Three candidates with diverse backgrounds line up to contest three diverse electorates in WA that could be crucial to the outcome of the May poll.
Meet the incumbent, the guardian and the maverick; three women from diverse backgrounds who are determined to either hold onto, or launch, a career in federal politics.
Anne Aly has been the Labor MP for Cowan since 2016 and intends to keep it that way.
If Kristy McSweeney is to become an MP for the first time, she must protect the Liberal-held seat of Swan and the legacy of its long-time representative Steve Irons.
Kate Chaney has an even greater challenge: convincing the historically Liberal stronghold of Curtin to back an independent campaigning on a platform of climate action and integrity.
“I felt like vomiting for about a week while I was deciding whether to do it,” Ms Chaney told Business News during a doorknocking session in the electorate.
“In the end, I decided this was a real moment in time and a real opportunity.”
Western Australia is shaping up as a make-or-break state in the federal election.
Possibly the difference between a hung parliament and a government with a slim majority.
Fifteen seats are in play, with Labor hoping to add Swan, Pearce and possibly Hasluck to its current tally of five.
The Liberals just need to hold the line.
If there is a swing their way, then Dr Aly’s seat of Cowan – with a wafer-thin 0.9 per cent margin – would fall first.
“I don’t take anything for granted,” Dr Aly said.
“I came into parliament through a marginal seat. It’s still a marginal seat.”
But a dramatic redistribution of the Cowan electorate in 2021, which coincided with the abolition of the neighbouring seat of Stirling, has changed the boundaries in Dr Aly’s favour.
She now represents all of Koondoola, Girrawheen and Balga – colloquially known as the KGB – and relishes the opportunity to represent a melting pot of cultures.
Ms Aly was born in Alexandria, Egypt, and was aged two when her family migrated to Australia.
She forged a career as an academic specialising in counterterrorism and violent extremism before becoming the first Muslim woman elected to federal parliament.
Her Liberal opponent is the equally accomplished former Stirling MP Vince Connelly.
He had a distinguished career as an Australian Army captain, later promoted to the rank of major while a reservist based at the Special Air Service Regiment’s Campbell Barracks.
As Dr Aly went door-to-door in an affluent part of Dianella (added to her Cowan electorate in the redistribution), she made her own ambitions clear should Labor win on May 21; she wants a seat at Anthony Albanese’s cabinet table.
“It’s something I’d like, and I make no bones about that,” she said.
“I have experience in higher education, multicultural policy, public policy, national security, counterterrorism. I’ve got a skill set and the experience which I think would be an asset.”
When Business News caught up with Ms McSweeney, she was outside a nondescript shopping centre opposite Queens Park train station, an area the Liberal candidate considers the beating heart of the diverse Swan electorate.
“People make the mistake in describing this as an inner-city electorate,” Ms McSweeney said.
“The vast majority of the population of Swan lives from here out to Forrestfield. It is a transport, logistics, heavy-haulage, freight and manufacturing hub.”
Her description of the seat leads into a key talking point during the campaign and on the back of the federal government’s pandemic management.
“It has underwritten the freight industry for WA to make sure the planes keep going, the exports keep going,” Ms McSweeney said.
“Every single piece of freight that moves through this state also goes through Swan. More than 23,000 people and 5,500 businesses in this electorate received JobKeeper and the people here know this.”
The former media commentator and public affairs company boss also understands the weight of expectation on her to hold a seat the Liberals have called their own since 2007.
If Scott Morrison and his team are on the nose, it’s unlikely the current 3.2 per cent voting cushion enjoyed by the Liberals in Swan would survive a strong challenge from engineer and Labor candidate Zaneta Mascarenhas.
“I’m not getting any baseball bats as I move around,” Ms McSweeney.
“Small business is happy, and if you want a job in the electorate of Swan you can get a job.”
Kristy McSweeney in Swan heartland. Photo: David Henry
According to recent polling, both Labor and the Liberals have the same problem as election day looms.
