ACT Senate race: can independents chase down Liberal incumbent?


Canberra is one of the most progressive cities in the country. ACT residents are more likely to be highly educated, less religious and better paid than the average Australian, making it an outlier in federal politics.

But for the last 50 years, the two Senate spots in the Australian Capital Territory have been held exclusively by the Liberal and Labor parties. Now in 2022, two high-profile independents are vying to replace the Liberal incumbent, Zed Seselja.

The ABC’s election analyst, Antony Green, says the ACT Senate race will all come down to the primary vote the Liberals can muster. He says if there’s a substantial swing against Liberals, then independent candidate and former rugby union player, David Pocock, will have a real chance.

“If the Liberal primary vote sits in the mid-20s then [Liberal senator Zed Seselja] might lose on preferences as it is likely many Labor and Greens voters will preference Pocock,” Green says.

If Labor can net a primary vote above 33% the surplus votes will flow to Pocock, Green says. In the case that the Greens finish in third place, they would be “unlikely” to beat the Liberals. Green expects many Greens voters to vote strategically for Pocock because of this.

A recent Redbridge robo-phone survey of voting intentions for the Climate 200 group had Labor at 27%, followed by the Liberals at 24% and Pocock at 21%.

Pocock and another independent; constitutional law professor Kim Rubenstein believe that by making Canberra a marginal contest, they can ensure the territory will be granted more funding.

“[Seselja] has been a minister in this government but it’s only just before the election, that we see him. So it’s really not about his ministerial role,” Rubenstein says.

Pocock says there is frustration in Canberra about being ignored.

“We are such a safe seat, as a result of that we’ve had a huge underinvestment in infrastructure,” he says.

Since the start of the campaign, $70.4m in spending has been announced by both parties fort the three ACT electorates. The majority coming from the Coalition and going to Bean, the electorate with the tightest margin of the three. In comparison, the electorate of Eden-Monaro next door, one of the most marginal seats in the country, has received $127.3m.

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Seselja refutes the idea that the ACT is being neglected, believing the whole accusation to be nothing more than a narrative by “leftwing” candidates determined to “make sure that there are no centre-right voices in Canberra”. He highlights the fact that both Rubenstein and Pocock are backed by the Climate 200 group as what he claims is evidence of their disingenuous status as independents.

“The federal government has embarked on the largest investment in Canberra in a generation, the largest in self-government. So is that a result of being a marginal Liberal Senate seat? I don’t know.”

He points to the $2.2b of federal money dedicated to the ACT in the previous term. Which includes investment in critical infrastructure projects such as the extension of the light rail and the establishment of a new Indigenous precinct near Capital Hill.

In the most recent federal budget, only $51m was committed to infrastructure in the ACT compared with states of similar populations such as Tasmania which received $639m – a disparity that Rubenstein says could be solved by revisiting the ACT’s territory status and giving Canberra more seats in the Senate. Labor Senator Katy Gallagher said she understood the sentiment but did not really see it as a major issue that concerned voters.

“I don’t discount the fact that we are per capita underrepresented. If you go to Tasmania you trip over senators, there’s so many of them but you can’t start a discussion about more politicians by introducing a bill,” Gallagher said.

The climate crisis and dirty advertising

Pocock, who is running on a platform critical of the government’s climate policy was the target of an advertising campaign run by the rightwing advocacy group, Advance Australia.

Ads depicting him splitting open his shirt open in a Clark-Kent-like fashion to reveal a Greens logo have popped up all around the ACT in attempt to dissuade would-be conservative voters.

Seselja denied any links with Advanced Australia, despite accusations by the Canberra Times suggesting he had links with several members of the group’s leadership. However, he did not condemn the adverts.

“The problem for David Pocock is I don’t think there’s anything in any of those ads that’s actually incorrect,” he said.

Pocock has a history of environmental activism, having once been arrested for chaining himself to machinery in protest of a new coal mine.

Greens candidate, Dr Tjanara Goreng Goreng, a Wakka Wakka woman and academic says the Greens are indeed the party for climate-conscious voters and being associated with them was a virtue rather than a slur. Pointing to the success of the shared Labor/Greens ACT government that has led the ACT to become the first territory in Australia to go 100% renewable energy.

Disengaged voters should opt for a minor party before going independent, she said.

“Independents always gloat about not being beholden to anyone. What they do not know is that at the Greens there is consensus decision making. Policy is made by everybody who’s a member. It’s not made by me or by Adam Bandt.”

United Australia party candidate, James Savoulidis, agrees with the independents about the need to make the ACT a marginal seat. A recent poll suggests he holds a 6% primary vote which may prove to be significant for Seselja.

Gallagher, who is all but assured of a return to the Senate for Labor, welcomed the wave of independents, saying it was “good for democracy”.

“Politics is going through the disruption that we’ve seen in other workplaces and if we don’t change with it, or aren’t able to adjust, then bad luck for you.” She said.



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