It is the sort of affronted disbelief ricocheting around other wealthy Liberal-held electorates, among them Wentworth in Sydney’s east, Curtin in Perth’s oceanside west and Goldstein on Melbourne’s bayside.
In such places, independent candidates are threatening to emulate what Zali Steggall accomplished in Warringah on Sydney’s northern beaches in 2019: to defeat high-profile sitting Coalition MPs. In Steggall’s case, spectacularly, it was former prime minister Tony Abbott.
Climate 200, the fund convened by climate activist Simon Holmes a Court, helps support 22 such independents across the nation, to Frydenberg’s fury.
There are wheels within wheels here. Holmes a Court was a donor and member of Frydenberg’s own fundraising group, Kooyong 200, until he was expelled in 2018 after writing an article supporting the closure of AGL’s coal-fired Liddell power station.
Frydenberg’s resort to the “vibe” comes after we ask him how it could be that he, the Treasurer of Australia, deputy leader of the Liberal Party and member for Kooyong – an electorate famously 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 political strife that he has to 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 government, and has long been touted as a future prime minister.
Polls have shown for months that he is by far the preferred leader of the Liberal Party, way ahead of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and leaving in the dust the other prospective contender, Peter Dutton, should the leadership become vacant.
But Frydenberg concedes, at least implicitly, that he is on the ropes.
“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 come down to about 500 votes.
Last weekend, Frydenberg’s forest of campaign billboards and posters clogging the high sightlines of major crossroads and vacant shops across what used to be called his blue-riband electorate suddenly changed tone.
“Keep Josh,” cried a new message on giant digital billboards above Kew Junction.
The slogan, an implicit plea to his constituents for mercy, seemed something no political figure of status would normally want to try out.
Frydenberg, however, drops a broad hint about another meaning, one that goes a long way to explaining his predicament.
Asked about attacks from his opponents that portray him as a proxy for Morrison and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce – both deeply unpopular in Kooyong, where almost half of the voters have a university degree, fiscal conservatism walks 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.
“It’s my name on the ballot paper and those billboards are a reminder to everyone what’s at stake … and the consequences,” he says.
He won’t add to that statement. But it is no stretch to conclude he is trying to place as much distance as possible between himself and the likes of Morrison and Joyce without quite spelling it out.
On this reading, he is also reminding constituents that the “consequences” of removing him would mean – at least in part – that the leadership and future of the Liberal Party would fall to someone like Dutton, far to the right of what Kooyong Liberals might tolerate.
Across town, however, Monique Ryan is dismissive of the view that Frydenberg is a moderate Liberal.
She contrasts him negatively with the long-time Kooyong MP he replaced, Petro Georgiou, widely known as the conscience of the Liberal Party.
Georgiou famously crossed the floor of parliament in protest at prime minister John Howard’s legislation to force asylum seekers to be processed offshore.
“Josh Frydenberg hasn’t crossed the floor on any matter of conscience,” says Ryan.
She also points to Frydenberg’s controversial intervention during Victoria’s COVID lockdown, when he stood with Morrison in criticising his home state’s harsh restrictions at a time when the vaccination rollout was slow.
Frydenberg bridles at that, calling it “a Labor line”.
He says he was responding to concerns of his constituents, including a GP, that children were suffering depression and that the economic impact on small businesses was immense.
“Someone had to articulate it, and I did,” he says.
Ryan operates from “Mon HQ”, a disused bank on Hawthorn’s busy Glenferrie Road which has been converted to campaign central for her army of volunteers, said to number about 2000.
Disused banks, it happens, have become something of a campaign theme on Glenferrie Road, for opposing reasons.
Ryan’s ex-Westpac building bears the slogan “Kooyong’s Climate is Changing”.
Steps away, Frydenberg’s team has plastered every available space on another old and abandoned bank building with the slogan “Stronger Economy, Stronger Future”. Devotees of irony have turned it into a social media guffaw.
