Zali Steggall on disrupting the status quo: @margokingston1 #WarringahVotes #podcast

In the last few days of the campaign, Margo Kingston (@margokingston1) catches up with Zali Steggall (@zalisteggall) the Independent taking on the seat of Warringah currently held by former prime minister Tony Abbott.

Full transcript

Margo Kingston: Hello, Margo Kingston here, I’m in Cowper where Rob Oakeshott is being fired on with very heavy gunfire, and I’m talking to Zali Steggall in Warringah who has been subject to probably the most extraordinary attack I’ve ever read, by a relative of her rival, Tony Abbott.

Hello Zali, tell the listeners the advice you just gave me.

Zali Steggall: Good morning. Look, you don’t worry about what you can’t control. So for me, I don’t worry about the result, I worry about my process and what I can put in. So at the moment, it’s head down and hard work.

Margo Kingston: I’d just like to read what Tony Abbott’s sister Christine Forster said. She said that you weren’t a candidate of principle, but you were a person of self-interest and opportunism.

This is a candidate and a party that has sniffed a whiff of discontent on climate change policy in the genuine centre and is swooping to exploit that, with the covert help of Labor and its allies.

Christine Forster

Where is that coming from and how do you respond?

Zali Steggall: Look again, I think she’s doing herself and Mr Abbott more harm because all that shows is the blinkers that we in the electorate feel he has on for so long, she clearly has on as well. And it’s that complete lack of even acknowledging where the sentiment of dissatisfaction is, what the role of the representative is, in terms of the need in your community and actually representing your community, not your personal views. And again, even her assessment of me — she’s never met me, she’s never come and talked to me — so her assessment is a completely superficial and misconceived, and really the only thing that article will do is reflect poorly on her.

Margo Kingston: So you haven’t got any feeling from the electorate that this sort of very heavy attack is hurting you?

Zali Steggall: No, I actually think it’s counterproductive. It’s the very things that people are tired of. The whole closing ranks saying nice things but no real results to deliver — no real vision for the future.

I believe she was on 4BC today, you know it’s like open mic sessions for spin! It’s like non-stop propaganda, but there are no facts. There is no real policy or no real vision. And I think that’s where people are really tired, and look, I think it’s about those political parties. People are so tired of the spin, too much spin and no real action.

Margo Kingston: Zali, did you read The Conversation report of its focus groups of soft voters in Warringah?

Zali Steggall: I did.

Margo Kingston: It was really interesting, the three things I picked up from it, was that some feel that there are too many unknowns about you.

Zali Steggall: First, we need to go to the core of that report, and I gave Michelle Grattan credit for being a better quality journalist than that I must say. There’s no disclosure as to the process by which the people were selected. We’re talking about a very small group of 34, some of which are not even residents of Warringah.

Margo Kingston: Really?

Zali Steggall: Again, one has to go back to actually look at the credibility of the information that has been written about first, and that doesn’t appear anywhere in that article. So, look, I take onboard that for some people that may be the view, but then again, I’m rather sceptical to the exercise that went into that article.

Margo Kingston: One of the things that did worry me in it, what people said was that your very clear opposition to franking credits and negative gearing changes hadn’t cut through, and I assume that’s partly because Tony Abbott has been sending trucks around and going door-to-door, lying about that policy. Do you have a strategy to try and make that clear in the last few days?

Zali Steggall: As an independent, we have done as heavy a campaign as we can to get the message out, I’ve worked absolutely around the clock in meeting community groups and really coming to assess what are the needs of our community, where are the areas of priorities. I’ve been really clear that an area of priority is mental health and local community groups.

And so I don’t believe that is properly reflected in that article, or in terms of how that’s viewed. I can only go on my experience, and my experience when I’m standing at the pre-polls is people walking past, and I have had people say they are encouraged on the approach for mental health, whether it’s on local issues, whether it’s on climate, whether it’s truth in political advertising, whether its on national anti-corruption commission.

