Inside Story

A Taylor-made rebellion

The high-profile federal energy minister faces a grassroots campaign in his electorate

Brett Evans 28 May 2021 2413 words

Unassailable? Energy minister Angus Taylor (right) with prime minister Scott Morrison earlier this month. Darren England/AAP Image

Matt Murfitt is a thirty-nine-year-old digital marketer, a married father of three young girls, and a neophyte political activist with dreams of becoming a giant-killer. “I realised I wanted to do something a bit more than make money for banks and big retailers,” he tells me when we meet at his favourite cafe in Bowral, an hour and a half down the Hume Highway from Sydney.

Last year, fed up with how lobbyists and political donors matter more than voters, Murfitt established a grassroots political organisation called Voices of Hume. Its focus is the federal seat of the same name, which stretches from the outer suburbs of Sydney’s southwest all the way down to Goulburn and then west into the farmlands around Gunning, Crookwell and Boorowa.

Though small, Voices of Hume has a big ambition, says Murfitt: “to have an independent installed in Hume, someone who listens to the community, rather than someone who goes into it for their own agenda.” The three-word slogan on his black t-shirt tells the story even more succinctly: “Vote Angus Out.”

Voices of Hume wants to find and support a candidate capable of knocking off one of the Morrison government’s most controversial figures: high-profile energy and emissions-reduction minister Angus Taylor, the Liberal member for Hume since 2013.

Taylor held Hume comfortably at the last election, with a primary vote of 53.3 per cent. But for every Goliath, according to Murfitt’s optimistic way of thinking, there is always a David.

Murfitt and his family moved to Bowral a few years ago. His wife’s family lives in the town and Murfitt fell in love with the people and culture of the Southern Highlands. He’s even produced several short films to help promote local small businesses.

When I point out that Bowral isn’t actually in the seat of Hume — it starts a few kilometres west of where we’re sitting — Murfitt quickly ticks off a list of points. Bowral is an important commercial and retail centre for Hume voters. The voting booth in the town is the fourth most important in the electorate. It’s as good a place as any to base the Voices of Hume “command centre.”

Voices of Hume, Murfitt tells me, has already set up bases in Camden, which sits in the more densely populated northeast of the seat, and in Goulburn, the electorate’s largest rural town. And more importantly, he adds, it doesn’t matter that he lives outside the electorate because he won’t be running. All politics are local, and any candidate for Hume should live in Hume. Furthermore, though he’s an Australian resident, Murfitt was born in New Zealand, which means the Constitution excludes him from contesting any federal seat.

Though he’s clearly done his homework, Murfitt is not a long-time political animal. His formal introduction to politics came only last year when he worked on the campaign of an independent named Karen Porter in the Eden-Monaro by-election. Porter is now involved in a soon-to-be-registered minor party called The New Liberals.

In fact, Murfitt came to create Voices of Hume almost by accident. Through his involvement in an informal campaign to develop an ethical code for media buyers, he met some people involved in the Voices of Warringah campaign, the group that brought down Tony Abbott and catapulted independent Zali Steggall into federal parliament.

The release of Voices of Hume’s Kitchen Table Conversations report at Picton Botanic Gardens on 14 April. Voices of Hume

Murfitt was impressed by Steggall’s success against an apparently unbeatable opponent, and he had a hunch that the mood in Hume was a bit like Warringah’s in the lead-up to the 2019 election. Though Angus Taylor looked unassailable, Murfitt believed that the right campaign, the right policies and, most importantly, the right candidate could tap into a groundswell of anti-Taylor feeling in the electorate.

In April last year he set up a Facebook page to test local opinion about his idea. When he received more likes and comments than he expected, his hunch appeared to have been confirmed. It was like discovering that other people were fans of the same obscure band.

He also discovered that another group was up and running: Vote Angus Out, the country cousin of Warringah’s Vote Tony Out, which played an important role in the political demise of the former PM. It was more evidence of a shift in sentiment. The two groups are friendly, united by a common enemy.

