Can federal parliament’s new women crossbenchers change politics, or will it change them?

When filming an interview with a politician it’s not normal for them to describe a hard-to-win part of their electorate as “the Badlands”. 

Or to have them suddenly discuss the merits of their weight-loss surgery. 

Or to let out an exasperated “shit” and “Jesus Christ” when they misplace their glasses ahead of being sworn in at Parliament House. 

But then, “normal” in federal politics has changed. 

Over a period of two months, I followed a group of women crossbenchers who have transformed the political landscape, vanquishing Liberal and Labor frontbenchers, ousting a Senate stalwart. 

They were all underestimated, much to the peril of the people they replaced. 

In a political system of talking points and mass-produced party MPs, voters elected these women who are not afraid to speak their mind. 

‘An act of huge bastardry’ 

“I hope she doesn’t get it knocked out of her,” one seasoned political staffer says of Monique Ryan, who took the seat of Kooyong from former treasurer Josh Frydenberg. 

By “it”, the staffer means a quite guileless authenticity. 

Ryan is a politician who doesn’t think twice before jokingly closing her campaign manager in the cupboard of her new office, who describes the more conservative part of her electorate that was going to be difficult to swing as “the Badlands”, who admits that her hair has been described as “unelectable”, or that she’s been called “Dumbo” on social media.

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Dr Monique Ryan and her acting chief of staff, Ann Capling, discuss “trolls bitchin’ and moanin'” on social media.

“As I recall,” Ryan tells me, trying hard not to break into a laugh, “Dumbo had very nice eyes”. 

“And, at the end, he prevails. Flaps his ears and flies away: I’ll take that.” 

Ryan has a healthy and often wicked sense of humour, but she is not to be messed with.

When her first question in parliament elicited jeers from Coalition MPs, she responded with steely resolve, telling the mostly maskless opposition benches: “Put your masks on.”

The clip of her retort went viral within hours: #putyourmaskson ended up trending.

This isn’t the scripted school of politics that became a hallmark of the previous government, where talking points were strictly adhered to, where focus groups ruled the roost. It’s just what she thinks. 

“This whole, ‘We’re not wearing a mask as a political statement’ thing is insulting to all healthcare professionals. I was infuriated by it, actually,” Ryan says. 

“If we’re not capable of behaving well, how can we expect that of other people? I think it’s appalling.”

I sometimes get the impression that she’s like a Hollywood child actor: growing up in the public eye.

While she is the very accomplished and whip-smart former head of paediatric neurology at Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital, she’s also a complete novice in the political game.

Monique Ryan, wearing a black jacket over a patterned top, smiles as she mingles with a crowd inside parliament house
Dr Monique Ryan knows she is novice in the world of politics.(ABC: Four Corners)

I watch her go from confidently telling a crowd of donors that while independents had four parliamentary staffers under the previous government, she’d asked for five, to being slapped down by the new Prime Minister, who informed the crossbenchers they could have just one.

Then I watch her sense of anger and deflation. She takes to social media, describing the act as “inexplicable” and an “attack” on their ability to work independently.

“This is a mistake by the PM,” she tweets.  

She’d largely been a social media darling to that point, but quickly found herself being slammed as entitled by a public that saw a politician asking for a hand-out when the budget’s tight.  

The day after the Twitter storm, she rubs her eyes and slumps on the sofa in her empty new parliamentary office, telling me the Prime Minister’s decision was “an act of huge bastardry”.  

“I felt like I’d been punched in the chest,” she replies when I ask what her visceral reaction was to the decision. 

She laughs, sourly, saying that this “puts paid” to the notion, shopped around in some parts of the media and the Liberal Party before the election, that she was somehow a “Labor stooge”.  

“Clearly the Labor Party is not cooperating with the independents and the small parties,” she says.  

‘You build a thicker skin’

Dai Le has a more battle-weary take on this. 

Le was kicked out of the Liberal Party for running as an independent against a candidate it had endorsed for Sydney’s Fairfield Council. 

“Local politics is brutal,” Le tells me. 

“Sometimes, jokingly, I will say, ‘How many knives do you want to see?’,” she says, gesturing to her back. 

“My back is actually quite scarred with plenty of knives.  

“But you build a thicker skin, you build a thicker shield to really … navigate through the political labyrinth.” 

As well as being Fairfield’s deputy mayor, Le won the South-Western Sydney seat of Fowler from Labor. 

It had made the spectacular miscalculation of trying to parachute then-shadow-minister Kristina Keneally into one of the most multicultural seats in the country. 

Kate Chaney in a green turtle neck and black scarf smiles and Dai Le smiles and waves as they walk along footpath
Dai Le takes fellow Independent Kate Chaney out to lunch in Cabramatta, in her electorate of Fowler.(ABC: Four Corners)

Le tells me of Fowler: “50 per cent of our population are born from [a] non-English speaking background. 

“[We have a] high proportion of people with low socio-economic income. It’s struggle streets out here.” 

On the streets, Le is recognised and treated like a local celebrity everywhere we film with her.  

On social media, she’s a complete dynamo, constantly filming posts to stay visible and remind her community that she’s there for them.


“Hi. Good morning, guys!” she greets her Instagram followers from the opening of parliament, before taking a moment to show off her bright yellow ao dai, a traditional Vietnamese dress.

Le came to Australia as a child refugee, with her family, from Vietnam.

Her mother is tearful as she proudly watches her daughter about to be sworn in, the first Vietnamese-born person to enter federal parliament.

Le, who re-mortgaged her home to fund her campaign, is acutely aware of her difference to Ryan and the other so-called “teal independents”, and is not at all surprised at the Prime Minister’s cuts to staffers.

When I catch a cab to parliament with her soon after, she rolls her eyes.

