All MPs have Independents envy


Even before this cliffhanger election, some journalists questioned the democratic credentials of Independent MPs. One critic argued that Independents had only a few thousand supporters, while the votes given members of parties should be aggregated to measure their individual approval rating.

Since both major parties wasted their chance to secure a clear mandate, the Independents have been treated contemptuously in the media as opportunists, impractical idealists and vengeful egotists.

This negative attitude by some elements of the press gallery is most likely explained by laziness. The 'in-out' nature of the Westminster system is simple to understand and to comment upon. By making Parliament complex, the rise of Independents complicates the lives of the political hacks. The truth is however, that all MPs envy Independents.

My research among state MPs some years ago showed that most considered themselves to be 'trustees' committed to the common good. Some thought of themselves as 'delegates' representing specific seats, but few rated highly their roles as political partisans.

Asked about their representational ideals, most rated their conscience and community interest highly and about half of the interviewees thought a specific electorate important. A number of backbenchers spoke of the frustrations caused by party discipline and some related incidents where they had expressed dissent from the party whip, absented themselves from a vote or even crossed the floor because of a conscientious stance.

While these findings might not necessarily generalise across time and systems, there is no reason to believe that federal MPs today would express markedly different views.

In 1991 after being elected initially in 1988, the Greiner Coalition Government was reduced to a minority. At first it could rely on a conservative Independent and then needed support from three genuine Independents, who demanded implementation of a Charter of Reform. In return the Independents promised not to support opposition motions of no confidence and not to block genuine money bills.

Some Coalition MPs later admitted that the extra parliamentary scrutiny saved the government from making embarrassing mistakes and helped improve legislation. The lack of a majority did however, lead to some desperate measures and eventually to the resignation of the premier.

The online lobby group GetUP! organised a National Press Club Forum for crossbenchers this week. Independents Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott and Bob Katter were joined by the Greens' Adam Bandt.

Bandt's perspective was different from that of the Independents. He seemed prepared to accept a role in a Labor Government to advance Greens policies and ideals. The Independents said they would reject offers of a ministry or the speakership under the same old 'red team — blue team' arrangements.

They emphasised that stability for the next three years was their agreed aim and that they would reject overtures from any party that seemed interested in returning to the people for a majority.

Clearly, they would throw away a unique opportunity if one of the major parties sought a majority at a fresh election because with a majority they could continue to ignore the crossbenchers. In the view of the Independents, to ignore the crossbench is to ignore the parliament.

Oakeshott challenged the other 145 MPs to help sort out the post-election mess and questioned why major party backbenchers were leaving negotiations to their leaders.

The Independents noted that excellent, objective and widely consulting reports had been brought to Parliament, but that they had been wasted. The Garnaut Report on climate change, Henry Report on tax reform and the deliberations of the '20-20 Summit' created perfect opportunities for the Parliament to advance serious issues. Instead, executive government had assumed control and the major parties had sought political advantage. The resulting inaction led to the community cynicism expressed in the election.

Windsor stressed the importance of stability over the Parliament's full three year term. Oakeshott stressed that by involving local stakeholders in his mid NSW north coast seat he had been able to achieve a great deal for his electorate. He called MPs the 'building blocks' of democracy and stressed that the Independents saw themselves as wanting to build something better rather than wreck anything.

Optimistically perhaps, Oakeshott suggested that an executive might be formed with people from across the Parliament, including both major parties and crossbenchers.

The Independents also appealed to the media to embrace the opportunity for change. Media support seems unlikely given that most of the questions directed at the Independents were attempts to determine exactly what price they wanted to support one major party or the other.

The Independents have divergent opinions about major issues such as how to address climate change. But they agree that the best way to achieve workable solutions is to take Parliament seriously and to draw upon the wisdom collected there.

These three men rebelled against the strictures placed on their participation in Parliament by Coalition pressures and left the National Party to sit on the crossbenches. All three are keenly supported by their regional electorates. No-one should doubt their very legitimate mandates to work for their constituents.

