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Allegra Spender: ‘I’ve had it’ with the Morrison government

Anne Susskind
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Published: 18 February 2022

Last updated: 4 March 2024

The independent candidate for Wentworth tells Anne Susskind why climate action is anything but radical, vents over absent leadership and explains her views on Israel  

ALLEGRA SPENDER DOESN’T pull her punches. Despite being a charming ex-Ascham head girl who smiles a lot, she’s blunt and steely when it comes to Scott Morrison’s government and the state of affairs in the world.

“I’ve had it,” she nods, agreeable on a disagreeable subject, explaining why, at the age of 43, she’s entering politics as an independent candidate for Wentworth in Sydney's eastern suburbs, up against the party of her grandfather and father, Sir Percy Spender and John Spender, who were once both Liberal ministers in a Coalition government.

Her main concerns she lists as climate change, women and integrity. It's a “deep, deep, deep frustration” she feels, and says change is needed. Real change, not just the words that the Liberal member Dave Sharma offers while he usually votes “exactly with Barnaby Joyce”.

The electorate, she says, is also “pro-refugees” and wants faster progress on reconciliation with First Nations people. As for those of Wentworth’s Jewish voters whose overriding concern is their representative’s position on Israel,  Spender says she holds more or less the same pro-Israel views as Sharma and is happy with current government policy on that score.

What is going on right now does not represent what people like myself think - values of integrity, of supporting businesses but also compassion.

On the broader issues, she is speaking to disaffected Liberals all the time. They are saying, ‘You know what? I’ve hosted fundraisers for the Liberal Party and I cannot do it anymore.’ It’s amazing. It’s because they’ve said they are no longer standing for evidence-based, expert led policy… and it’s the handling of the scandals and the handling of women and the handling of integrity issues.”

Under the Morrison government, Spender says she has seen the collapse of her father and grandfather’s values: “What is going on right now does not represent what people like myself and other people I care about think - values of integrity, of supporting businesses but also compassion… the small l liberal values.” The government is listening to the nationals, not moderate liberals.   

Spender says she has never joined the Liberal Party and nor is she beholden to anyone else, despite having been hand-picked for the job from among 30 candidates by the Wentworth Independents, an influential selection of eastern suburbs residents, co-led by Woollahra residents Lyndell Droga and her financier husband Daniel Droga.

Among its members are lawyer Michael Joseph, business consultant Maria Atkinson and Blair Palese, a one-time communications director of Greenpeace International and founder of 350.org Australia.

Spender with the former Independent members for Wentworth, Dr Kerryn Phelps
Spender with the former Independent members for Wentworth, Dr Kerryn Phelps

Other eminent supporters are scientist Robert Purves and a slew of women company directors, including former Australia Post CEO Christine Holgate (from Mosman, but still she went to the campaign launch), Unisuper director Nicolette Rubinsztein and chair of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation Jillian Broadbent, who was the closest friend of her late mother, fashion designer Carla Zampatti.

Then there is former Wentworth MP Dr Kerryn Phelps, and Wendy McCarthy, and Simon Holmes a Court as a funder… the list goes on.

The tide of votes for the independent candidate in Willoughby in last weekend’s NSW by-election was “very pleasing”, Spender says, showing a real appetite for a different sort of representation.

It wasn’t an easy decision for her to give politics a go. She has three young children, was in a job she loved (CEO of the Australian Business and Community Network) and has had to give up her Italian nationality, which is very hard to reclaim. Also, she’s not used to the public eye, and while her mother had a “very warm” public eye, this role does not lend itself to that.

That Morrison follows the same football team as you or makes a curry might make him likeable in some people’s eyes but that’s not someone you respect.

With a strong background in business (in addition to managing her mother’s fashion empire for a decade, she served as chair of the Sydney Renewable Power Company) Spender says you have “the greatest cut-through” when you are real. Leading her organisation through the pandemic had been difficult but she was “upfront, honest and also vulnerable, and that’s why people followed me”.