Their primary vote is well below 40 per cent and, according to one poll, 29 per cent of voters are preparing to support candidates outside of the major parties.
Even if the public has passed judgment on Mr Morrison’s prime ministership, Labor leader Anthony Albanese has so far failed to win over enough hearts and minds, which is something the independent candidate for Curtin relates to.
Ms Chaney, the niece of former federal Liberal minister Fred Chaney, dabbled with the Labor Party last year by signing up as a member and attending one event.
She says it quickly confirmed her trepidation about partisan politics.
When a community-based group called Curtin Independent approached her to run in early January, she spent a fortnight evaluating the challenge.
The former corporate lawyer is big on data and spreadsheets.
“I sat down and thought, ‘What are the things I care about, what’s my position on those issues and how do they compare to the major parties?” she said.
“I got far enough through the process to think, ‘Yeah, I really am an independent’.”
Ms Chaney doesn’t sugar coat the concerns her family had about the decision to run, however.
“First of all, Fred gave me all the reasons not to do it because it can be a terrible life,” Ms Chaney said.
“He’s now very supportive.”
Like many of her supporters on the ground in Curtin, Ms Chaney laments the two-party system and argues it blocks a more progressive approach to big issues like climate change.
“It’s broken,” she said.
“It’s about winning polls, photo opportunities, marketing and scoring points.
“In 2050, my daughter will be my age. This is not a problem of her generation. It’s a problem of our generation.”
Like many of the independents campaigning in coalition-held seats around the country, Ms Chaney is reluctant to say which side of politics she will support if neither emerges with a majority.
“Up to half of my community will say I’ve made the wrong decision, whichever one I make,” she said.
“I will have to explain why I made the decision and then live with that.”
But Business News was able to determine that, unless Mr Morrison can put forward a more resolute model for a federal anti-corruption agency, then Ms Chaney would not back him.
“I would want to see some commitment to addressing corruption,” she said.
“I would hope that if the Liberals were in a chance of forming government they would put more on the table on that issue.”
Publicly, Ms Hammond has said her government’s proposed integrity commission needed “more teeth”.
Elected in 2019, Ms Hammond is also a lawyer and the former vice-chancellor of The University of Notre Dame Australia.
If she was to lose Curtin – and its 13.9 per cent margin – it would be down to the rise of a well-resourced independent in Ms Chaney, or an election wipe-out for the Liberals.
“It would be a significant and symbolic shift that I believe would prompt the sorts of reforms needed for the party’s long-term survival,” Ms Chaney said.
“You’ve seen what’s happened to the Liberal Party in WA. The party has moved away from its base.”
None of the candidates believe the crushing defeat of the state party by Labor’s Mark McGowan – attributed to the premier’s pandemic management – will be repeated in the federal election, although Dr Aly is grateful for the obvious comparisons she can make when speaking with voters.
She refers to the Commonwealth’s initial support for Clive Palmer’s WA border challenge and Mr Morrison’s reference to Western Australians being “cave people”, even though the prime minister insists he wasn’t taking aim at a single state.
But Dr Aly also draws on the McGowan government’s economic success when confronting a negative belief many hold about Labor’s ability to manage money.
“You have a Labor brand that has done incredibly well at managing the economy and that has the potential to change people’s perception about Labor on that point,” she said.
“But I will say that people are discerning with state and federal issues.”
Ms McSweeney agrees on the last point, with one caveat.
“West Australians aren’t mugs and they know Mark McGowan is in charge of a hospital system that is an absolute failure,” she said.
“They know they are having to wait two years or more for an appointment with a paediatrician because there aren’t enough. People know the federal government is in charge of things like JobKeeper, the economy and national security. We have a story to tell on all of those.”
When asked if she thought the average voter in Swan was focused on the public slanging match taking place during the campaign over China’s security agreement with Solomon Islands, Ms McSweeney hit her stride.
“People certainly care about the issues with China,” she said.
