Josh Frydenberg’s uncertain future as Climate 200’s independent campaigns intensify

It’s the kind of offended disbelief that has reverberated around other wealthy Liberal voters, including Wentworth in Sydney’s east, Curtin in Perth’s ocean west, and Goldstein on Melbourne Bay.

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In such places, independent candidates threaten to match what Zali Steggall achieved in Warringah on Sydney’s northern beaches in 2019: beating high-profile incumbent coalition MPs. In Steggall’s case, it was spectacular, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

Climate 200, the fund convened by climate activist Simon Holmes a Court, is helping support 22 such independents across the country, much to Frydenberg’s anger.

There are wheels in wheels here. Holmes a Court was a donor and member of Frydenberg’s own fundraising group, Kooyong 200, until he was evicted in 2018 after writing an article supporting the closure of AGL’s coal-fired Liddell power station.

Frydenberg’s resort to the “sphere” comes after we asked him how he, Australia’s treasurer, deputy leader of the Liberal Party and member of Kooyong – an electorate held for 34 years by the founder of the Liberal Party and Australia’s longest-serving prime minister, Robert Menzies, could find himself in such a political struggle that he must contemplate defeat.

He won’t utter that word, of course. Frydenberg has been a federal MP for 12 years, most of them on the front benches of the government, and has long been touted as a future prime minister.

Polls have shown for months that he is by far the favorite leader of the Liberal Party, well ahead of Prime Minister Scott Morrison, leaving the other potential contender, Peter Dutton, in the dust should the leadership become vacant.

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But Frydenberg admits, implicitly at least, that he’s pulling the strings.

“It’s very tight,” he says, referring to the competition between him and the Voices of Kooyong independent Monique Ryan. “It’s in the balance.”

Both he and Ryan say the result will be about 500 votes.

Last weekend, Frydenberg’s forest of campaign billboards and posters obscuring the high sightlines of major intersections and vacant shops in what used to be his blue-riband electorate suddenly changed tone.

Now it's personal: the new billboards for Josh Frydenberg at Kew Junction.

Now it’s personal: the new billboards for Josh Frydenberg at Kew Junction.Credit:Penny Stephens

“Hold Josh,” a new message shouted on giant digital billboards above Kew Junction.

The slogan, an implicit plea to his constituents for mercy, seemed like something no political figure would normally want to try.

However, Frydenberg gives a broad hint about another meaning, one that goes a long way in explaining his predicament.

Asked about attacks from his opponents portraying him as a proxy for Morrison and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce – both highly unpopular in Kooyong, where nearly half of voters have university degrees, fiscal conservatism goes hand in hand with socially progressive, small l Liberal views and more millennials than baby boomers will vote this time – Frydenberg chooses his words very carefully.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce in Rockhampton in April.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce in Rockhampton in April.Credit:James Brickwood

“It’s my name on the ballot, and those billboards are a reminder to everyone of what’s at stake…and the consequences,” he says.

He adds nothing to that statement. But it’s not hard to conclude that he’s trying to keep as much distance as possible between himself and people like Morrison and Joyce without spelling it out at all.

At this lecture, he also reminds voters that the “consequences” of removing him would mean – at least in part – that the Liberal Party’s leadership and future would fall to someone like Dutton, far to the right of what Kooyong Liberals could do. tolerate.

On the other side of town, Monique Ryan rejects the view that Frydenberg is a moderate liberal.

Monique Ryan rejects the idea of ​​Josh Frydenberg as a moderate force within the Liberal Party,

Monique Ryan rejects the idea of ​​Josh Frydenberg as a moderate force within the Liberal Party,Credit:Penny Stephens

She contrasts him negatively with the old Kooyong MP he replaced, Petro Georgiou, widely known as the Liberal Party conscience.

Georgiou famously crossed the floor of parliament in protest against Prime Minister John Howard’s legislation to force asylum seekers to be treated offshore.

“Josh Frydenberg didn’t come around with a conscience,” Ryan says.

A poster in Kooyong shows Josh Frydenberg as

A poster in Kooyong shows Josh Frydenberg as “Treasurer for NSW,” a phrase Monique Ryan used to attack him in their televised debate.Credit:Twitter

She also points to Frydenberg’s controversial intervention during Victoria’s COVID lockdown, when he stood alongside Morrison in criticizing his home state’s strict restrictions at a time when vaccine rollout has been slow.

Frydenberg curbs that, calling it ‘a Labor line’.

He says he is responding to concerns from his constituents, including a GP, that children are suffering from depression and that the economic impact on small businesses has been huge.

“Someone had to put it into words, and I did,” he says.

