How a Group of Female Independents Aims to Revive Australian Democracy

SYDNEY, Australia — On a cool morning at 5:50 a.m., Allegra Spender prepared to dive into the surf alongside dozens of ocean swimmers at Bondi Beach. She was there not just for exercise. She was there to meet voters.

Her name was all over volunteers’ teal T-shirts and swim caps, identifying her as an independent candidate for the Australian federal Parliament.

“Takes a lot of courage, what you’re doing,” said Jason Carr, 50, a security consultant, who came over to pledge his vote. “Good luck shaking things up.”

Ms. Spender, 44, looked down and laughed.

A first-time candidate, she said she still found the attention that comes with politics embarrassing. But that has not stopped her from shaking the political establishment — she is part of a movement of around 25 independents, nearly all of them women with successful careers, who are aiming to do nothing less than rejuvenate Australian democracy by saving it from the creep of corruption, right-wing populism and misogyny.

The so-called teal independents, who tend to share the campaign colors of a Pacific wave, offer a sharp rebuke to Australia’s rigid party system. Recruited by energetic community groups that have formed only in the past few years, they are the public face of a fresh approach to politics that hopes to pull Australia back to the middle with a focus on climate change solutions, integrity and values like kindness.

The “teals” could have a profound impact on Saturday’s election. Prime Minister Scott Morrison, the leader of the conservative Liberal Party, has warned of a “cavalcade of chaos” should too many independents win. But if the vote is close, as expected, and if neither the Liberal coalition nor the opposition Labor Party wins a majority, this group of loosely organized women who share common goals of making government more responsive and productive could decide who leads the next Australian Parliament.

Ms. Spender, center in black, during a swim to meet voters at Bondi Beach in Sydney.Credit…Stephanie Simcox for The New York Times

The gray-haired men fighting for power in the world’s third-largest exporter of fossil fuels — where sexual harassment in politics has long been ignored, where money pours in and out of government without oversight, where conservatives promoting populism make bans on transgender athletes a campaign plank — could soon find themselves forced to negotiate with independent working mothers demanding change, backed by mobilized constituents.

“It’s a rebellion from the sensible center,” said Ms. Spender, who is challenging a Liberal incumbent in a district her father once represented in Parliament as a Liberal, in the days when the party was more center-right.

“No, rebellion is the wrong word,” she added. “It’s a move by people who feel that they are not represented, and have had enough, and are hoping things will change.”

The Indie From Indi

Australia’s major parties are gatekeepers with old operating systems. There are no primaries, and dark money pays a lot of the bills. The parties decide who runs, and those who win rarely break ranks, because a single breach can end a political career.

In many districts, there has long been a sense that political ambition and party loyalty matter more than local interests. And while some of that discontent has flowed to minor parties like the Greens on the left and One Nation on the far right, what’s happening now with independents is more focused on how to improve representation rather than channeling frustration into one partisan wing or another.

It began far from the cities, with a no-nonsense leader. Her name is Cathy McGowan.

A sheep farmer and former president of Australian Women in Agriculture, she reached Parliament in 2013 as an independent from Indi, a rural area northwest of Melbourne. She defeated the Liberal incumbent. And the way she got there was even more groundbreaking than the victory itself.

The process started before her candidacy with a group of local residents — Voices for Indi — gathering to discuss what they loved about their community and what they wanted to see changed. More than 400 people participated in 55 conversations around kitchen tables, over coffee or a beer, after a class or while camping.

Those casual chats led to a thoughtful report that listed concerns from poor mobile phone reception to climate change. It also sought to define good political representation with phrases pulled from the conversations like “walk the talk” and “asks the community what it needs and is willing to listen.”

Voices for Indi was the catalyst for Ms. McGowan’s campaign. When she won, Australians around the country started calling and emailing.

“I was quite surprised by the response,” Ms. McGowan said. “There was huge interest.”

Cathy McGowan in Parliament in 2019. Her campaign sprang from a local grass-roots movement.Credit…Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images

To share what she had learned, she hosted small events in 2014 and 2017.

After another voices group in Sydney helped an independent candidate, Zali Steggall, unseat former Prime Minister Tony Abbott in 2019, the movement suddenly went viral.

