Teal independents: who are they and how did they upend Australia’s election?

·7 min read

There was a historic move of voters away from the two major parties in Saturday’s Australian election, and towards independent and Greens candidates who campaigned primarily on a stronger response to the climate crisis. So who are these new MPs, and what do they mean for Australian politics as the new Labor government under Anthony Albanese takes power?

Who are the ‘teal’ independents?

Independent candidates who ran on a strong climate platform in formerly safe Liberal party seats have been labelled the “teal” candidates, because they represent a voting base with conservative fiscal politics – blue is the traditional colour of the centre-right Liberal party – combined with green views on climate.

Teal has become the preferred colour for many of the independent campaigns, starting with Zali Steggall, who defeated the former prime minister Tony Abbott in the seat of Warringah, on Sydney’s northern beaches, at the 2019 election.

Most of the teal independents, although notably not Steggall, received some campaign funding at this year’s election from a group called Climate 200. It was established by the Melbourne philanthropist Simon Holmes à Court in 2019 and provided funding to independent candidates who made climate action, political integrity and gender equality the main planks of their campaign – and who could match Climate 200’s contribution with their own fundraising.

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Steggall comfortably retained her seat in Saturday’s election. That much was expected, but there was also a spectacular upheaval across formerly rock-solid Liberal seats in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth.

In Sydney, two more electorates on the leafy north side of the harbour – North Sydney and Mackellar – were won by the independents Kylea Tink and Sophie Scamps, a local GP. Wentworth, which covers Sydney’s eastern harbour suburbs and Bondi beach, also fell, to the independent Allegra Spender, the daughter of the designer Carla Zampatti and John Spender, a former Liberal shadow minister in the 1980s. The electorate is the wealthiest in the country, and was previously represented by the former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.

In Melbourne, Monique Ryan, another doctor, won the similarly blue-blood seat of Kooyong from the now former treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, who would have been the favourite to lead the Liberal party following its national defeat had he held the seat. Zoe Daniels, a former journalist with the ABC, won the bayside seat of Goldstein from the prominent backbencher Tim Wilson.

And in Western Australia, Kate Chaney, the niece of another former Liberal minister, Fred Chaney, is all but certain to claim victory in the seat of Curtin.

Campaigns in more than 20 seats were loosely characterised as teals (not all used the colour, or took money from Climate 200), but any wins beyond Steggall holding her seat would have been considered implausible only months ago – for five to succeed constitutes a political earthquake.

Other than their policies, the teal successes had several things in common. First, they were focused on inner-urban, prosperous seats, held mainly by Liberals on the moderate wing of the party. The campaigns ruthlessly highlighted the moderates’ inability to influence the direction of the Liberal party – and even more so its National party coalition partner – on climate action. Second, they were the product of months if not years of grassroots organisation, which worked to select credible, professional candidates and provide a small army of committed volunteers. And third, almost all those candidates were women, who effectively channelled anger at the perception Scott Morrison’s government had ignored or belittled them.

How well did the Australian Greens do?

Adding to the independent triumphs, the Greens recorded their most successful electoral result, adding at least two lower house seats in Brisbane to the one they already held in Melbourne. Max Chandler-Mather won the seat of Griffith from Labor’s Terri Butler – the party’s environment spokesperson, who would have become the minister had she won – thanks to a massive and long-running community-led campaign.

In the adjacent seat of Ryan, in Brisbane’s western suburbs, Elizabeth Watson-Brown defeated the sitting Liberal MP. The Greens also retain hopes in the seat of Brisbane, previously held by the Liberals, but are more likely to lose out to Labor in a close three-way battle.

The Greens also strengthened their presence in the Senate, gaining a seat each in Queensland and New South Wales, with a strong possibility of a third in South Australia, which would take their representation to 12 in the 76-strong upper house.

The Greens leader, Adam Bandt, who was returned easily in his electorate of Melbourne, described it as “a Greenslide”. “This result is a mandate for action on climate and inequality. Our vote went up because we said politics needs to be done differently,” he said.

What does this mean for the parliament?

It is not clear whether Labor will gain the 76 seats needed to govern in majority, although the party’s strong result in Western Australia makes that the most likely result.

If it falls short, Albanese will need to secure the support of some members of the crossbench to pass legislation. That will either involve negotiating with the teal independent candidates, the three Greens MPs, other independent MPs, or some combination thereof.

Even if Labor secures the numbers for majority government, the teal MPs will be able to shape legislation in the lower house, which could involve strengthening Labor’s climate offerings.

The Greens will have those same levers to pull, as well as potentially holding the balance of power in the Senate. They have listed their priorities as placing a ban on any new coal or gas developments and adding dental care to the country’s universal Medicare scheme.

What does this mean for the Liberal party?

With the exception of Wentworth, which was held briefly by the independent Kerryn Phelps following Turnbull’s exit from politics, it is the first time any of the seats have been out of Liberal hands.

The seats targeted by independent campaigns – leafy wealthy suburbs packed with private schools in Melbourne, rich harbourside postcodes in Sydney and the most upmarket suburb in Perth – were the power base of the moderate wing of the Liberal party. After Saturday’s election, that has been destroyed.

On election night, the South Australian senator Simon Birmingham, the most senior moderate left in the Liberal party, said the party was losing its base and needed to return to the centre. “It’s a clear problem we are losing seats that are heartland seats, that have defined the Liberal party for generations,” he told the ABC. “There is clearly a big movement against us and a big message in it. We need to heed the message.”

But others in the Coalition have drawn the conclusion that it needs to move further to the right. The National party leader, Barnaby Joyce, has already suggested his party may drop support for the target of net zero emissions by 2050, which was reluctantly conceded by his party in the leadup to the Glasgow climate summit.

Are all independent MPs teals?

No, the teal independents will be joined on the crossbench by Dai Le, who ran a grassroots campaign to defeat the Labor frontbencher and former NSW premier Kristina Keneally in the Sydney seat of Fowler. Keneally had been parachuted into the previously safe seat in the ethnically diverse and less well-off south-western suburbs, despite living in a privileged enclave on the other side of the city.

The independent member for Indi in regional Victoria, Helen Haines, was also re-elected. Haines succeeded Cathy McGowan as the independent candidate in the seat at the previous election. McGowan’s campaign model, built around having kitchen table conversations with the electorate, was the template for many of the new grassroots independents who translated the model from the country to the city.

There are also two other long-term independents: Andrew Wilkie, who has represented the Tasmanian seat of Clark since 2010; and the idiosyncratic Bob Katter, who has been the member for Kennedy in Queensland since 1993.

Haines and Wilkie have progressive voting records; Katter conservative.

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