So, it is getting through, of course, you’re not going to reach everybody, we’re doing our best and I will have an open-door policy to make sure I am in touch and accountable to the electorate and to the people.

Yes, there’s been a very heavy negative campaign against me, but we always knew that was going to happen. Look, what’s been interesting is that traditional media has been drawn into giving character references for a political candidate, in Mr Abbott, has been quite amazing. You know from The Sydney Morning Herald, for example, the amount of completely partisan articles written as op-eds, it’s quite interesting just the amount of partisanship there is, but look, people aren’t silly, people in the electorate who experience it from day to day, they know what the issues are, what’s been done in twenty-five years, you can put a ribbon on it all you want but the facts are the facts.

Margo Kingston: I suppose this is going backwards a bit, but one Tweep asked this question that I thought was interesting: Is this the first time in your life that your character has brought into question, and if so, what’s that feeling?

Zali Steggall: I think it reflects more on the person bringing it up than on me.

Again, I know myself, and the people who truly know me, know my character, I know what I strive to achieve and what I’d like my contribution to be.

It’s in wanting to be recognised or justified, that I think you identify more where your own issues are. Based on my character, at the end of the day, I’m happy to be judged on my results. As an athlete you’re very much judged on what step of the podium you’re standing on, I’m used to that kind of harsh assessment, so at the end of the day, it’s about judging whether you’re delivering or not.

Margo Kingston: I’ve had a few questions, and I think they are understandable, people saying: “You know she’s in a rich seat, she’ll look after the privileged, she won’t care about the underprivileged” — so I’ve had a couple of interesting questions in that regard, one is, do you support Newstart bring raised?

Zali Steggall: Yes, I do.

Margo Kingston: Can you tell us why?

Zali Steggall: Because I don’t think the level it’s at at the moment is a liveable level. I’ve just come from a briefing on homelessness, domestic and family violence — real issues in our local area. I totally agree we need to do more to help the more vulnerable in our society, and I do accept that Newstart is too low and is not something that can be lived on.

It is always a balancing process, so it’s about working with the treasurer in the government of the day, to make sure we find the right balance between incentives to encourage and make sure we create more opportunities for employment, and providing the right amount of support for periods when there isn’t employment.

Margo Kingston: Now, on climate change, my impression is that your policies are more radical than Labor’s. Do you think you could give us a sketch of how much further you would like to see climate policy go than Labor is suggesting?

Zali Steggall: Look I think they’re playing a safe bet because they are worried about the unions. I think they have to accommodate for that sway within their own, which I disagree with. So as a result, they are walking a fine line between offering a better future policy on climate change than the Coalition, but look, that’s not hard. The Coalition’s are non-existent, so you’re not really having to lift your head too far to get to that.

I’m going on the briefings of the industry groups, whether it’s economists, whether it’s scientists, in terms of finding where the line is, between what we need to achieve with stability in our climate and to reverse global warming, or at least arrest it; because it is — let’s not kid ourselves — we have a window of opportunity to take action, so that in the next ten to fifteen years, we can arrest and slow down global warming, and hopefully keep it to about 1.5 degrees. If we get beyond the two, and we’ve got to be real, we’re on track for three and four degrees global warming, so we have to be real that it’s going to take some measures.

Now, I support Labor’s measures, in terms of moving to renewable energy, in terms of an orderly retirement of coal, but I don’t agree it’s about setting that target. Again, it’s always what you understand in terms of a target, targets can always be re-assessed. Part of the Paris Accord required a review by countries, of what their reduction of emissions and what their targets were going to be on a regular basis. Now that review comes up again in 2020, so the real question is what is the next level that’s achievable.

I believe that you really need the market to determine what’s achievable, and that’s why I am a big supporter of a Reserve Bank-style, an independent commission that sets our pathway between balancing the economic opportunity and cost and environmental urgency and opportunity so that the two can be achieved. Now, talking to economists and people who are much smarter than me, I am very reassured that there is a path left forward, and there are countries doing it — we just simply need to do the same.

