If not me, then who?” That was the question Zoe Daniel asked herself when contemplating a move into politics. The esteemed foreign correspondent had a job she loved and a fulfilling home life, but was struck with a rush of responsibility to step up for her community, for the planet and for the next generation.
Indeed, the past two years have been a stream of hardship and heartache for many Australians: bushfires, floods, the existential dread of the climate crisis, a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, a women’s uprising stemming from widespread sexual violence, and lacklustre leadership at every turn. But rather then sit back and despair, some – like Daniel – are taking a stand. She’s one of a group of rookie politicians, mainly women, who are dissatisfied with Australia’s two major parties and are running in the 2022 federal election as independent candidates.
They’re all accomplished professionals and are taking on mostly male Liberals in blue-ribbon seats. “These independents are appealing to disaffected Coalition voters,” explains ABC political correspondent Laura Tingle. “They represent change. To have articulate women who are not frightened to come forward and do it by themselves is probably pretty refreshing to voters who feel jaded about politics.”
While the independents are unaffiliated, they’re aligned in their centrist stance: socially progressive, economically responsible and serious about climate action. Many were plucked from their communities by passionate grassroots groups hoping to replicate the success of independent trailblazer Cathy McGowan in 2013, or of Zali Steggall, who famously unseated Tony Abbott in Warringah in 2019.
The movement has been met with backlash from the Coalition. “[The independents] are a party,” said Prime Minister Scott Morrison in December. “They’re backed by some big money … and they’re about trying to attack the Liberal Party.” The reference was to Climate 200, a fundraising vehicle convened by clean-energy investor Simon Holmes à Court to support “values-aligned” independents.
Candidates interviewed for this story say they follow Australian Electoral Commission donation guidelines, and deny claims they’re a de-facto party.
So what is the power and potential of the independents? “We’re starting this election from a position where there are effectively only two or three seats’ difference between the [major] parties,” says Tingle. As such, just a few independent victories could result in a minority government, with the independents seated on the crossbench holding leaders to account.
Of course, these candidates haven’t proved their prowess in parliament as yet, but they come to the table with intelligence, drive and stellar CVs. “Here are a lot of women who have taken a courageous step – they all have successful careers and would have a much quieter life if they didn’t do this,” says Jo Dyer, the independent candidate for Boothby in South Australia.
Dr Monique Ryan, independent candidate for Kooyong, Victoria, adds, “Someone said to me, ‘Why are all these middle-aged women standing as independents?’ And I said because we’re all competent, capable, good under pressure, good at negotiating and good at getting a result. If you want something done, you give it to a busy woman. We’re all saying, look, this is a complete mess, just give it to us and we’ll fix it.”
Sophie Scamps (Mackellar)
In February 2020, while the air was still thick with bushfire smoke, Dr Sophie Scamps received a letterbox survey from her local MP asking residents to rate the issues that mattered to them most. Two words were missing from the list: climate change.
Scamps, who’s lived in Mackellar on Sydney’s northern beaches for more than 20 years, was outraged. “I went along to a community event with our MP, Jason Falinski, and said to him, ‘If you’re truly a moderate and want action on climate change, we need to hear your voice in the media,’” she remembers. “He looked down and said, ‘Well the problem is you can’t mention the words climate change within the party room because all the Queensland MPs jump up and down.’ I thought, ‘Well how on earth can you represent this community? You can’t even mention the biggest issue to face humanity in centuries. You can’t represent our community.’”
Fast-forward, and Scamps is now stepping up to the plate. While new to politics, she comes with an impressive résumé: she’s Oxford educated, an Olympic-qualifying runner and has worked as both an emergency doctor and a GP. Her platform and policy areas echo those of her fellow independents, blending environmentalism with economics and choosing compassion over corruption. “The fact that a lot of what we [independents] are talking about aligns, shows that there’s a broad mood for change,” she says. “We can no longer stand by and watch this slow-motion train wreck happening in front of our eyes. It’s time to take it into our own hands.”
Kylea Tink (North Sydney)
When the grassroots organisation North Sydney Independents went looking for a leader to represent the local community, Kylea Tink was the consummate candidate. She’d lived in the area for 15 years, raised a family there, launched businesses, served on boards and headed up charities.
“I’m not someone who ever saw herself going into politics,” says Tink, a disaffected Liberal voter. “But I realised that the decisions being made in federal government didn’t reflect my values, nor the values of Australia overall.” She points in particular to the way North Sydney MP Trent Zimmerman used his vote in Canberra last year to block the presentation of the climate bill to parliament, to block the referral of Christian Porter to the privileges committee and to block debate around the establishment of an integrity commission. “I have no doubt that had the North Sydney community been asked if that’s how they wanted their vote to be used, the answer would have been no,” says Tink.
