Jane Caro, Elizabeth Farrelly and Jo Dyer (Images: supplied)
Jane Caro, Elizabeth Farrelly and Jo Dyer (Images: supplied)

More and more women — frustrated with a government they feel is out of touch with voters, backdoor decisions not debated in a public forum, and the interconnectedness of lobbyists, fossil fuel industry representatives and rich donors — are putting themselves up for a position in politics. 

These women, ranging from former Liberal Natalie Baini to businesswoman Allegra Spender and former journalist Zoe Daniel, are running either as independents or with smaller parties in the upcoming election to challenge the status quo. The most recent to join their ranks is former columnist Jane Caro, who yesterday announced she’d be running for the Senate with the Reason Party. 

But why are so many women stepping up to the plate now — and do they really represent a threat to Australia’s two-party system? 

What’s the driver?

There’s an undercurrent of anger for many independent candidates. Watching from the sidelines as the government bungled its bushfire response, COP22, March4Justice and assault allegations, they felt the Coalition was failing over and over again. 

Caro flirted briefly with the idea of entering the 2018 race as an independent against Tony Abbott but stepped down so as not to split the vote. This time, she’s going hell for leather. 

“Watching this government, I’ve just become furious but also spirited and disgusted,” Caro tells Crikey

“I think that a lot of people, progressive people, people who care about our planet, and women, in particular, are feeling under threat.” 

But it’s not just the current government at fault: many independents believe Australia’s democratic system is failing, brought about by heavy-handed major parties out of touch with voters, using wedge politics to stop any kind of progression and preselecting their popular favourites instead of who is best for the role. 

Former newspaper columnist Elizabeth Farrelly, who is running as an independent candidate for Strathfield, NSW, tells Crikey she’s seen these failures firsthand. In 2018 she was approached by the Labor party to join with hints at running for the federal seat of Reid — before quickly realising that no matter how well she resonated with voters, it was up to powerful Labor figures to decide her fate.

“There were no preselection battles … and once I left, party members were vindictive. There was nastiness everywhere, which surprised me,” she said. 

“It was arrogant … and my treatment afterwards was unjustified and unwarranted, and, for me, reinforced my initial sense that both of the major parties are especially out of touch with the electorate.”

Does feminism play a role? 

The Me Too movement exposed a dark and prevalent culture of sexual abuse and harassment in Australia, bolstered by prominent survivors including Grace Tame, Brittany Higgins and Kate, who accused Christian Porter of rape — which he strenuously denies — publicly telling their story. 

Farrelly believes the current feminist movement in Australia is 20-30 years overdue, with progression stalled following former minister for women Tony Abbott’s reign. 

“We should be ashamed of how backwards it all is,” she said. “There’s a lot of hatred to women and we need to address it because it disempowers men as well as women.” 

Speaking on a Crikey Talks panel last night, Jo Dyer, outgoing director of Adelaide Writers’ Week and independent candidate for Boothby in South Australia, said the movement had played an important role in galvanising and amplifying independents. She was a childhood friend of Kate, whose 51st birthday it would have been yesterday. 

“Women are sick of waiting for power to be shared and they understand that now they need to get in there and take it,” she said. Dyer believes the movement showed older women that daily harassment wasn’t something they just had to live with.

“There’s a generation of women saying, ‘We are not going to accept the shame … and we will find a voice to lay the shame where it belongs, which is back with the perpetrator.’”

She said this became particularly apparent after Scott Morrison announced his support for Porter despite Kate’s allegation.

“We hear the rhetoric all the time from people, including the prime minister, who was saying, ‘We need to hear your stories, we need to listen to what women are saying’,” Dyer said.

“But when there’s a very specific story, which doesn’t suit our political agenda, then we are going to dismiss it.”

What outcome do they want? 

Farrelly, Caro and Dyer are each progressives who have previously supported the Labor party. But they each want a different outcome in the upcoming election: Dyer believes a Labor majority with an independent crossbench would be the best outcome; Caro simply wants the current government to go — and would like to see a Labor prime minister — while Farrelly believes a hung Parliament would be a fantastic outcome. 

“These independent women are actually independent,” she said. “They’re going to work according to principle and not along party lines, which means each vote has a conscience vote.”

But whether the scores of independents rushing to the political field will actually be a threat to the government remains to be seen. Already it appears some Liberals are squirming: Tim Wilson has asked constituents to dob in people erecting Zoe Daniel political signs early, while the Morrison government has attempted to frame the independents as a front for Labor. 

While Caro believes independents have been underestimated, she said the level of support she was receiving online showed many candidates were getting the attention they deserved. 

“The tone has been, ‘Oh, at last, someone I’d actually want to vote for’,” she said.