News Election 2019 Paula Matthewson: He won the battle, but the war will continue for Scott Morrison on climate change, asylum seekers

Paula Matthewson: He won the battle, but the war will continue for Scott Morrison on climate change, asylum seekers

Independents Zali Steggall (centre), Helen Haines, and Kerryn Phelps will be key players in the next parliament.
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Despite being urged by Labor leader Bill Shorten to vote for change, Saturday’s federal election result suggests the people of Australia weren’t ready to transform the national government and decided to stick with the devil they knew.

Voters had whinged to opinion pollsters – literally for years – that they’d given up on the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison Coalition Government. Yet the election count, as it currently stands, indicates that voters weren’t actually ready to get out the baseball bats for the Government. As a result, Bill Shorten’s Labor has lost more seats than it gained, leaving the Coalition in government.

While this status quo approach by voters principally benefited Scott Morrison and the Coalition, it also protected a number of minor party and independent MPs who sit on the crossbench and will likely be powerful influences in the next parliament.

Bob Katter, the rambunctious member for the sprawling outback seat of Kennedy in Queensland, was returned with a slight increase to his already healthy margin. The Tasmanian independent, Andrew Wilkie, who is about as far as anyone could possibly be from Bob Katter, geographically and politically, was also returned with an increased vote.

The Greens’ only MP in the House of Representatives, Adam Bandt, got an even bigger boost to his primary vote in the seat of Melbourne, while the Centre Alliance MP (formerly of the Nick Xenophon Team) from South Australia, Rebekah Sharkie, received a smaller increase but still managed to fend off her two-time Liberal opponent, Georgina Downer.

And Helen Haines appeared to have maintained the vote previously secured in Indi by her independent predecessor Cathy McGowan, despite a strong challenge from the Liberal Party. Dr Haines makes history by becoming the first independent to succeed another independent in a federal seat.

There were exceptions of course, with the move to the status quo potentially putting one independent at risk, the recently-elected member for Wentworth, Kerryn Phelps.

Dr Phelps rode into office on a wave of voter disgust over the Liberals’ treatment of former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull at the by-election created by Mr Turnbull’s retirement from Parliament.

So far, Dr Phelps has increased her primary vote, but that may not be enough to prevail over another two-time Liberal opponent, Dave Sharma, now that voter anger over Mr Turnbull seems to have subsided. At the end of counting on Saturday night the pair were split almost 50/50 on a two-party preferred basis.

Of course the biggest exception of all was the stunning victory by independent candidate Zali Steggall in the previously safe Liberal seat of Warringah, where the community rose up against the arch conservative former PM, Tony Abbott. In the case of Mr Abbott, voters were emphatic in rejecting the devil they knew.

During her victory speech on Saturday night, Ms Steggall uttered the words that Bill Shorten probably would have preferred to deliver: that the electorate had “voted for the future” and “when communities want change they make it happen”.

This is a message that should not be lost even though the Morrison Coalition government has been returned. In most cases, voters apparently did not want change, but among the few instances when they did, they elected strong, centrist independents such as Zali Steggall, Helen Haines and potentially Kerryn Phelps.

If the Coalition does not win enough seats to form government in its own right, which is still on the cards, it will have to negotiate with one or more of these centrist independents to establish a minority government.

These ‘moderates with heart’, as Zali Stegall calls them, will push for strong, authentic action on climate change, and more humanitarian treatment of asylum seekers.

In short, Scott Morrison would have to abandon the status quo on two of the Coalition’s most totemic issues in exchange for the right to form government.

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