Spender is socially progressive, but economically and fiscally relatively conservative. Her position on climate change is not really radical, she maintains. Far from it. What, she asks, could be radical about wanting to preserve an environment that we all love and care for?

“People living in Wentworth love the outdoors, the harbour, the beaches, all the things that the environment provides us. I feel that that’s a very core value for many people; it’s not a radical thing at all and it’s also an economic opportunity.

“There’s been such a scare campaign, rather than saying Australia is one of the sunniest and windiest places on earth and we have all the rare earth metals, we have lithium, we are incredibly well placed for this transition and to actually be an exporter, a superpower…”

In terms of formal policy, Spender - along with Holmes a Court and other candidates he finances - would like to see emissions cut faster than the existing Labor and Liberal target of no net emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050.

The $10 billion a year spent on subsiding fossil fuels, even though we can make them cheaper, needs to be revisited. Emission standards in vehicles, despite being difficult to tackle, has proven health benefits, and there should be a better quality of less polluting cars across the spectrum, not just electric.

People want their politicians to be capable and clever. I don’t think people like the glibness.

She says genuine leadership has been missing under Scott Morrison’s government.

Australian voters, she says, have a BS detector and want someone they can respect. “That [Morrison] follows the same football team as you or makes a curry might make him likeable in some people’s eyes but that’s not someone you respect.

“People want their politicians to be capable and clever. You can be very straight-talking. I don’t think people like the glibness.”

On local issues, another public high school is needed in the east, as well as devising ways that private school resources can be shared across the community. Many people have been moving out of Wentworth as the eastern suburbs has the highest average school fees in Sydney - $35,000 average for a year 12 student, necessitating contributions from grandparents and others.

Overdevelopment is a concern, too, especially since infrastructure is not keeping up in an already dense electorate with only a couple of roads in and out.

Dave Sharma has been something of a disappointment, according to Spender. He says he speaks for the people of Wentworth, but he doesn’t actually act for them, she claims. The government is being guided by the Nationals, not the sensible moderates.

Spender's campaign team out on the hustings
Spender's campaign team out on the hustings

Does she have a chance of winning? Independent Kerryn Phelps won the blue-ribbon seat before, only fleetingly. But Spender points out that Sharma has a very small margin, 1.3 per cent at the last election. “Look at where the community’s perspective is three years later… on climate the community has moved so far compared to the government”.  

To Wentworth’s Jewish voters, Spender’s message is that she knows she needs to be their representative in Canberra. With one-eighth of the electorate recording themselves in the census as Jewish, it is the most Jewish seat in the country, so this is a “really significant job” for her.

At the moment, she’s reaching out to different parts of the Jewish community, seeking guidance on what they see as the critical issues; she’s doing a lot of thinking and listening, and has already spoken to several rabbis, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, the politically conservative advocacy group Australian Jewish Association, and will soon take part in a debate with the Australian Union of Jewish Students.

She definitely objects to BDS boycotts, which are 'not appropriate and not constructive' and were 'very damaging' for the Sydney Festival.

She definitely objects to BDS boycotts, which are “not appropriate and not constructive” and were “very damaging” for the Sydney Festival.

“I’ve spoken to a number of Jewish leaders who say they feel that Israel is singled out in these ways. I support a strong state of Israel. I support a two-state solution which is really the Australian government’s position, and I support Israel’s right to defend itself.

“I look at what Dave Sharma says on this, and I generally agree with him - that Israel wants security and wants to be able to believe in that, and parts of Hamas and others don’t believe in the right of Israel to exist.”

On the Occupation, she says: “I grew up in Wentworth, friends of mine from school went to kibbutz… “I went to Ascham, and certainly in my year had a really significant Jewish (cohort).

I support a two-state solution. which is really the Australian government’s position, and I support Israel’s right to defend itself.

The truth is that it’s really complicated… But what I’m saying is, it’s kind of how I’ve grown up, talking about these sorts of issues. I don’t think you can grow up in the east and not…”

The rise in antisemitism is also of concern, and security is a big issue. Spender says she is grateful for the federal government’s security support: “The community needs it. It’s very important that people feel safe - and are safe.”

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