So yes, I’m more ambitious than Labor because I believe the market will do it. Already when you look at the numbers over the last two years, the level of investment that has been possible, if we can encourage that to continue, it is possible to do more.

And look, I don’t think Labor is going to cap it, I think they are playing a safe hand. I don’t think they would have led the way on climate but for independents who have made this a climate change election, to make sure there’s a topic that is not going to be swept under the carpet, that’s not going to be the fifth or sixth policy on the list of priorities — it must be number one.

Margo Kingston: Do you agree with me that the Wentworth by-election put climate change centre stage, and the result gave Labor the courage to get on the front foot because they’ve always been scared after the carbon tax scare, that it almost led to a renaissance in people going “Yeah — what about climate change?”

Zali Steggall: Well look, I think climate change has been the single most destructive issue for prime ministers in this country, so it’s understandable that anyone would touch it with gloves. But we just have to deal with it, it has to stop, the political football, the games has to stop. I’ve been really disappointed that Scott Morrison and the Coalition are just ignoring the problem.

The platitudes are still ‘we really believe but we don’t really’ — there really isn’t a clear message, and I think so many moderates within the Coalition must be absolutely dying to speak out — is the only thing I can think of it.

Margo Kingston: But they have no power, and that’s why I actually see the Warringah contest in metaphoric archetypical terms is that it’s a battle between liberalism and hard-rightism and its being fought in Warringah, and you’re the person leading — it’s that big isn’t it?

Zali Steggall: I think it does have those overtones because I know from the base and the people supporting me, that it is very much the sensible centre moderates who are just so frustrated by the status quo.

I think the rise of independents, and I think the Wentworth by-election where climate change was very much on the agenda.

But look, I’ve spoken to John Hewson whose seat that was for many years. He has always been a real champion campaigner on behalf of the climate, and he acknowledges that the Liberal Party has known about the need to take action for many, many years — 20 years, 25 years — and the frustration at the lack of long-term vision of how to get there and do it, is palpable, for so many people that you talk to.

So I think that Wentworth has helped maybe Labor be more courageous on climate change policy, but there are still question marks: holding them to account on Adani, on permitting or considering coal-seam gas or fracking in Queensland. You can’t say one thing and not act post-election, so it’s going to be very important to hold whoever is in government to account on those decisions that affect all of our long term future.

Margo Kingston: Did you see QandA last night Zali?

Zali Steggall: I was actually doing a live cross for the ABC, so I only saw bits of it.

Margo Kingston: Helen Haines in Indi was asked what would be your conditions to give confidence if there was a minority government and asked who would you support, and she said: “That’s not the way I see it, I see it in terms of policy and I will give confidence to a government who has good policy on rural health, regional health, regional infrastructure, and how the regions can participate in the climate change transition”, and I was wondering if you saw it in those terms, that if you were in that position, what would be your bottom line to grant confidence to a government?

Zali Steggall: Look, I’ve had that question asked a lot, it’s about being true to my platform and the policies. So for me, I totally agree with Helen in that point of view, that it has to be about our long-term policy for climate change. This can’t continue the way it is, it’s just got to stop, so it is about coming to the table.

My preference is a Coalition. I’m in a conservative seat, I’m a moderate myself, that is my preference. Of course, I totally support that it’s about looking at the issues. So it might be of supplying confidence but very different when it comes to specific policies and issues.

Margo Kingston: One question from a Tweep — we’ll end up on this — prejudging a bit, but where and how will you celebrate Saturday night, it feels close to me, does it feel close to you?

Zali Steggall: Close — as in the outcome of the election?

Margo Kingston: Warringah’s going to be close isn’t it?

