups behind successful independent MPs Helen Haines and Zali Steggall — it is building support from the ground up.

We are Hughes is currently planning 500 “kitchen table conversations” to hear from the electors. In 2013, when the Indi group was trying to unseat Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella, members conducted informal, usually home-based meetings with 425 people across the electorate to hear their concerns.

Seymour and her group intend to follow this approach. They want to consult widely with the community before even thinking about choosing a candidate.

Hughes, in Sydney’s Sutherland Shire, is almost a caricature of middle Australia — with a larger-than-average percentage of white, middle-class families in four-bedroom suburban homes. In 2019, Kelly won around 60% of the vote on a two-party preferred basis, almost 20% ahead of Labor.

Hughes has voted Liberal for decades, but the anti-Kelly forces have been emboldened by Haines and Steggall’s winning campaigns and the recent removal of right-wing culture warrior Kevin Andrews in Victoria (who lost Liberal pre-selection to a more moderate candidate).

“We are building a momentum for change,” Seymour said. For the first few months of the pandemic, she said, Australia had a glimpse of politics working constructively. Members of the group would like to keep that going.

At recent group meetings, electors have talked about action on climate change and integrity in politics, as well as local issues such as housing density and mining under the Woronora water catchment. Kelly, on the other hand, has an almost Trump-like media profile, posting constantly on Facebook about discredited COVID “treatments” and debunking climate change. He is also a fixture on Sky News, which publishes his interviews on its social media pages to a large audience.

The locals have an uphill battle. If Morrison calls an early election, they and all the other independent-minded groups around the country (including Wentworth, Boothby, Mackellar and Groom) will have to get a move on.

In the meantime, while We are Hughes don’t actually have any leaflets, it does have some excellent merchandise. One of its tote bags, emblazoned with “I’m Tired of Crazy”, has taken pride of place in my bag drawer along with 2019’s “Vote Tony Out”.

When the election is finally called the eyes of the nation will be on this electorate, with many hoping for another Abbott-like removal of a polarising politician.

People of Hughes… there’s no pressure.

Is it time for Craig Kelly to go? And is there any chance an independent candidate can beat him? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’sYour Say section.

Peter Fray

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