Inside Story

Malcolm’s war of independents

The former prime minister is playing an intriguing role in a closely watched by-election

Brett Evans 14 May 2021 1225 words

Useful ally? Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull. Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

In just over a week a state by-election in Upper Hunter will choose a replacement for the National Party’s Michael Johnsen. Having won the NSW seat by just 2.6 percentage points in 2019, Johnsen was forced by rape allegations — allegations he denies — to resign from parliament.

Along with the untimely exit of their local member, the number one issue among voters in Upper Hunter is how to ensure that coal still has a future in the region. Or at least that’s how the major parties see it. The main contenders are in deep accord about the sanctity of coal: Labor has preselected Jeff Drayton, a former coalminer and a local CFMEU official, and the Nationals have chosen a pro-coal construction manager named David Layzell.

But the former Liberal prime minister of Australia, Malcolm Turnbull, who owns a property in the electorate, has other ideas. Last week he publicly endorsed local farmer Kirsty O’Connell, who is running as an independent. Just like Turnbull, O’Connell wants a pause placed on any new coalmines in the Hunter Valley.

Turnbull’s endorsement drew a quick response from deputy NSW premier John Barilaro, a man who’s never met a lump of coal he didn’t like. Turnbull is an “absolute disgrace,” declared the National Party’s NSW leader, and his actions are “nothing short of treachery.” It’s not hard to imagine him saying less flattering things behind closed doors.

It’s possible that NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian might also be saying a few things behind closed doors. But they wouldn’t be quite as negative — in Turnbull’s view, at least. “I think Kirsty O’Connell will be a phenomenal contribution to the state parliament,” he told the ABC, “and one that — while she would never be able to say it publicly of course — Gladys Berejiklian would privately appreciate.”

Despite being Coalition partners and leading one of the most successful state governments in the country, Barilaro and Berejiklian don’t get on. They are at odds ideologically — especially over environmental policy, and particularly in relation to climate change and the protection of endangered fauna.

Last year Barilaro’s distaste for the government’s efforts to save koala habitats led to a dramatic threat to take the Nationals out of the government and onto the crossbenches. His absurd suggestion was that the party could do this without giving up its cabinet positions — a case of having two cakes, and eating both of them.

It’s important to remember that the NSW government has had only a bare majority in parliament — and it lost that yesterday when Gareth Ward moved to the crossbench after allegations of sexual violence. If O’Connell wins Upper Hunter then the Coalition’s hold on power would become even more difficult to maintain. But the premier might judge that having to negotiate with a moderate Liberal independent could have the happy side effect of making her National Party colleagues a little less powerful.

As well as Turnbull, O’Connell has acquired some other interesting admirers. The independent member for the federal seat of Warringah, Zali Steggall, who famously cut short the parliamentary career of Tony Abbott, has tweeted her support. So has the former independent member for New England, long-time National Party foe Tony Windsor. Indeed, Windsor’s former right-hand man, Graham Nuttall, is serving as an adviser to O’Connell’s campaign.

With a federal election due in the next twelve months, the Upper Hunter by-election has become an attention-grabbing overture to Australian politics’ full comic opera — one that Malcolm Turnbull is doing his best to rewrite to his own ends.

Malcolm Turnbull’s intervention in the Upper Hunter is just the latest chapter in his tumultuous post-PM career. The former Liberal leader has gone thoroughly rogue — and it’s something to behold. When he’s not denigrating Rupert Murdoch and News Corp in an unlikely double act with Kevin Rudd, the Laird of Darling Point has been writing a script you might call “Revenge and Realism.”

“Revenge” because he clearly wishes ill against many of his old Coalition colleagues, particularly the hard right of the Liberal Party and the National Party in toto, who together worked so diligently to bring him down. And “Realism” because he genuinely believes Australia is facing a reckoning when it comes to climate change.

As Turnbull has said many times, an issue that should have been a question of economics and engineering has become — with the aid of the Murdoch media — dangerously beholden to ideology and idiocy. With every day of delay, he argues, the cost of shifting to a post-carbon economy becomes higher. And he clearly sees a role for small “l” liberal independents in fixing this national delusion.

After the Australian recently published an article by political editor Dennis Shanahan based on an email interview with Turnbull, the former PM published the exchange of questions and answers in its pristine form on his website. It offers a fascinating insight into Turnbull’s thinking.

“There are currently three independents in what had been hitherto ultra-safe Liberal seats: Indi, Mayo and Warringah,” he notes at one point. “In each case they are held by small ‘l’ liberal women who share a commitment to taking effective action on climate change. In those seats, traditional Liberal voters, fed up with what the party has been presenting them, have chosen to vote for the candidates, or types of candidates, they believe the party should have presented. In all three cases unpopular Liberal members were defeated and that was a big motivator behind the independent vote… I do think there is a real prospect of more Liberal and indeed National seats falling the same way.”

A rough translation would read: get your act together on climate change Coalition MPs, or the independents will come for your seats. Turnbull also notes that once independent MPs get elected, they keep winning. In Mayo, Rebekha Sharkie has won three elections in a row, including a by-election. Cathy McGowan won Indi twice, and was then able to transfer her support to fellow independent Helen Haines, who won in 2019. “I would be surprised,” Turnbull predicts, “if Zali Steggall does not retain Warringah.”

When Scott Morrison won the “miracle election” in 2019, Turnbull was probably even more shocked than Bill Shorten. They won without me? would have been his first thought. Then he would have dwelled on the fact that they avoided punishment for their destruction of (his) sensible climate change policy. There must be another way to make them see the light.

Now he seems to believe the Coalition can only be reformed by a tribe of Liberal independents stamping on the ambitions of career politicians and forcing them to tackle climate change or risk losing their seats. But if the independent wins in Indi and Mayo and Warringah are any guide, this will only happen if strong candidates are backed by ordinary Australians who think democracy is too important to be left to the professionals.

Would support from a former PM help? Or would it hinder a proud independent by calling into question how truly independent he or she is? Being authentically independent, and advocating for a new style of politics, is what makes these candidates so attractive to voters.

Are we about to learn how much a political endorsement from Malcolm Turnbull really counts? •