Independent members of parliament used to be seen as dinosaurs, utterly unsuited to modern parliaments dominated by disciplined big party politics. As political parties expanded during the 20th century so did the apparent limitations of representation by Independents.
But times have changed. Political parties are on the nose. Independents are increasingly in tune with the times at both federal and state levels. They are still the exception rather than the rule, but they have won a new-found respect.
The recent federal by-election for the NSW central coast seat of Lyne, vacated by the former Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals leader Mark Vaile, was won by an Independent state MP, Rob Oakeshott. The Nationals had never before failed to win this seat. Oakeshott now joins Bob Katter and Tony Windsor to make three rural Independents in the House of Representatives.
The Western Australian state election, lost by Labor's Alan Carpenter, also elected one or more Independents who may ultimately determine the outcome in concert with the Nationals. This fact has been overlooked in all the attention focused on the possibility of the Nationals holding the balance of power in that state.
The view that it is folly to elect an Independent is widely shared because our way of thinking about politics is so political party-centred. In this view Independents don't achieve anything for their constituents because they are not at the table inside the party room of a major party.
Not being part of a party, in this jaundiced view, means that they cannot influence party policy nor can they win advantages for their own electorate. In other words Independents are presumed to be frozen out of the parliamentary power structures.
There are major problems with this interpretation despite its apparent insights into how politics works.
Some Independents, like former Senator Brian Harradine and potentially Senator Nick Xenophon in the Senate, do achieve results for their constituents and for the nation if they are lucky enough to hold the balance of power.
Most backbench MPs don't achieve anything out of the ordinary for their electorate even if their party holds office. If they hold a safe seat their constituents may even be neglected as the parties chase marginal seat voters. Furthermore, few backbenchers are able to exert an influence on overall party policy greater than the influence exerted by an Independent.
But more importantly this critique of Independents is based upon a very narrow, instrumental view of the political process that is increasingly out of step with what many voters value in a parliamentary representative.
If you don't trust the integrity of the political process you won't trust an individual to work within it to your benefit. The apparent weakness of Independents in being outside the mainstream becomes their strength because they represent an alternative way of thinking about politics.
Voters are increasingly willing to run the risk of being neglected by both the government and the opposition. They feel neglected by the system anyway and therefore don't hold unrealistic aspirations about advancement for their electorate. Voters value an Ombudsman-type role for MPs in dealing with the individual problems of constituents above any grand view of the political process.
They like the personal touch that an Independent free of a party machine can offer. They like the fact that Independents by definition have no entanglements with party politics. They are even prepared to overlook the fact that many Independents, like Oakeshott, Katter and Windsor, were once in the party machine themselves before they saw the light.
Voters like the fact that the centre of gravity of an Independent is the local electorate. They welcome the fact that very little career advancement is possible for their local MP, unless it is to take a position above party politics as Speaker, like Richard Torbay, from Armidale, has done in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly. They don't mind having a local representative without aspirations to climb the greasy pole to become a minister.
If their local Independent member just happens to fluke a balance of power position then that is a bonus. But the essence of the support for an Independent increasingly demonstrated by a minority of voters stems from more local and high-minded aspirations.
Emeritus Professor John Warhurst is an adjunct professor of political science at the Australian National University and the Flinders University of South Australia. He is a columnist with The Canberra Times.
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15 September 2008
Sometimes I am amazed at the apparent foresight of unappreciated writers like Moira Rayner who wrote, in 1997's Rooting Democracy - Growing the Society We Want, that the manifest failures of the Westminster parliamentary mechanism would inspire the people with community links to force the once-solid two-party system to crack apart. The recent squaddles in the NT, NSW and WA just prove that no matter how its holders start, power always corrupts.
15 September 2008
You don't have to be an independent to
exercise the balance of power in certain situations to the benefit of the electorate.
Peter Kavanagh, the single DLP member in the Victorian Parliament has had the deciding vote in more than 20 upper house matters in less than two years.
The Melbourne Age on 24 August reported that Kavanagh has made the upper house a better place.
15 September 2008
Prof Warhurst makes excellent points in this article. To my mind, independents have gained an enormous amount of credibility in the eyes of Australian voters because of the hard work, integrity and intelligence of the late Peter Andren.
15 September 2008
The value of independents as Prof. Warhurst points out is that they are outside the political system. I am amazed how candidates from the major parties seem so electorate oriented before the election to appear completely party oriented after the election.
I have long felt members of parliaments from the major parties represent themselves and their parties. The constituents are a long way behind. Only independents offer a real representation of the individual electorate. There are exceptions but these are few.
we seem to be in the era of the professional politician who views their place in parliament as some deserved privilege that the population has to support and they are free to act as they please without reference to the electorate.
16 September 2008
True independents, like Bob Katter and Tony Windsor who have broad community support from their electorate are one thing; micro-party candidates like Steve Fielding and Peter Kavanagh who owe their election to questionable preference deals are another.
Katter and Windsor I can trust, even if I don't agree with their positions; Fielding and Kavanagh are wild cards, loose cannons, and are unlikely to have any enduring positive effect on parliament.
Fielding's petulant rejection of the increase in luxury car tax is an example of irresponsibility.
John W McQualter
16 September 2008
When is an independent not an independent? When the person is of 'advanced prejudice' (e g wowsers etc) or when the person has a 'one track mind'.
When is an independent an independent? When he is, as used to be described by Australians, a 'ratbag'!
A person of decided views on a range of subjects and prepared to argue their views carefully and with rationality.