The ACT community remains strongly Labor with a definite green tinge despite the Coalition election victory. Given the lack of a real challenge to Labor in the three House of Representatives seats, the most interesting local aspect of the federal election for a political scientist was the unsuccessful campaign against Liberal Senator Zed Seselja, a former ACT opposition leader. He has long been a controversial figure in the ACT within the divided Liberal Party, especially since his pre-selection defeat of sitting Liberal senator Gary Humphries in 2013.
He has also been controversial within the broader community. He opposed same-sex marriage during the postal plebiscite campaign and abstained from the parliamentary vote and he was also one of the leading conservative young guns supporting Peter Dutton's challenge to Malcolm Turnbull. Both these indicators are way out of sync for left-leaning, socially-progressive Canberra, which overwhelmingly supported same sex marriage and, 20 years ago, a republic.
In some ways the anti-Seselja campaign mirrored those in other parts of Australia to oust conservative Liberals, including the successful one by Zali Steggall against Tony Abbott in Warringah and the unsuccessful one against Dutton in Dickson.
In the ACT the Liberal Party Senator is almost impossible to displace, despite repeated attempts by the Democrats and the Greens. Yet this time the campaign was concerted. Both the Greens and the Steggall-like climate action independent Anthony Pesec campaigned hard and they were joined by both Unions ACT and Get Up!. Unions ACT ran an alleged $100,000 Dump Zed campaign, using all the usual campaign techniques and having a substantial polling place presence.
Notably the running mate for Pesec, a young renewable energy businessman trying to detach Liberal voters from their traditional allegiance, was former ACT Liberal president Gary Kent. Pesec was loosely aligned with the national network of climate change independents. He claimed only he could beat Zed.
Unions ACT's leaflet visually linked Seselja to Abbott and Dutton. Voters were handed Unions ACT scratchies with the message "Under Zed you will get Zilch" and "Put Zed last. That's where he puts you". Get Up!'s how-to-vote cards urged voters to send a message on climate change and "This time don't Vote Liberal". They urged a vote for the Greens' Dr Penny Kyburz and Pesec because they offered "very strong support for climate action". By contrast Labor's Katy Gallagher was rated a more muted "Moderate Support for Climate Action" (though the how-to-vote card scarcely distinguished between these three candidates).
Seselja, for his part, relished the challenge and did not hide behind the Liberal Party brand. His campaign was personalised as "Your local candidate for the Senate", using his distinctive first name Zed on the T-Shirts of his teams of young volunteers.
The questions raised in Warringah about whether Abbott's social views, especially on climate change but other matters too, were representative of his electorate and even increasingly of Liberal voters in his electorate are relevant in discussing the Zed phenomenon too.
This raises the more general question of whether the major parties should be careful to match their representatives with the demographic temper of the majority of the electorate in question.
The alternative view is that it shouldn't count and doesn't matter, either because voters are so rusted on that they will take whoever they are given by the party of their choice, or because an MP can be a good local member representing their party's economic policies even if they hold personal social views quite different to the majority of the electorate.
These general arguments can be applied to the ACT. Seselja's social views are often (but not always as he is a republican) out of kilter with the majority of Canberra citizens, but not, apparently, with the majority of his party's members.
In the ACT Senate contest, despite the spirited campaign against him, that disjunction doesn't really matter because there are two positions not just one at stake. In a House of Representatives electorate it would, but the Liberals generally can't win such seats anyway.
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The Dump Zed campaign was somewhat effective in the wider community, especially given the national result, to the tune of an anti-Liberal swing of about 3.5 per cent. But that was not enough. Within the ACT Liberals it may have had the opposite effect, producing a backs-to-the-wall reaction. Conservative Liberals may have been emboldened and made more defiant in reaction against any attempt by the wider community to dictate who their party's representatives should be.
But that approach probably can't work at the Legislative Assembly level except in rare circumstances. The light rail controversy was such a test, but ACT Labor survived surprisingly comfortably at the last territory election.
As the most high-profile Liberal figure in the ACT Seselja's conservative brand identification almost certainly translates across to the local ACT Liberals. The local Liberal team contains several moderate MLAs, but the prevailing brand image is conservative. ACT Liberal Opposition leader Alistair Coe insists that doesn't matter because ACT voters will overlook social issues for economic management issues. He also contests the progressive demographics of the ACT, insisting that it is a diverse community with enough pockets of Liberal support to suggest a change of government is possible.
Coe is not entirely wrong, but even the Liberal and centrist voters in the ACT are more like Warringah than Dickson. Social policies matter to them as the federal election results showed.
A strong suspicion remains that a more socially centrist ACT Liberal team and leader would be more likely to appeal to swinging voters in what Chief Minister Andrew Barr insisted in his federal election wrap-up is a socially progressive community.
- John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University