Zali Steggall: Yeah — I don’t know. If one goes by the polling, maybe not. But at the same time we are asking people to really change their ways and it is a referendum on whether you want more of the past, or do you want a different future. It’s a really clear question for people, and people of all political inclinations. So whether you’re traditionally a Labor voter, a Green voter, an independent voter, a Liberal voter — everybody at this election, in Warringah at least, has to stop and think — who am I giving my number one vote to and does that that person have my future and my best interests at heart?

Margo Kingston: One thing I’ve noticed since covering independents over the years is that they have to unite the community in order to win. They have to get a coalition of blue, red and green progressives, who will be uncomfortable about some things, but who will get the best possible result for the electorate. One of the reasons I think the government is coming so hard against the independents is that it is a challenge to the system to present a united seat, do you know what I mean?

Zali Steggall: Absolutely, it’s a challenge to the very nature of political parties — and the relevance of political parties, that’s what they don’t like about it, let’s be clear here.

The reason there are so many conspiracy theories thrown out there or so much non-stop attacks — you know there has been a negative story about me, and a positive story about Mr Abbott in the The Australian and The Telegraph for nearly every day since this campaign started.

Margo Kingston: Indeed.

Zali Steggall: It is a challenge to their status quo, and they like their power. So they aren’t going to relinquish their power lightly, but what they have all lost touch with is that the power actually comes from the people. At the end of the day it is people voting that entrusts the authority into a party to form government.

Margo Kingston: If they are prepared to use it Zali, if they’re prepared to use it.

Zali Steggall: Absolutely, but what you’ll find is a vast majority are concerned. There are different times in history where people get to a point where they really do stand up and say enough is enough and it’s actually time for a new direction. It is a really interesting time, the whole climate change has been kicking around for twenty years, and people are physically experiencing the extreme weather events, people in regional areas are facing droughts, there are huge issues for people living on the land that we need to address and we can’t keep ignoring it — this is not a time to put your head in the sand and try to ignore what’s happening.

Margo Kingston: Just one final observation, I just loved the independents’ video because it brought together city, regions and country, and I just love the thought of you sitting next to Ray Kingston of Mallee in the parliament, you know that idea that it doesn’t have to be right versus left, and it also doesn’t have to be city versus country — jeez, wouldn’t that be nice.

Zali Steggall: Well, I think it gives us something to look forward to, some hope. There are always more things that unite us than divide us. there’s no doubt about that. It is actually about finding the common ground, finding the common concerns — that’s really important. It’s not about city versus regional, it’s not about old versus young, it’s not about wealthy versus poor, it’s actually about finding the common ground and where we can create a better future.

I do think independents bring so much because there is a willingness to collaborate, look at the issues on a factual basis, issue by issue, not just have a party, some shadow organisation in the background telling you what you can or cannot comment on.

I find its quite interesting how pervasive the control of the parties has become.

Margo Kingston: Well, ‘if you don’t do what we say, you won’t get a promotion’.

Zali Steggall: Exactly.

Margo Kingston: Well you haven’t got that with independents. That’s not your goal, is it?

Zali Steggall: What I find interesting is that it creates a real conflict of interest. I mean as a barrister we deal with this a lot because our first duty is to the court, we are officers of the court. You have to be very clear about where your duty lies, and I think that for representatives, the real issue is, when they are elected from a party — is their duty to the party or to their electorate? And what happens when those two interests diverge?

Margo Kingston: Zali, good luck, thank you very much for speaking with me, and I really hope you’re celebrating Saturday night, and I hope your party is as good as Kerryn’s was.

Zali Steggall: First of all, I’d say to everybody — support independents. I think independents will deliver for all communities and good luck to everyone.

  • Want to listen to Margo’s first podcast with Zali? [Listen here]

Find out more about Zali’s campaign in Warringah via the links below:-

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  1. Susana Stock says

    A great interview. Thanks.

  2. Sara Dowse says

    Thanks, Margot. We’re all working hard for a Zali victory – she’s been a terrific candidate, our hope for Warringah and a gift to the rest of Australia.