Labor operatives running ‘independent’ Zali Steggall campaign
Ms Steggall, the barrister and former world champion alpine skier campaigning to oust Tony Abbott from his blue-ribbon Liberal seat of Warringah on Sydney’s northern beaches, says she is a genuine independent candidate with grassroots support behind her.
But having Mr Reed, pictured below, as her campaign manager — after he performed the same job for Dr Phelps — introduces outside Labor involvement in her campaign as she also receives support from GetUp and various anti-Abbott climate change groups.
Mr Reed’s past role for Dr Phelps during the Wentworth campaign, which remained unknown except to a few insiders until now, also sheds new light on the avowed independence of Dr Phelps, who defeated Malcolm Turnbull’s Liberal candidate successor Dave Sharma.
It is now clear that Dr Phelps had not one Labor operative working for her, but two: Darrin Barnett as campaign media adviser, as previously reported by The Australian, and the low-profile Mr Reed.
Mr Reed — an ALP member for decades — is the brother of federal Labor MP Sharon Bird, a former chief of staff to two NSW Labor government ministers. Mr Reed’s twin Brett is a former union official and his mother worked in the office of NSW Labor MP Michael Knight for years.
Before starting Labor-aligned public relations business Watson Consultants with Mr Barnett in September 2017 — named after Labor’s first prime minister ChrisWatson — Mr Reed worked for Labor-aligned PR companies CPR and Diplomacy. He also served as media officer for the national offices of two Labor-affiliated unions, United Voice and the Health Services Union.
When Ms Steggall announced her candidacy on January 28, there were fleeting mentions in two news reports of a misspelled Anthony “Reid” who was said to have been Dr Phelps’s campaign manager, and was to do the same job for Ms Steggall.
Mr Reed worked at Ms Steggall’s new campaign office at Brookvale yesterday but was not available for comment. He is not a Warringah local and is believed to live in Sydney’s inner west and to have belonged to one of its ALP branches for many years.
Mr Reed’s co-campaign manager, Louise Hislop, did not return calls seeking comment about whether Ms Steggall was aware of Mr Reed’s lengthy service for the Labor Party, and decades as a party member, or what impact Mr Reed’s extensive Labor history might have on Ms Steggall’s campaign’s independent status.
Ms Stegall did not return The Australian’s call, but this morning defended herself and her “winning team,” saying this moring she was “putting together a winning team” and claimed “conservatives and climate deniers” were trying to distract Warringah voters.
Her father, retired Manly solicitor John Steggall, said from France that his daughter was a “genuine independent”. He supported her campaign for change in Warringah because Mr Abbott had been “not representative” of the majority on issues including same-sex marriage and climate change. Many were unhappy about Mr Turnbull’s ousting as prime minister as well, he said.
Mr Steggall said his daughter was a “battler” with a “strong platform” who had given up her practice to campaign full-time, and her chances of defeating Mr Abbott were improved by having in Mr Reed a “professional campaigner”.
Warringah, which Mr Abbott has held since 1994, is shaping as one of the federal election’s key battlegrounds, as his antagonists devote more campaign resources than ever before to remove him.
Mr Reed’s decision to throw his lot behind Ms Steggall raises questions about the weight Labor is putting behind its own candidate in Warringah, Dean Harris.
The businessman has said he is campaigning his hardest to win Warringah — but he is noticeably short on party funding, as Labor’s Tim Murray was in Wentworth. It is virtually unheard of for party operatives to work opposite their own parties, and risks immediate expulsion under party rules.
A senior Labor source well-experienced with party head-office operations said it was not uncommon for the ALP to “run dead” or give “unofficial” behind-the-scenes help to independents when the stakes were high.
“It’s a positive for Labor if you have an independent with a better chance of winning because it means one less seat going to the Libs and a better chance of getting Labor across the line with an elected government majority,” he said.
Another said: “There’s two key Labor operatives working for two independents here — one above the radar and one below the radar — and both worked for Phelps at one stage.”
The involvement of Mr Reed in the Phelps campaign slipped public notice during the Wentworth campaign. Mr Barnett, who has stayed on as a taxpayer-funded staffer for Dr Phelps since the by-election and is expected to play an important role in her bid to keep the seat in the federal election due in May, is also a long-time Labor operative and party member.
He was an adviser to Julia Gillard and previously a Labor staffer. The Sydney-based Mr Barnett worked on the Braddon by-election for Labor in Tasmania last year, just months before joining the Phelps campaign.
His main job — subcontracted to him at Watson Consultants — had been as the full-time spokesman of the Labor-affiliated Maritime Union of Australia. He also unsuccessfully canvassed support to gain Labor preselection for the federal seat of Banks in Sydney’s west for this year’s election, with encouragement from former senator Sam Dastyari and others.
When The Australian first asked Mr Barnett about his campaign work for Dr Phelps last September, his initial response was that he had spoken to NSW ALP general secretary Kaila Murnain and the party head office was “fine” with him working for Dr Phelps. He said he was free to work for anyone as a self-employed consultant. The story changed later in the day. He contacted The Australian by text message to say his party membership had been suspended. A spokesman for NSW Labor’s head office said then that Ms Murnain had told Mr Barnett that he “can’t be a party member and work for Phelps”. Labor members are prohibited under threat of expulsion for working for someone running against an endorsed Labor candidate.
The Australian sought comment from Mr Reed about his work for both the Phelps and Steggall campaigns and whether his ALP membership had been suspended as Mr Barnett’s allegedly was. The Australian asked Ms Murnain yesterday if the party’s head office was aware of Mr Reed’s role for Ms Steggall, and his previous campaign job for Dr Phelps, and whether he remained a party member or had been suspended. A Labor spokesman last night said Mr Barnett’s party membership was still suspended. But sources said Mr Reed was no longer a party member.
Ms Steggall said recently Dr Phelps had been acting as a sounding board for her campaign.
Before Ms Steggall announced her run, Alex Turnbull, son of the former prime minister with a deep interest in renewables, said he would be willing to fund an independent in Warringah.
Ms Steggall has made action on climate change a big part of her campaign pitch.
When asked recently about the financing of her campaign, Ms Steggall said she was relying on “crowd funding”. It is believed she may be receiving donations from locals who are disillusioned former Liberal voters and from some wealthy entrepreneurs with investments in renewable energy.
Ms Hislop was the campaign manager for ex-Australian Idol host James Mathison when he made an unsuccessful tilt for Mr Abbott’s seat at the 2016 federal election. She switched to Ms Steggall’s campaign when it was launched, as did Mr Reed.
Ms Hislop is not an ALP member but has links to GetUp activists and has been a leading figure in an anti-Abbott group called Voices of Warringah and the local chapter of Australian Progressives. Her Voices of Warringah group was one of at least three that vetted Ms Steggall’s candidacy and endorsed it.
The others were Vote Tony Out, headed by Manly businessman Mark Kelly, and the North Shore Environmental Stewards, which includes some disillusioned former Liberal supporters. Liberal moderates powerbroker Michael Photios gave a speech to the group at a meeting last March.