In Ryan’s headquarters, campaign corflutes are being readied for hanging on any friendly front fences still unadorned across the electorate, campaign T-shirts are stacked in plastic wrapping, leaflets are prepared and Ryan herself is in her office, surrounded by advisers, preparing campaign messages for the day.
The bustle is vividly reminiscent of another independent’s campaign HQ, witnessed by this reporter years ago in the city of Wangaratta: that of Cathy McGowan.
It is no coincidence. Ryan’s campaign is modelled on that of McGowan, who in 2013 famously harnessed a legion of volunteers and crafted a community-based campaign that broke the Liberal-Nationals’ hold on the north-east Victorian seat of Indi.
McGowan caused a political shock wave when she won the seat from Liberal Sophie Mirabella.
Her winning formula – laid out since in books by McGowan herself (Cathy Goes to Canberra) and her sister Ruth (Get Elected) – has since been adopted by independent candidates across Australia who wish to draw together what they call the “voices” of their electorates.
While much of Australia locked down during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, McGowan established the Community Independents Project, which by June last year was holding fortnightly seminars by Zoom, advising prospective political teams around Australia on how to field candidates and campaign.
“We give people permission to do what they already know,” McGowan says. “These are people who have been involved in community fetes, fundraisers for schools and footy clubs – all that sort of thing. We simply bring the business of community engagement to politics.”
The thrust, she says, is to declare that engaging communities in politics is a good thing; 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, getting involved with other members of a community in a common cause can be a joy.
Among those who took part in these training seminars were several people interested in flipping Kooyong from Liberal to independent.
Some of them already had experience in campaigning for the former chief executive of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, Oliver Yates, who ran against Frydenberg as an independent during the 2019 election and gained 9 per cent of the vote in Kooyong.
Yates, a former Liberal who says the party left him when he witnessed Morrison proudly holding a lump of coal, says the experience of running as an independent showed him there was a new “tribe” to be discovered.
Ann Capling, a former professor of political science at Melbourne University, was prominent among the group. She and her colleagues set out to find a candidate for Kooyong by placing advertisements in The Age and The Australian Financial Review.
Ryan, at the time director of the neurology department at the Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne, says she was driven to apply by a sense of growing frustration at what she saw as the Morrison government’s failure to adequately address climate change.
“I had to make a decision between leaving a job I loved and making a difference for all our children and their children,” she says. “I felt it was all or nothing: we take action now or we never regain the chance to do so.”
Taking action, she and all the other so-called “teal” candidates declare, is the point of being independent and negotiating with whomever wishes to form government.
Frydenberg, back in his office in East Hawthorn, says the “teal” campaign is not truly independent.
He contends Labor and the Greens are effectively running dead to ensure Ryan runs second to him, and thus, by picking up Labor and Green preferences, has a chance of winning the May 21 vote.
“They’re all in bed together,” he says. He insists “teal” candidates would try to help Labor form government without first declaring their hand to voters “because the teals know Kooyong won’t support Labor. It’s a con job.”
Ryan denies this, criticising Labor for shrinking to such a small target that it has left voters unsure what it stands for and saying the Greens are “insufficiently pragmatic” to force change on governments.
Meanwhile, Frydenberg sits in his office beneath a photograph of Menzies, surrounded by pictures of his family, a certificate of his Number 1 membership of the Carlton Football Club (also held by Menzies and Malcolm Fraser) and snapshots with former Liberal leaders John Howard, Malcolm Turnbull, Alexander Downer and another long-time member for Kooyong, Andrew Peacock.
His own destiny, which is to say his chance of keeping alive his long-held hope of joining that assemblage, approaches.
This time, however, he’s having trouble reading the vibe. The colour teal has blurred the vision.
And however many well-wishers might greet Josh Frydenberg in a Hawthorn park, the spectre of Scott Morrison hovers, largely unwelcome in this golden place where the old Liberal Party was born.
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