By John McGregor, a translator and political violence researcher
The Australian electoral and parliamentary systems, including mandatory voting at all levels of government, lends itself to centrist policies and two major parties of government. After the earliest years of Australian national politics, one side of the political spectrum has been dominated by the Australian Labor Party, the trade union affiliated party of organized labor. The other side of politics has been defined by its opposition to Labor.
The predecessor to the Liberal Party of Australia, currently the Opposition to the Albanese Labor government at the federal level, was the United Australia Party (not to be confused with a new party by the same named that was founded in 2013 by the mining magnate Clive Palmer). The United Australia Party was formed out of a mix of opposition parties and a handful of defecting Labor MPs. When the UAP collapsed completely in 1945, its ideological and financial backers transferred their allegiance to the Liberal Party. The National Party, originally representing agrarian interests, has been in a constant coalition with the anti-Labor party for 100 years, even as the party in question has changed.
In the state of Victoria, the Labor Party has been in power since 2014 under Premier Dan Andrews. The state economy in Victoria is driven by services. Its exports of education and associated living expenses and travel alone account for nearly the same value as its top ten goods exports. The education sector is also crucial to propping up the housing sector as it continues to bring more young students to urban areas.
While the former Liberal government under Prime Minister Scott Morrison promoted the coal lobby, gutted higher education, and provoked China, there was little chance of the Liberal Party making gains in Victoria. Endless sagas of abuse, misogyny, and corruption made the Liberals unpalatable in even some of the most dedicated monied electorates. It seemed for a while that some wealthier voters would be forced to hold their noses and vote for Labor or the Greens (or possibly one of the minor parties).
Instead, at the 2022 federal election, the Liberal Party faced challenges in a number of seats from the so-called “teal independents”. Whilst not all of the seats that teal independents challenged were held by Liberal, the majority vast were, and none were held by Labor.
In Victoria, teal independent candidates managed to defeat the incumbent Liberals Tim Wilson and Josh Frydenberg. Wilson’s seat of Goldstein had only ever been held by the Liberals. Frydenberg, however, was the more significant scalp as he was the Treasurer in the Morrison government and the Deputy Leader of the Opposition. He was widely seen as a likely successor to Morrison. His seat, Kooyong, had formerly been held by Robert Menzies, a former leader of first the UAP and then the Liberal Party. In the end, the Liberal Party only managed to win 8 seats in Victoria in contrast to the 24 of the Labor Party.
The teal independents gained much of their support and funding from the Climate200 initiative that was founded by billionaire son of a billionaire Simon Holmes à Court. A former member of Frydenberg’s fundraising arm, Kooyong200, Holmes à Court fell out with Frydenberg over climate issues.
Holmes à Court has said that Climate200 has not extracted any specific promises from the candidates it has supported, and continues to insist that the teal independents are independent. Almost all women, the candidates are united by climate policies that are more appealing to the urban voters than the national policies of the Liberal Party.
The Murdoch media, perennial supporters of the Liberals, howled about the teal independents, but the end result of this relatively recent development can only help the anti-Labor forces in Australian politics. Liberated of the strictures of national policy (and the shame of party colleagues) teal independents can represent the anti-Labor interest in Australia with an agility and local focus that the major parties can’t match.
As a movement, the teal independents haven’t disappeared after the May 2022 federal election, and a number of teal candidates are preparing to contest the November 2022 Victorian state election. At the last state elections in Victoria, in 2018, Labor’s Dan Andrews won a resounding re-election victory over Matthew Guy’s Liberal Party, increasing the number of seats it holds in the lower house from 47 to 55. The Liberal Party, in contrast, lost 9 seats and now only holds 21 seats in the state legislative assembly.
Matthew Guy was removed as the leader of the Liberals after his woeful electoral performance, but the remaining leadership candidates were so unappealing that he was returned to the leadership in time to contest an election he almost certainly can’t win. Best known for eating a lobster with an alleged mobster, Guy must now also contend with the fact that Peter Dutton is the leader of the Liberals at the federal level, not the most enticing prospect to the Victorian urban Liberal voter. The intervention of teal candidates in the forthcoming election will help to stem the flow of seats to Labor and ensure that safe Liberal seats don’t fall into Labor hands.
Even facing the prospect of teal candidates, the state government of Dan Andrews seems unassailable. This should, on the face of it, be a victory for organized labor, but the Labor Party in Victoria is now entirely divorced from its membership.
In 2020, the Victorian branch of the Labor Party was struck by one of its many corruption scandals. In this case, the scandal focused on factional branch-stacking, where members of the various Labor factions sought to promote their own candidates by subscribing large numbers of (sometimes fake) local members (and paying their membership). As a result, the national executive of the party appointed Steve Bracks, a former Premier, and Jenny Macklin, a former Deputy Labor Leader, to administer the state party.
This saw the suspension of all voting rights in the Victorian branch, meaning members had no say over candidates or policy. This in turn led to a large and predictable drop of nearly 20% in membership in Victoria. Despite this, Andrews wrote to the Labor national executive in June 2022 and requested that it keep control over the Victorian branch until after the coming state election, thus deciding all outstanding preselections without input from the declining membership.
Weeks after this decision, four of Andrews’ cabinet members announced plans to resign at the next election. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-06-25/resignation-victorian-ministers-sheds-light-future-labor-party/101181702 A month later, Victoria’s anti-corruption watchdog, IBAC, released a report on the Labor Party. This found there was egregious and extensive misconduct, misuse of public funds, and discovered that the branch stacking had been going on for decades.
The IBAC report, despite its finding, was unable to recommend prosecutions. The IBAC commissioner went so far as to criticize the legislative framework that, according to him, “provides few, if any, consequences for abusing public resources and that allows such conduct to continue unchecked.” In response to the release of the report, Dan Andrews apologized on behalf of the Labor Party and said that he took full responsibility.
As Victoria prepares for the coming state election, Labor is likely to win despite its public corruption and lack of accountability to working people. In the absence of any decent opposition, teal independents opposing the Labor party without the baggage of the conservative Liberal Party will help to protect traditionally anti-Labor seats.