The idea soon took on a life of its own. What to many might have looked like an admirable — though quixotic — project in grassroots democracy appeared to the irrepressible Murfitt like the first shots in a winnable battle for the soul of Hume.

Voices of Hume is just the latest expression of a longer-term trend in our national politics. Australians are no longer as rusted on to the major parties as in the past, and many voters are happy to take a punt on an independent — and not just in the Senate, the traditional home of the protest vote.

Seven crossbenchers currently sit in the House of Representatives, including four independents: as well as Zali Steggall in Warringah, there’s Andrew Wilkie, who represents Clark in Tasmania, Rebekha Sharkie, who holds the SA regional seat of Mayo, and Helen Haines, MP for the Victorian rural seat of Indi.

The preferential voting system used in federal elections gives high-profile independents a possible path to parliament. If they can knock their main opponent down to around 40 per cent of first preferences and come in second, then it’s possible for them to win on preferences. With a bit of luck, you don’t even need to come first or second on the primary vote: Andrew Wilkie entered parliament after finishing in third place. Seats regarded as safe — like Tony Abbott’s — can be the most vulnerable, simply because the other major-party candidate can get knocked out before the independent once preferences are counted.

The surge in independents has encouraged an ad hoc movement. In February 2021 several sitting independent MPs organised “Getting Elected,” a national convention to share their experiences with community-minded independents. Electoral insurgencies are brewing in other regional NSW federal seats, including Riverina, held by deputy PM and Nationals leader Michael McCormack, and Farrer, held by environment minister Sussan Ley.

The model for Voices of Hume is the campaign that propelled Victorian independent Cathy McGowan into parliament. McGowan won the rural seat of Indi in 2013 and retained it in 2016. Remarkably, she was able to pass the baton to her fellow Voices for Indi member Helen Haines, who won the seat in 2019. On paper, McGowan looks like a classic small “l” liberal; the type of person who would once have been snapped up by the Liberal Party itself. When she won the seat, she was pitted against a sitting member, the Liberals’ Sophie Mirabella, who had annoyed substantial parts of the electorate.

To build a support base and a set of policies, Voices of Hume is using a technique called Kitchen Table Conversations, which was pioneered by McGowan’s campaign. Assisted by facilitators and note-takers, small groups gathered at private homes or in cafes to share their thoughts about what they see as the big issues facing Hume. Voices of Hume published the findings in April.

In essence, the 267 voters involved in the conversations are interested in protecting the best aspects of life in a rural and regional electorate. Among other things, they want to see heritage buildings preserved and the environment protected, and they want a consultative MP who is committed to transparency in decision-making and interested in creating a sense of community, not dividing people for political gain.

Two big questions now confront Voices of Hume. Can it attract a guerilla army of fundraisers, leaflet distributors and corflute planters big enough to make a difference during an actual election campaign; and can it find a strong local candidate? “I think a lot of people are sort of holding their breath to see what kind of candidate we come out with,” Murfitt concedes.

Hume’s Kitchen Table Conversations asked participants what traits they are looking for in a good local member. Not surprisingly, they want someone authentic, someone with integrity, someone willing to listen to experts when making policy. According to the published report, participants are also very clear about one thing: they don’t want “someone who caters to the most influential lobby group or wealthy donors.”

Murfitt says Voices of Hume plans to organise town hall meetings around the electorate over the coming months to road-test potential candidates in front of voters. Whoever puts their hand up will need a “good personal brand,” says Murfitt. “Are they someone that you would look at and think, ‘I could imagine that person winning’? An independent can win only if the electorate actually believes they’re a contender.”

Any independent candidate who goes up against a sitting member from one of the big parties must also have strong name recognition in the seat.

The late Peter Andren, who held the NSW country seat of Calare, just north of Hume, for eleven years as an independent, had been the region’s local TV newsreader. Indi’s Cathy McGowan was a sixth-generation farmer from a large family with deep roots in the community. Zali Steggall had been an Olympic skier, and if you walk along the harbour shore at Manly — in the heart of her electorate — you will see her sporting achievements commemorated in a plaque. Each of these candidates already had a profile to build on; none was starting from scratch.

