I’m excited by the teal independents – but where’s the racial and ethnic diversity? | Sisonke Msimang

In the last few weeks Anthony Albanese and Scott Morrison have excelled in blandness.

They have been locked into a soulless game in which the person who says the least, in the vaguest terms possible, wins.

Watching the two men on the campaign trail, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this whole contest is simply a personality competition.

But of course, as everyone keeps telling us, the real story of the 2022 election isn’t about the blokes in suits, it’s about a wave of women in teal who have no qualms about saying what they stand for. This is partially true, of course, but I keep waiting for someone to point out the blindingly obvious.

As important as they are as a phenomenon, the independents replicate parliament’s current racial and ethnic diversity problem. If the legislature has begun to see a gender reckoning, it is clear it is still not ready for what a racial reckoning might look like.

The independents’ campaigns have been highly focussed on climate change and integrity, but there is no question that they have also been fuelled by women’s collective anger about the unbearable sexism in Australian politics. A number of the candidates – including Jo Dyer who is running in Boothby, Zoe Daniel in Goldstein and Monique Ryan in Kooyong – have been explicit about this.

So, while the platform they are running on is about climate change, and many of them are backed by the Climate 200 movement, the teal candidates are most certainly responding to the deep-seated misogyny that caused an upswell of anger amongst women across the nation which culminated in the Jenkins Review.

Should enough of the teal candidates win, their rise will be heralded as an insurgency. It may be more appropriate to refer to any success they enjoy as a palace coup.

Despite the seemingly radical impetus that has inspired many of them to enter politics, as Wentworth candidate Allegra Spender has noted, “I am not a radical at all. But there are those who are trying to paint me, and this wave of independents, as such.”

The teal candidates are fighting against a party that served their grandfathers well, but no longer works for them. In the process, they are up against men who belong to their social class.

Teal candidates are contesting the Liberal party in six of the 10 richest electorates in the country. This includes Wentworth, where average net worth per capita is over a million dollars , and Warringah, where that figure stands at $900,000. An independent is running for the seat of Kooyong, where the average net worth per capita is $775 000, and in my electorate of Curtin, in WA, an independent is running to represent an area where the average net worth per capita is $818, 000.

This raises real questions about how progressive they will be overall. Still, given the terrifying recklessness of the Coalition’s climate stance in the last decade, the independents – even if they are as moderate as they claim to be – will push parliament in the right direction.

What is patently clear at this stage is that the elite status of the women at the frontlines of this pushback against the Morrison government is a considerable strength, even as it has potential drawbacks. Who better to unseat the elite, than elite women with strong networks and access to people with deep pockets?

The teals are hitting the Liberal party where it hurts, and it is clear that Morrison is running scared. He has gone so far as to suggest that the teals will herald an era of “chaos and instability” in Australian politics. The idea is inherently sexist of course, buying into old tropes about women as irrational and emotionally unstable.

The Labor party has a better record on gender than the Coalition. Still, the party’s track record of parachuting wealthy white candidates into safe seats – even when people of colour with strong community ties, excellent credentials and bright ideas are available – is dismal.

For all my excitement about the changes that could sweep through politics, both in terms of institutional culture and climate change if enough teal candidates win, I find myself disheartened by the fact that the independents backed by Climate 200 are virtually all white.

To be sure, the decision to run for office requires deep pockets and solid networks. Still, the support of backers like Climate 200 indicates that someone is thinking strategically about who gets supported and who doesn’t. In this country there is always a trade-off between women and racial minorities; as though it’s a zero-sum game.

The lack of racial and ethnic diversity on the Climate 200 list is disappointing, not only because of fairness but because of what it means for the work of climate advocacy. No one can seriously think that the only people who care about climate change are white, so how can it be that the list of candidates has very little to no multicultural representation?

The Climate 200 movement is in its early stages, and it still has time to course correct. As it becomes more institutionalised and perhaps more successful, it must avoid mirroring the overwhelming whiteness of the political system.

Those who support it must know that there can be no climate justice, no genuine movement to reach net zero or to address the burning forests and the boiling seas, without First Nations leadership. And without the participation of migrant communities whose places of origin are so profoundly affected, it is impossible to imagine a robust, vibrant and impactful climate movement.

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