Australia's ruling coalition under threat from 'teal' independents

Students at a rally in Sydney demanding further action on climate change, on May 6, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY - In the leafy electorate of Kooyong in Melbourne, it is almost impossible to venture outside without running into signs featuring the smiling face of Mr Josh Frydenberg, Australia's media-friendly treasurer, who is much more popular than Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

But the sea of campaign posters - many of which say "Keep Josh" - is a telling sign that Mr Frydenberg of the Liberal Party, who is seen as a future prime minister, is facing a serious risk of losing his seat.

With less than two weeks till the federal election on May 21, Mr Frydenberg is fighting for his political survival against an independent candidate, Professor Monique Ryan, who is a former paediatric neurologist.

Prof Ryan is one of the "teal" independents, a group of high-profile, mostly female candidates who are seeking to topple moderate Liberal MPs in safe, mainly inner-city progressive-leaning Liberal seats. These independents all share a belief in the need for stronger climate action, an anti-corruption commission and more progress towards gender equality.

Prof Ryan says on her website that she is not "blue, red or green" and is motivated by values rather than ideology.

"No one party can expect me to step away from my conscience," she says.

Many of these independents have campaigned using the colour teal, a blue-green colour, which highlights that they support the conservative blue-coloured Liberal party's agenda but are disappointed with the record of the current Liberal-National coalition on issues such as climate change.

They present a potent danger because they are directly targeting traditional Liberal voters who are disappointed with Mr Morrison but would not be willing to vote for the Labor opposition party.

Internal Liberal party opinion polling reportedly found that Mr Frydenberg is currently at serious risk of losing his seat. This would be dire for the ruling coalition, which holds just 76 seats in the 151-seat House of Representatives.

At least five other moderate Liberal MPs could lose to teal independents in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth.

Analysts believe there is a growing chance that neither the coalition nor Labor will win an outright election victory, which could leave these independents holding the balance of power. Most of the independents have avoided commenting on which party they prefer.

The coalition has attacked the independents as "fake" and a "con", suggesting that they are effectively a Labor-aligned political party because they are mainly targeting Liberal MPs.

The coalition has also pointed to the backing that the candidates are receiving from Climate 200, a fund-raising body founded by Mr Simon Holmes a Court, a clean energy investor.

The body has reportedly raised about A$12 million (S$11.8 million) for a group of 22 independent candidates.

Mr Morrison warned this week that the election of independents could lead to a minority government that would be unstable and damage economic recovery.

"A vote for independents is a vote for parliamentary chaos," he told ABC News.

But some analysts say the last minority government - led by Labor leader Julia Gillard from 2010 to 2013 - was successful and passed more legislation than any other Australian government, including a carbon tax and major overhauls to education and disabilities programmes.

Professor Monique Ryan, a former paediatric neurologist, is currently challenging Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg for his seat in Melbourne's Kooyong. PHOTO: DR MONIQUE RYAN/FACEBOOK

Notably, former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, who was ousted by the Liberal Party in 2018, indicated this week that voters who are concerned about the party's stance on climate change and other issues should consider voting for the teal independents.

"Even if the members of a political party cannot escape from the thrall of the dominant faction, their traditional supporters in the electorate can do so by voting for an independent who has a real chance of success," he said in a speech to the Harvard Club of Washington.

Back in Kooyong, Mr Frydenberg held a one-on-one debate with Prof Ryan at a town hall last Thursday.

He told the audience: "We do not, in Australia, need the uncertainty, the chaos and the confusion of a hung Parliament".

Prof Ryan said: "For Mr Frydenberg, politics is about power. For me, it is about people."

A Roy Morgan opinion poll last month found 46 per cent of Australians would prefer Mr Frydenberg as coalition leader, compared with 29 per cent for Mr Morrison, and the remainder for other candidates or uncommitted.

But Australia will soon learn whether Mr Frydenberg's personal popularity is enough to overcome the discontent in his local seat with the federal coalition.

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