“The coalition’s offering to those people who care is the AUKUS agreement. Australia needs to stick with its allies, Britain and the US. We also realise that India will be our major partner in the region.”
It might be a small victory in the eyes of many voters, but the Liberal candidate for Swan was passionate about the India free trade deal and the 17 years it took both sides of politics to get it signed.
“There has never been a more important time to have a strategic alliance with India,” Ms McSweeney said.
“There is a large Indian population in this electorate, and they know the importance of this. I could talk about the significance of the agreement until the cows come home.”
Each of the three candidates are high achievers, and this was on show as the interviews with Business News played out.
Ms Chaney and two of her supporters were walking along a street in West Leederville as an elderly man was about to reverse out of his driveway.
He stopped for a chat and the independent candidate detected an accent.
When he confirmed he was Italian, Ms Chaney broke into the man’s mother tongue. Impressive.
“I’m not fluent, but I can get by,” she said.
Dr Aly has also experienced enough of life to quickly find a rapport with voters when going from house to house around the seat of Cowan.
One woman, who had migrated from Greece, shared a link to Dr Aly’s Egyptian heritage through the city of Alexandria, where her family transited after leaving the island of Kastellorizo bound for Fremantle.
Another woman stood on the veranda of her Dianella home talking about her love of painting before asking the Labor MP if she would like to see her work.
“It’s not all rosy being a federal politician with the amount of travelling back and forth and other issues you have to deal with,” Dr Aly said.
“But I genuinely love meeting and talking to people.”
She told the story of a mother she met while doorknocking recently.
After discussing several issues, the woman said, “I pray my daughters end up like you”.
“I know it sounds like a cliché, but it’s moments like that which keep you going,” Dr Aly said.
“You do make a difference.”
Labor’s Anne Aly (centre) is chasing re-election in Cowan. Photo: David Henry
Wages growth is a common theme raised by voters in Cowan.
Their pay is stagnant, but the cost of living is not.
People understand, Dr Aly argues, that price increases can be outside of a government’s control, but more must be done to help workers keep up.
Interestingly, in Cowan, people are not focused on the major issue of climate change.
“It’s definitely something I receive emails about from people,” Dr Aly said.
“But it’s not a big talking point during doorknocking. In a sense it’s become a discussion that’s too complex. I believe people have become numb to it and frustrated.”
She backed in Labor’s climate change strategy but admits it might not be cutting through.
“We have a plan and it’s much more comprehensive than the Liberals,” Dr Aly said.
It would have been easy to avoid the climate change debate with Ms Chaney in Curtin.
Her ardent views are well canvased.
But Business News did ask why she wasn’t standing for the Greens.
“I’m not ideologically driven,” she said.
“We have to make compromises and collaborate, and I think the Greens have some real challenges on that,” Ms Chaney said.
“You can’t just care about the environment and not the economy.”
For Ms McSweeney, trying to win government again, after almost a decade of the coalition being in power, the priority is getting voters engaged.
Her energy and belief would be hard to ignore.
“Mum became a politician after she was a social worker and I grew up at the kitchen table with her writing funding applications for groups and with people knocking at the door all the time,” she said.
“I started out as a journalist and have always been interested in current affairs.”
But Ms McSweeney is particularly proud of what she has achieved out in the real world and away from the political bubble that consumes so many party hacks for decades.
“This was my train station [Queens Park] where I’d catch the train to university,” she said.
“I lived in a house just behind here.”
What if she loses on May 21? Has she got a taste for it now?
“Look, I’m just focused on trying to win the seat of Swan,” she laughed, knowing it was the political equivalent of football’s ‘one game at a time’ deflection.
Dr Aly was more emphatic.
“I’d go back to doing what I was doing, but I don’t envisage losing,” she said.
And what about the mother of three, who wants to steal Curtin away from the Liberals in two weeks’ time?
“I would find some other way to have an impact,” Ms Chaney said.