“I think it’s disappointing, or maybe I’m not surprised, that Labor would play the same game [as the previous government],” Le says.

“They’ve already lost one safe Labor seat, they’re probably thinking, ‘Goodness me, if we give them more resources, they going to build up an army and how are we going to deal with that?’

“That’s probably why they said: ‘Let’s strip them. Let’s tie their hands, stop them from working. Let’s take away their ability to build a momentum and to build a new force in parliament’.”

In truth, the new independents present an interesting dilemma to the new government: On one hand, they don’t want more people like Le snapping up their own seats and so have a motivation to weaken them.

Di Le sits, wearing a green jacket, colourful scarf and dark-rimmed glasses as she looks across the lower house chamber.
Dai Le says her time in local government has prepared her for the challenges of federal politics.(ABC News: Nick Haggarty)

On the other, the teals, like Ryan, provide a bloc of seats that the Liberals may find hard to win back, so keeping these independents happy could keep the Coalition out of government.

There was a glimpse of this “soft power” in the teals’ successful move to make amendments to the government’s climate change legislation.

‘Yeah, not cool’ 

Tammy Tyrrell is perhaps the most unlikely politician I’ve met.

The newly-elected senator for Tasmania is sitting on a crocheted blanket and is wearing a chartreuse cardigan that’s the texture of a Muppet’s fur.

Tyrrell has a homespun quality honed from her days, as she describes, “hoein’ weeds” on an onion farm.

Her partner does night shifts in aged care.

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Tammy Tyrrell says she’s finding it “a bit bonkers” that she’s a senator.

While Ryan’s task is to appeal to an urbane and wealthy inner-Melbourne electorate, Tyrrell’s is to appeal to northern Tasmanians, who struggle at times to put food on the table. She does it well.

She is absolutely determined to do a “sock slide” on the vast, slippery floors at parliament house.

And she’s not taking a backwards step in her criticism of the PM’s staff cuts either.

“Yeah, not cool,” Tyrrell says to me, cocking her ponytail to one side, when I meet her in the electorate office of her former boss, now parliamentary colleague, Senator Jacqui Lambie.

“I think they’re ripping the heart and soul out of what people elected us to do,” she says.

“We felt that there was something in the wind, but we were hoping that he wasn’t going to do it.

“Which was shit, excuse my technical term.”

Tyrrell worked for Lambie as a staffer for seven years before deciding to throw her hat in the political ring last year.

The Labor government’s slim majority in the lower house means it doesn’t necessarily need the votes of teal independents such as Ryan.

In the Senate, however, it’s a different story. 

It will have to negotiate with parties and crossbenchers — such as the Greens, independent David Pocock, as well as Lambie and Tyrrell — to get legislation across the line, and these women know it: Tyrrell hasn’t ruled out using her vote as a lever if it is the right thing for Tasmania. 

A seated Tammy Tyrrell and a standing Jacqui Lambie post in a Senate office. Both have long hair that's not tied back.
Tammy Tyrrell worked for Senator Jacqui Lambie as a staffer for seven years before deciding to run for the Senate last year.(Four Corners: Greg Nelson)

Tyrrell still finds it “just a bit bonkers, really” that she is a senator for Tasmania wielding this sort of power. She never thought she’d be in this position.  

“But you know what? Doesn’t mean I can’t do it,” she quips.

“So, if it takes lack of sleep, I’ll do it! If it takes to read and read and read and talk to as many people as possible, I can do that.”

Tyrrell’s learned a thing or two about the game of politics in her years working for Lambie, including owning up to it when you’re wrong. 

Lambie has made a political career out of it. Once more sceptical about climate change, she’s now openly embracing the idea of emissions targets. 

Tyrrell’s staffer tells me it’s a great strategy, because no-one holds it against you if you are honest about your mistakes: It takes the heat out of them.

‘Won’t do that again’

The independents aren’t giving up, but a July meeting with the Prime Minister to plead their case on extra staffers takes some heat out of their initial anger.

Ryan emerges far more sanguine, saying it was a “great honour to meet with a PM”.

Anthony Albanese has listened but hasn’t (yet) changed his mind. Ryan then does something that’s unusual for a politician, in my experience.

She tells me she did the wrong thing. She says she should have picked up the phone and talked about it behind the scenes, rather than jumping on television and social media to have a go at Albanese.

“I think I have a lot to learn,” she says.

“I’m just a rookie and I think the other new parliamentarians also have a lot to learn as well.

“I think [speaking to journalists and on social media] was an error, actually.

“I’ll learn from that. [I] won’t do that again.”

A woman in a black dress and pearls, carrying a mobile phone in a red case, chats with a journalist who is partly obscured
Dr Monique Ryan reflects on her earlier tactics, after a meeting with the Prime Minister.(ABC: Four Corners)

While, as a reporter who prizes openness and transparency, I’d never want anyone not to speak to us, it’s also interesting to observe Ryan, happy to admit to mistakes, move on and shrug it off.

In journalism, you frequently experience the enormous frustration of politicians “stonewalling” when they know they have done something wrong, or refusing to answer questions, or sending anodyne statements that don’t answer the question.

So this is refreshingly honest: I stuffed up, move on.

“I think people are forgiving if you acknowledge your mistakes and apologise for them,” Ryan tells me.

“I hope my electorate will be forgiving of me as I make errors, as I’m sure I will, during the next few years.”

It remains to be seen whether being themselves will continue to play well for these new politicians or whether they will be swallowed up by realpolitik, or will continue to thrive in their own way.

As a journalist who is battle-scarred by years of political smoke and mirrors and spin, here’s hoping.

Join Louise Milligan as she goes behind the scenes with the women who are new force in federal politics tonight at 8:30 on ABC TV or ABC iview. 

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