Voices of Hume might not be ready to announce its candidate just yet, but it does know who they’ll be running against.

On his own website, Angus Taylor’s biography makes him look like a dream Liberal Party candidate: economics graduate, Rhodes Scholar, successful business career, cabinet minister. But on the websites of the nation’s major news organisations, he looks a lot more problematic.

In December last year, a reader’s survey on ministerial performance conducted by the Australian Financial Review found that a staggering 55 per cent of respondents thought that Taylor had done a bad job in his portfolio, making him by far the worst-regarded federal minister. Readers gave the Rhodes Scholar a D-minus because of his inert response to climate change and his advocacy of wasteful government investments in the gas industry.

Taylor’s past business activities have drawn inconvenient amounts of media attention. In 2017 a company he had been involved in before entering parliament sold some of its water rights to the government for a huge profit without a tender. Cue lots of negative press coverage.

He even became an internet meme after he was sprung making a positive comment on his own Facebook page about his election commitment to build more car parks in Hume. Suddenly the phrase “Fantastic. Great move. Well done Angus” was ubiquitous.

Most famously of all, Taylor was forced to apologise to Sydney’s lord mayor Clover Moore for supplying a doctored annual report to the Daily Telegraph. The report made it look like the climate-conscious council had spent over $15 million on carbon-emitting travel in just one year. The actual figure was closer to $6000. We still don’t know who altered the figures.

Taylor has already noticed the drums of insurrection beating in his normally placid seat. When the online newspaper About Regional asked him about the Vote Angus Out campaign just after the federal budget earlier this month, he was at first dismissive. “They’ve got those campaigns in every electorate — Sussan Ley, Dave Sharma [Liberal member for Wentworth] — they’re all running their stuff, but today is about the budget.”

In the end, though, he couldn’t resist going on the offensive. “If they’re prepared to get above defamation and above grubby mudslinging, I’m always happy to engage on policy — that’s my job — and outcomes for the region, and outcomes for my hometown and my electorate. But while they’re making deeply, deeply defamatory claims, I’m not responding to those.”

As Taylor didn’t mention any specific examples of mudslinging, it looked like a case of using a sledgehammer to miss a nut. The campaign to oust him should probably thank him for those comments: at this stage in the race, all publicity is useful publicity.

Small signs in Hume suggest that a serious, authentic independent might get some traction. In the state seat of Wollondilly, which overlaps with a large chunk of Hume in its northeast corner, an experienced local mayor named Judy Hannan performed very competitively as a centre-right independent in the last NSW state election against the ultimately victorious Liberal candidate, receiving 44.5 per cent of the two-candidate-preferred vote.

If the compulsory preferential system had been used in state elections — as it is in federal contests — and if Labor had polled just a little better, then Hannan could now be in Macquarie Street.

It’s important to remember, however, that Wollondilly only covers a small part of Hume — and the interaction of state and federal politics and election results is complicated.

At the last federal poll in 2019, Huw Kingston, a local writer, environmentalist and small-business owner, ran as an independent against Taylor, primarily on the issue of climate change. Though he only received about 6 per cent of the vote, Kingston’s campaign was exceptionally low-budget. And since then, Hume has suffered the “once in a century” inferno that scarred Australia over Christmas and New Year 2019–20.

Several houses were lost to the fires in Kingston’s hometown of Bundanoon, and in nearby Wingello. Could the memory of those fearful, smoke-shrouded days play on the minds of the voters in Hume come the next election? Could a respected centre-right woman, for example, with a high recognition factor in the seat and a light-green tinge, knock Taylor’s vote below 50 per cent and force the result to preferences?

For the next eight weeks or so, Voices of Hume will be hunting for the perfect candidate to take on Angus Taylor. With an early election in the offing, Matt Murfitt’s little band faces its biggest challenge so far: where do you find a David when you need one? •

Voices of Hume will announce its candidate for the next federal election on 13 November 2021.

The publication of this article was supported by a grant from the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.