If she is elected, Tink won’t be afraid to lead with conviction. The former CEO of the McGrath Foundation was originally told that a Pink Test cricket match would never work but she persevered to create one of Australia’s most iconic sporting events. She hopes to bring that kind of energy and out-of-the-box thinking to politics. “We need to transition to a sustainable future, to recognise a First Nations voice, to realise the opportunities for gender equality,” says Tink. “People are looking for hope and optimism; the independent movement is active hope.”
Monique Ryan (Kooyong)
As director of neurology at the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne, Dr Monique Ryan has made a life’s work of protecting children. But between the global pandemic and global warming, she began to fear for their future. “I’ve got three kids and I want them to see the Great
Ocean Road and the Great Barrier Reef and go skiing,” she says. “I want them to be able to buy a house and live an independent adult life. These things are all under threat if we don’t take urgent action.”
Born and raised in Kooyong, Ryan was selected to run as the local independent after responding to a full-page ad in The Age (“Four or five people sent it to me saying, ‘Come on, Mon, you know you want to apply, and someone should,’” she recalls). Her challenge now is taking on the most senior Liberal member in Victoria, federal treasurer Josh Frydenberg. “He’s out of touch with our community – I don’t think he understands how frustrated people are,” says Ryan, highlighting government rorts, pandemic mismanagement and misdirected JobKeeper funds to the value of $38 billion. “That [money] could have done a huge amount for adolescent mental health or aged care,” she adds.
Her electorate in Melbourne’s east may be a Liberal heartland but Ryan is adamant that change is not only an option, but necessary. “You can decide in each election which candidate’s beliefs and values are most aligned with your own,” she says. “Football clubs are for life,
political parties are not.”
Zoe Daniel (Goldstein)
Zoe Daniel’s work as a TV reporter has taken her from the melting Arctic to the aftermath of typhoons, floods and bushfires on four continents. “I’ve seen the impact of climate change on people and communities,” she says. “It’s not an esoteric issue for me, and it’s really concerning that action isn’t being taken.”
Last year Daniel was approached to run as an independent in Goldstein, bayside Melbourne, and was ultimately persuaded by her teenage son, who looked her in the eye and said, “You’ve got the chance to do something for us, Mum.”
As well as climate solutions, Daniel stands for transparent economic management, genuine equality and safety for women, affordable housing and integrity in government. “My big concern is the growing trust gap between the leaders and the population – this was something that I witnessed when working in America, particularly following Donald Trump,” she says. “In Australia, we’re seeing a lack of strategy and long-term thinking among our major parties.
There’s an emphasis on getting re-elected and optics, rather than substantive policy.” Daniel describes herself as a swinging voter, and believes the potential of independents in the “sensible centre” is to bring back measured decision-making and accountability – sans game-playing or ego. “I have no ambitions to become prime minister,” she explains. “My aim is to bring about progress.”
Jo Dyer (Boothby)
Jo Dyer wants to “reset the toxic mess” in Canberra, and she comes from a very personal place. Last year, the theatre and film producer was thrust into the limelight when she became a fierce advocate for her deceased friend Kate, who accused former attorney-general Christian Porter of rape. (Porter has denied it.)
“[That experience] really brought home that the federal government wasn’t prepared to take any accountability,” says Dyer. “It wasn’t prepared to respond to those very tragic circumstances in a meaningful way. It was the same with Brittany Higgins: the response was to ignore, to stonewall and to define the issue as a political problem that could be first ignored and secondly managed but never actually solved or confronted.”
Penny Ackery (Hume)
The electorate of Hume, which stretches from the outskirts of Sydney down to regional Goulburn, is humming with energy:
the roads are dotted with cars flashing “Penny Ackery 2022” bumper stickers, and corflutes emblazoned with her face
are sprinkled throughout the streets.
Ackery, a former teacher who has lived in the locale for 28 years, joined the Voices of Hume movement in 2020 and ultimately became its spearhead. Like many, she was disappointed with current member Angus Taylor, the controversial federal energy minister. “People in the community want to be listened to and there’s a lack of consultation from our MP,” she says. “Politicians need to be aware that not everybody’s on $80,000 a year and having a lovely time.” (The area also features posters splashed with “Vote Angus Out” and “Put Angus last. It’s where he puts you.”)
Like her fellow community independents, Ackery is adamant that climate action can be an economic opportunity – an idea particularly relevant to her regional electorate, where a renewable hub in Goulburn could create critical jobs and protect the environment.
Ackery believes that her experience as a high school and special-ed’ teacher will prepare her to lead with empathy and integrity. “Teenagers know when you’re not fair dinkum,” she says, “and if you make a mistake, the best thing to do is to admit it and let them see that you’re fallible. I just think honesty is missing in politics … I hope this is a democratic revival.”