Angelika Heurich explores the ideological influence of attributing the colour teal to define community independents as a collective political identity rather than true independents in modern Australian politics.
Colours have long been used in political campaigns and by social movements to signify political allegiances and collective identities. In Australian politics, the major parties have come to use blue (the conservative Liberal Party) and red (the democratic socialist Labor Party) to differentiate themselves. At the 2022 Australian federal election, colours became significant in the campaigns led by grassroots community groups supporting independent candidates. Although this included a range of colours used by different candidates, one colour of significance led to all community supported independents being referred to as ‘teals’.
Teal has been traditionally defined as a colour ranging from bluish green to greenish blue, derived from a genus of ducks which have this colour around their eyes. Following the 2022 election, a new definition of ‘teal’ was entered into the Macquarie Dictionary, coinciding with both the Macquarie Dictionary and the Australian National Dictionary Centre declaring ‘teal’ as 2022 Word of the Year. The new definition of ‘teal’ is:
[a]n independent political candidate who holds generally ideologically moderate views, but who supports strong action regarding environmental and climate action policies, and the prioritising of integrity in politics.
It has been suggested that the use of teal by many of the independent candidates is a nod to the traditional Liberal blue, combined with green to signify their environmental policy approaches.
In November 2022, Marie Claire magazine announced their list of ‘Women of the Year’. The Teal Independent Members of Parliament (MPs) were named as ‘The Changemakers’, in a tie with Chanel Contos, student activist and sexual consent advocate.
The eight women labelled as ‘teal independents’ at the 2022 federal election have drawn immense media and public attention. Academics are avidly researching the phenomenon, and four new books on the topic were published in late 2022: The Big Teal (October), by businessman and political activist Simon Holmes à Court; Independents’ Day (November), by journalist Brooke Turner; The Teal Revolution (December), by lawyer and journalist Margot Saville; and Voices of Us (December) by author and academic Tim Dunlop.
In addition to the successful election of these eight teal candidates, other teal independent candidates shifted percentage margins in electorates once regarded as ‘safe seats’. Election Analyst Antony Green presented these percentages in a comparison of the 2019 and 2022 election outcomes. This suggests that the term ‘safe seat’ may well become obsolete.
The House of Representatives currently has eleven Independents, with David Pocock elected to the Senate for the Australian Capital Territory. The focus of this article, however, is the women now referred to as teal MPs. For this reason, Independent MPs Andrew Wilkie (Clark, Tasmania) and Dai Le (Fowler, New South Wales [NSW]) will not be included, with Le having clearly distanced herself from the teal label. Andrew Gee (Calare, NSW) became the eleventh independent MP, following his resignation from the National Party.
The eight teal independents are: Kate Chaney (Curtin, Western Australia); Zoe Daniel (Goldstein, Victoria [VIC]); Helen Haines (Indi, VIC); Monique Ryan (Kooyong, VIC); Sophie Scamps (Mackellar, NSW); Zali Steggall (Warringah, NSW); Allegra Spender (Wentworth, NSW); and Kylea Tink (North Sydney, NSW). What is of particular significance is that Zoe Daniel was the first woman to win the electoral seat named after suffragist Vida Goldstein.
Teal was first used as the campaign colour by Voices of Warringah at the 2019 election. The success of their candidate Zali Steggall in defeating sitting member and former Prime Minister Tony Abbott drew immense media attention. By 2022, more community groups had been formed in the lead up to the federal election. As previously noted not all community Independents used teal, with the range of colours drawing attention from media.
A connection between all eight women is their philosophy and focus, as defined in the new ‘teal’ definition, and their success using a community-based campaign template originally created by Voices of Indi in 2013. This coordinated grassroots approach saw Cathy McGowan elected in Indi for two terms – much to her surprise and that of her team. The aim had been to make the seat marginal and attract much needed funding for projects in the electorate. Using the same template of grassroots community action previously used in Indi, at the 2019 election Helen Haines became the first Independent to succeed an Independent in the history of Australian politics. Although McGowan retired from parliament, she has not left politics altogether. With the support of founding members of Voices of Indi, she is actively mentoring community groups and candidates across Australia via the Community Independents Project (CIP).
The ‘Voices of/for’ template is based on the formation of community groups via ‘kitchen table’ meetings. Once established, the groups call for people from the electorate to register their interest in becoming a candidate, with a public selection process undertaken for the preferred person. Leading up to the 2022 election, some 50 groups were formed to plan ways of influencing political change, and about 25 had candidates. Of note is that only two were men.
These Independents reflected the concerns of their electorates, with particular focus on climate change policy and integrity in politics. The climate change issue was aligned with that of not-for-profit group Climate 200, led by Simon Holmes à Court and a number of high profile advisors. Climate 200 uses crowd funding, then offers financial support to community group campaigns with strong business plans, including an ability to raise funds in their own right. It also assesses the calibre of the candidate the groups have selected. The Climate 200 funding brought significant attention from a number of quarters sensing the threat of the teal candidates; particularly the conservative side of politics and media. Allegations of the teals being a party under the leadership of Holmes à Court were prolific and relentless. Terms such as ‘teal party’ and ‘teal bloc’ continue to suggest a lack of independence.
A significant contribution to the success of these community movements and candidates is that the public are regaining an interest in democracy and politics, with a resurgence of participatory democracy. This is particularly evident in high numbers of new electoral roll enrolments, mostly young people, just before the roll closed in the lead up to the 2022 election. Engagement increased as people realised they could have a voice and many joined the community campaigns as volunteers. The successes of McGowan, Haines, Steggall, and Kerryn Phelps at the by-election in Wentworth in 2018, demonstrated that community action is effective.
Many have argued that these candidates evolved due to voter dissatisfaction with the major parties. In particular, they were seen to reflect a rejection of the incumbent Coalition government, as well as the actions (and inactions) of former Prime Minister Scott Morrison. It is agreed that both arguments have merit. New research, however, shows that the Independents were mostly supported by people regarding themselves to be from the left, Labor voters, rather than disaffected conservative voters.
With a continuing gender imbalance in the national parliament, the teal movement has contributed to bringing about change in how women are able to enter parliament. The Liberal and National parties continue to struggle with their ‘women problem’. While the number of women in the Australian parliament has increased, female representation in the Liberal-National Coalition has dropped. The Australian Labor Party has almost 50 per cent female representation in the parliament and in Cabinet, but women are still less likely to be nominated in safe seats by either of the major parties.
The future success of this community independent phenomenon depends very much on ongoing community interest, participation and engagement. It also relies on the success of the current Teal Independents in influencing policy and politics. They have already shown that they are truly independent in their representation – voting independently of each other on policies, endeavouring to reflect the views of the people they represent. This shows the importance of remaining connected with their constituents and weathering the relentless media and public scrutiny placed on women politicians. There is a new way for women to enter politics in Australia… and the major parties have been put on notice.
Dr Angelika Heurich is a casual academic at the University of New England, Armidale, NSW, Australia, teaching in the disciplines of Politics and International Studies, and Sociology. Her research focus is on women who influence policy and social change from either elected office, or by using their public platforms.
Follow Angelika on Twitter @AngelikaHeurich
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