Ms. McGowan, who left Parliament that year, passing the seat to another independent, Helen Haines, wrote a book in 2020 that told her personal story. She also started leading conferences over Zoom during the pandemic, connecting hundreds of people with similar inclinations.

Each voices group that emerged embarked on a listening tour and ended up with its own list of concerns. The groups also hosted virtual events with policy experts.

“Political parties have become disconnected from any kind of local membership,” said John Daley, a professor at the University of Melbourne Law School who wrote a major report about disengagement and gridlock last year. “The independent playbook goes precisely in the other direction — it goes back to the original idea of representative democracy.”

The strongest efforts seem to have sprung up in areas with conservative roots, professional families and intense frustration with the tilt away from the political middle by the Liberal-led governing coalition.

Most of the contenders are pro-business, pro-innovation (especially on energy) and proudly pro-equality (on both race and gender).

Their campaigns have been bolstered by money from a group called Climate 200, which has collected more than 12 million Australian dollars, or about $8.5 million, from 12,000 donors to go to 22 independent candidates.

That has led critics to claim they are not really independent. But Ms. McGowan and others, including Simon Holmes à Court, a founder of Climate 200, say the traditional major parties just don’t get that they’ve been disrupted.

The independents and their supporters describe what’s happening as a 21st-century movement, organized on Slack and Zoom, crowd-funded, decentralized and committed to pragmatism.

“Whatever the issue may be,” Ms. McGowan said, “what they want is action.”

Fun … and Climate Change

For first-timers like Ms. Spender, who has worked in education and renewable energy and for the fashion company founded by hermother, Carla Zampatti, campaigning with new community groups often feels like her swim toward a distant buoy with energetic neighbors — exhausting, a little scary, but also rewarding.

After her ocean jaunt in Bondi, she walked to a nearby cafe with all the others. Waiting in line for coffee, Ms. Spender warmed up near other swimmers and a few dogs wearing Allegra scarves. For the next hour, she did less talking than her volunteers.

“This is the alternative to a career politician,” said Jonathan Potts, 51, who said he spends five hours a day volunteering to get Ms. Spender elected. “It’s a different philosophy — we want to look after long-term interests rather than party interests.”

In interviews, many of the independents said they were initially reluctant to run, but had been surprised by how fun it had been to work with an ideas-first, community-driven approach.

Zoe Daniel, a former foreign correspondent for Australia’s national broadcaster who is an independent candidate in Melbourne’s bayside suburbs, said she had been amazed to see young schoolgirls stopping outside her campaign office, taking selfies. There is even a choir that sings songs with “Zoe-ified lyrics.”

An independent candidate, Zoe Daniel, center, greeting constituents in the suburbs of Melbourne earlier this month.Credit…Asanka Brendon Ratnayake for The New York Times

“All of us feel that we’ve made lifelong friends with like-minded people through this,” she said.

Dr. Monique Ryan, a pediatric neurologist who is challenging Josh Frydenberg, the national treasurer, said the local support pointed to the power of “small ‘l’ liberal values.”

In her district, 2,000 volunteers have come out, including several hundred with Voices of Kooyong, who signed up before she was their candidate. They’ve knocked on around 50,000 doors — almost every single household in the electorate.

“We offer something that’s not the normal partisan politics,” she said. “We also offer something that’s very values based. For me, it’s about integrity and transparency and action on climate, which a lot of people feel deep anxiety about. It’s about gender equity, it’s about a more cohesive society.”

Polls show close contests for Ms. Daniel, Ms. Spender and Dr. Ryan. Incumbent independents, including Andrew Wilkie in Tasmania and Ms. Steggall in Sydney, also appear to be in strong positions. The fortunes of some other independents are harder to gauge, but the momentum has clearly set conservative politicians on edge.

Mr. Frydenberg, who has been talked about as a potential prime minister, recently admitted he was facing “the fight of my political life.”

Ms. Spender, at a recent climate event with two other independents — Georgia Steele, a lawyer, and Kylea Tink, a businesswoman — said they were trying to fill a national void.

“I’m angry, I mean, really angry that the moderates of the coalition and even the Labor Party are not taking enough action right now and that other people have to stand up in their stead,” Ms. Spender said.

“This is a national transformation,” she added. “It’s not one business, it’s not one community. It’s all.”

Yan Zhuang contributed reporting.

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