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February 1, 2023

Anyone remember ‘Modern Liberals’?

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Margo Kingston

Anyone remember ‘Modern Liberals’? They’re the ones who stood at the last election in safe Liberal seats like Goldstein in Melbourne (Tim Wilson) and the formerly safe Liberal seat of Wentworth in Sydney (Dave Sharma).

The idea was to differentiate from un-modern Liberals, you know, the hard-right climate change deniers who ended Turnbull’s leadership rather than acquiesce to the party-room backed National Energy Guarantee (NEG).

Yet when PM Morrison announced a $600 million taxpayer-funded gas-fired power station with the promise of more to come, they were silent. Developing the gas industry is contrary to the advice of a government task force, which advised that a new gas plant was not needed, and to the view of the chair of Australia’s Energy Security Board, Kerry Schott, that the plan was not commercially viable.

‘Modern libs’ silent

The ‘modern libs’ were silent after energy experts warned the government’s open-ended intervention in the energy market would depress private sector investment in renewables. They were silent after the International Energy Agency said, the day after Morrison’s announcement, that to reach net-zero emissions in 2050, and thus avoid catastrophic climate change ‘we do not need any more investments in new oil, gas and coal projects’.

The Snowy Hydro Authority, which is expanding hydropower under an initiative of PM Turnbull, will now also build the new gas-fired power station.

‘Modern liberals’ have abjectly failed the majority of their electorate – Liberal, Green and Labor – who want strong action on climate change.

Morrison’s move is to pay no mind to the pressing public interest, but to wedge Labor in their marginal seats. And Labor has stepped away, frightened.

Turnbull bemoans absence of climate change policy

After the budget, Malcolm Turnbull addressed an energy conference to bemoan its absence of climate change policy before the gas-fired power station announcement. Asked what it would take for the Morrison Government to change course he replied: ‘At this stage, I’d say only the prospect of electoral defeat, whether that’s at the hands of the Labor Party, which would seem implausible, or independents who are supportive of climate action’.

Turnbull and John Hewson, two ‘modern liberal’ leaders – are now all in on finding a way to force the Liberal Party to act in the public interest, even if it means backing quality liberal independents.

Morrison thinks he’s got the trick to win the next election, and it’s based on the assumption that moderate liberals in safe seats will hold their noses and vote Liberal.

The Liberal Party has swung right and conservative Christian

Cathy McGowan, the retired independent MP for the Victorian regional seat of Indi, put it this way to me last week: ‘The Liberal Party has swung right and has swung conservative Christian’.

So what are cosmopolitan liberal voters to do? She said, ‘I say to them, “It’s only going to get worse, so how are you going to vote”?’

In safe Liberal seats with significant numbers of moderate Liberal voters, we need a modern liberal independent who attracts enough first preference votes from Liberal, Labor and Greens voters to finish second after dragging the sitting Liberal MPs’ vote down below 45 per cent, then winning on preferences. Like Cathy McGowan did to beat Sophie Mirabella in 2013, and her successor Helen Haines did to succeed McGowan at the last election. And what Kerryn Phelps did to beat Sharma at the 2018 Wentworth by-election, and what Zali Steggall did to finish off Tony Abbott.

Different political colours must come together

To do that, community members of different political colours must come together and find a quality independent candidate to back, who will attract liberal protest voters, while being attractive enough to left voters to win their first or second preference.

To do that, voters must care enough to actively participate in their democracy, get educated about how the preferential system works and, most importantly, be prepared to work together across party lines to find common ground.

How? One way is the ‘Voices for’ movement, inspired by the Voices for Indi group, which backed McGowan and were turbocharged by Zali Stegall’s success in Warringah.

Denis Ginnivan, a Voices for Indi founder who retired from the group to mentor several ‘Voices for’ groups in other states, told a community conference in Melbourne last week that there are now 36 groups having a go.

McGowan became the unofficial patron of this movement – every seat is different, and all groups are unaffiliated and autonomous – after calling a gathering of interested voters in safe Coalition seats in February to explain the Indi model.

Nurturing genuine participatory democracy

Really, the movement is about nurturing genuine participatory democracy with a view to rehabilitating the democratic concept of representation. You know, the idea that the role of a federal MP is to serve and empower his or her electorate, not advance careers in the party club or self-deal or serve donors in return for a cushy job after politics.

With enough volunteers and donations, they can attract quality candidates who’d never otherwise think of doing politics to stand with the offer of genuine service, good faith transparent decision making on bills, and constant community input. People like Cathy McGowan and Zali Steggall.

Last week, I interviewed architect Linda Seymour, a founder of the movement in the Sydney seat of Hughes, held by climate change denier and pandemic conspiracy theorist Craig Kelly. Before the last election Morrison saved Kelly – who uses his position to soapbox outlandish theories rather than represent his electorate – from deselection by his local branch.

Mocking climate change

Her breaking point was Kelly mocking climate change as a factor in the fires (‘40 degree heat is hard but much harder in Russia, -40 degrees’) the day after two young men died fighting them. She began kitchen table conversations, gathered volunteers, and is searching for an independent to back. The common ground so far – climate change and the need to bring back integrity through a strong federal ICAC.

Linda got down to it when her work dried up during the national COVID lockdown and, heaven forbid, she’s having fun getting to know her electorate and meeting new people of all political colours who also want real change and are willing to work to get it.

And that’s the point. Tilt at windmills, see what happens. As McGowan never tires of saying, quoting anthropologist Margaret Mead: ‘Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has’.

Margo Kingston is an Australian journalist, author, and commentator.

She is best known for her work at The Sydney Morning Herald and her weblog, Webdiary.

Since 2012, Kingston has been a citizen journalist, reporting and commenting on Australian politics via Twitter and her own Web site.

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  1. Modern liberals, like One Nation, etc., are just conservative wolves in different cloaks.
    But beware denigrating and pulling down Labor to replace them with independents. If you do the basic maths you’ll realise that will just put the blighted libs of all names back in for same old rip offs and shenanigans.
    Still much better off with Labor than Libs, don’t let the plethora of right wing trolls tell you otherwise.

  2. Yes, it can be done, Margo – because silence isn’t golden & we’ve been
    given ‘the creeps’ for far too long.


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