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The Spender a generation in the making

Allegra Spender is running for the seat of Wentworth at this year's federal election. Photo: Allegra Spender.

By DANIEL LO SURDO

At the 1990 federal election, 10-year Liberal MP John Spender was ousted from his seat of North Sydney to the late Ted Mack, a grassroots politician known as the ‘father of all independents’.

Thirty-two years later, John’s daughter, Allegra Spender, will contest the eastern suburbs seat of Wentworth as an independent, and hopes to take the seat from Liberal incumbent Dave Sharma. She chuckles at the irony.

“He’s behind me,” the younger Spender says of her father. “I remember being on the campaign with him, and going doorknocking with him when I was eight or ten years old, so it’s funny to be on the other side of it.”

There are some striking similarities – and differences – between the campaigns of John Spender’s successor, and his daughter. Both were prominent figures in their electorates (Mack was North Sydney mayor and the state member for north shore before taking federal office, Allegra is the daughter of late fashion icon Carla Zampatti) and have been seen as counter-tides to the Liberal currents that have dominated the polls for decades in each Sydney seat.

But what differs is the stability of each electorate – Mack’s victory in 1990 crowned him the first (and to this day, only) non-Liberal to hold North Sydney, with the seat seeing just one leadership change since Mack left politics in 1996. In Wentworth, which occupies much of the well-heeled eastern suburbs, there have been three different leaders in four years.

“It’s now a very marginal seat, and I think it’s because those values of Wentworth are not being reflected in Canberra,” Spender says.

Few would’ve conceived it when Malcolm Turnbull held the highest office less than five years ago, and much of the Liberal Party today still wouldn’t care to admit it, but Wentworth is now a bonafide danger zone for the government next month. Sharma rescued the seat back into Liberal hands at the 2019 federal election, but an ultra-thin 1.3 per cent two-candidate preferred margin places the seat totally up for grabs again.

When asked if she thinks Sharma has failed to represent the values of Wentworth in parliament, Spender measures her answer. She says “it’s great” that he supported amendments to strengthen protections for gay and transgender students at religious schools during debate on the religious discrimination bill, but she adds that “he’s not aligned” to the electorate when pushing for climate action at a federal level.

Spender credits this to the “unsettledness” of the seat in recent years, which since Turnbull’s abrupt retirement in 2018, was transferred to independent hands before being returned to the Liberals in 2019.

Climate action the ‘biggest out of step piece’ in Wentworth

During Sharma’s first term in federal politics, he has come under fire for failing to drive stronger climate goals and objectives in parliament. Ahead of the COP26 world climate summit last year, the Morrison government committed to a net-zero emissions target for 2050, but repelled calls for more ambitious 2030 targets, instead keeping to its 26-28 per cent reduction, which it projects to surpass in eight years’ time.

Spender calls the electorate’s climate values the “biggest out of step piece” from Canberra.

“Wentworth as a community is far ahead of where the government is in terms of climate, both from seeing the economic opportunities for Australia of decarbonisation and how Australia can be an energy superpower … and the environmental lens of handing future generations an environmental situation that they can hold onto and continue.”

Zali Steggall, federal member for Warringah. Photo: Facebook.

At a glance, Spender can look to an encouraging precedent of well-known, climate-focused independents winning blue-ribbon seats in a federal election. Three years ago, Zali Steggall, a former Olympian and lawyer, took the traditionally safe seat of Warringah from Tony Abbott, ending the former prime minister’s 25-year hold on the north shore and northern beaches electorate.

“It showed that communities are willing to think independently about what they stand for, and they’re willing to reject a two-party dichotomy and that we’re open-minded enough to choose our own path,” Spender says of Steggall’s success in 2019, adding that she is also taking inspiration from the victory of fellow independent Kerryn Phelps’ at the 2018 Wentworth by-election.

Spender in a Wentworth war of attrition

While Spender holds an enviable standing in the eastern suburbs community, and is pushing policies she says are “representative of the values of Wentworth”, her campaign doesn’t run just on charm.

Spender is backed by the Climate 200 fund, which seeks to donate to independent candidates pledging climate action in Canberra. The fund, which is convened by Simon Holmes à Court, the son of Australia’s first billionaire, supported Phelps’ unsuccessful re-election campaign against Sharma in 2019, and this year will also be supporting independents in the Sydney blue-ribbon seats of Mackellar and North Sydney, which will also be fascinating battlegrounds come May 21.

Dave Sharma, federal member for Wentworth. Photo: Facebook.

The 2019 campaign raised $500,000 for 12 independents and included a $50,000 donation from Australian billionaire and Atlassian CEO Mike Cannon-Brookes.

Climate 200’s backing of Spender is a crucial piece in Spender’s campaign to disrupt the Wentworth status quo, with a war of financial attrition already underway in the east.

Spender has turned in over $75,000 for Facebook advertisements in the last 90 days, with almost $5000 spent in the past week. This more than matches up to Sharma’s strong-armed promotional blitz, who has spent over $41,000 in the last 90 days and $14,000 in the past week.

When asked what it will come down to for voters in May, Spender says that it will be her principles, not her pockets, that will grab the electorate’s attention.

“My ability to listen and want to learn from the community and represent the community is why I think Wentworth should vote for me, because I’m willing to listen to the community and I’m willing to reflect the community in how I vote.”

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