Ryan operates out of “Mon HQ”, a disused bank on the busy Glenferrie Road in Hawthorn, which has been converted into a campaign center for her army of volunteers, reportedly about 2,000.

Disused benches have become something of a campaign theme on Glenferrie Road for opposing reasons.

Ryan’s former Westpac building carries the slogan “Kooyong’s Climate is Changing”.

A stone’s throw away, Frydenberg’s team plastered every available space onto another old and abandoned bank building with the slogan “Stronger Economy, Stronger Future”. Irony lovers have made a joke of it on social media.

At Ryan’s HQ, campaign basket lutes are readied to hang on all the friendly front fences that are still unadorned across the electorate, campaign T-shirts are stacked in plastic wrappers, flyers are prepared, and Ryan herself is in her office, surrounded by advisers. , preparing campaign messages for the day.

The crowds are vividly reminiscent of the headquarters of another independent campaign, which this reporter witnessed years ago in the town of Wangaratta: that of Cathy McGowan.

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It’s no coincidence. Ryan’s campaign is modeled after McGowan’s, who rose to fame in 2013 for a legion of volunteers and created a community-based campaign that broke the Liberal-Nationals’ hold on Indi’s northeastern Victorian seat.

McGowan caused a political shockwave when she won the seat of Liberal Sophie Mirabella.

Her winning formula – since spelled out in books by McGowan herself (Cathy goes to Canberra) and her sister Ruth (Getting elected) – has since been passed by independent candidates across Australia seeking to bring together the so-called “votes” of their constituents.

While much of Australia went into lockdown during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, McGowan founded the Community Independents Project, which held biweekly seminars through Zoom last June, advising potential political teams across Australia on how candidates recruiting and campaigning.

“We give people permission to do what they already know,” McGowan says. “These are people who have been involved in community events, fundraisers for schools and football clubs – that sort of thing. We’re just taking the business of community engagement into politics.”

The thrust, she says, is to state that it is a good thing to involve communities in politics; that it is possible to make a safe seat marginal, and that once a seat is marginal, it is possible for an independent to win it.

All politics is parochial, she says. And above all, it can be fun to be involved in a common cause with other members of a community.

Among those who took part in these training seminars were several people who were interested in changing Kooyong from liberal to independent.

Tribe of joy: Mon HQ in Hawthorn's Glenferrie Road.

Tribe of joy: Mon HQ in Hawthorn’s Glenferrie Road.Credit:Penny Stephens

Some of them already had experience campaigning for Oliver Yates, the former chief executive of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, who ran as an independent against Frydenberg in the 2019 election, taking 9 percent of the vote in Kooyong.

Yates, a former liberal who says the party left him when he saw Morrison proudly holding a lump of coal, says the experience of running as an independent showed him there was a new “tribe” to discover.

Ann Capling, a former political science professor at the University of Melbourne, was prominent in the group. She and her colleagues started looking for a candidate for Kooyong by placing advertisements in The age and The Australian Financial Review

Ryan, then director of the neurology department at the Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne, says she was driven by a sense of growing frustration at what she saw as the Morrison government’s failure to tackle climate change adequately.

“I had to make a decision between leaving a job I loved and making a difference for all of our children and their children,” she says. “I felt like it was all or nothing: we’re taking action now or we’ll never get the chance again.”

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Taking action, she and all the other so-called “blue-green” candidates declare, is the point of being independent and negotiating with anyone who wants to form a government.

Frydenberg, back in his East Hawthorn office, says the “teal” campaign isn’t quite independent.

He claims that Labor and the Greens are basically dead ends to ensure that Ryan comes in second, and thus, by picking up on Labor and Green’s preferences, has a chance of winning the May 21 vote.

“They’re all in bed together,” he says. He insists ‘blue’ candidates would try to help Labor form a government without first reaching out to voters “because the winter languages ​​know Kooyong will not support Labour. It’s a scam.”

Ryan denies this, criticizing Labor for shrinking it to such a small target that it has left voters unsure of what it stands for, saying the Greens are “insufficiently pragmatic” to change governments.

Meanwhile, Frydenberg sits in his office under a photo of Menzies, surrounded by photos of his family, a certificate of his No. 1 membership in the Carlton Football Club (also owned by Menzies and Malcolm Fraser), and snapshots with former Liberal leaders John Howard , Malcolm Turnbull, Alexander Downer and another longtime member of Kooyong, Andrew Peacock.

His own destiny, that is, his chance to keep alive his long-held hope of joining that assemblage, is approaching.

This time, however, he has trouble reading the atmosphere. The color teal has clouded the view.

And no matter how many well-wishers may greet Josh Frydenberg in a Hawthorn park, the specter of Scott Morrison hangs around, largely unwelcome in this golden spot where the old Liberal Party was born.

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