As the late Peter Andren, Independent MP for Calare often indicated, the MP must also consider the common good. In the time that they have been the subjects of intense media scrutiny, Windsor, Oakeshott and Katter have shown that they are dedicated fully to the national interest.

Tony SmithTony Smith holds a PhD in political science. He has taught at several universities including the University of Sydney. 

Topic tags: Independents, Gillard, Abbott, Bob Katter, Adam Bandt, Rob Oakeshott, Tony Windsor, Andrew Wilkie



submit a comment

Existing comments

A good letter Tony, I share your sentiments.
At previous election, as usual I voted Labor in both upper and lower houses.
If we were forced back to the poles in a few weeks I would definitely vote for a good Independent.

I have had enough of red and blue team antics and now having had a taste of it, crave more transparency in politics.
I see this as a rare and historic opportunity to "really move forward" regardless of which team gains the most seats.

John Whitehead | 26 August 2010  

See "The Builders" by Henry Wadsworth LONGFELLOW at

Bob GROVES | 26 August 2010  

I agree Tony. If only party politics could be just put aside for a time and serious thoughtful changes made to increase accountability, transparency and informed outcomes - then the national interest would be well served.

But can the parties do it? Can they serve the public good first, before the party?

Helen Bergen | 26 August 2010  

As a south-east Queenslander, watching Labor 'bleed' to such an extent Saturday night was an absolute shocker! It confirmed my suspicion that a lot of voters would succumb to Abbott and his cohort's "two proxy-state elections" at a federal election. However, given Abbott's "luck" and just how much he and his campaign machine got away with, and the way he has begun negotiations with the three Independents, IF he is sworn in as the nation's next Prime Minister, "The Real Tony" will be marched back to the polls within six-twelve months. I KNOW Queenslanders will not be so 'shallow' next time.

Karen-Maree Kelly | 26 August 2010  

Well said Tony!
I was a Commonwealth Public Servant for thirty two years.

I know from personal experience the work that went into Parliamentary Reports under both ALP and L/NP governments.
Public servants took great pride in their professionalism in researching for and compiling such reports. Over the years this pride gives way to either cynicism or a feeling of helplessness.

Most of the reports' recommendations are usually rejected or ignored on political grounds.

Fortunately over the years eager young thrusters join the APS and the process of initial pride giving way to hopelessnes starts all over again.

Most MPs and journalists settle for the Red Team v Blue Team approach to politics.
Let's hope these Independents will change the ball game.

Uncle Pat | 26 August 2010  

If as the learned Mr Smith says; "that they have shown that they are dedicated fully to the national interest" then why don't they stop shilly shallying around and 'commit' to one party or the other and lets get on with it!

rhonda | 26 August 2010  

Come on Rhonda, surely you would wish that the decisions of each of the independents would be 'evidence-based'? The questions they are now asking are new, they were certainly not addressed by either major party during the election campaign. Is it too much for them to insist that whatever level of 'commitment' they make is conditional?

Both major parties lost this election in the House; neither has been given to opportunity to govern. And the result in the Senate means that both major parties have been denied the opportunity to be an elected dictatorship of the sort we saw in the last term of the Howard government.

A little contrition and humility from both major parties might be out of character, but it would not be out of place.

Trevor | 27 August 2010  

Karen-Maree, how do you KNOW Queenslanders will not be so 'shallow' next time?
One searing moment watching the count on election night (from France) was ABC TV’s live cross to newly re-elected member for Bowman in Queensland. Kerry O’Brien asked Andrew Laming what were the factors in such a dramatic swing to the conservatives.
Without hesitation, Laming proclaimed proudly “Anna Bligh”. O’Brien could have asked “Which federal policy area was she responsible for again?” but his mouth just hung open with dismay. In the background were election posters with Anna Bligh and Julia Gillard together.

What hope is there for democracy when ignorance and naiveté are so prevalent - and are actually encouraged by at least one political party?

Alan Austin | 28 August 2010  

Thank you for a very thoughtful article. Media support is practically non-existent, being more like sports reports from very partisan writers. One very senior journalist who is fond of reporting "leaks", has this weekend written an article remarking on the three Independents enjoying their moment in the sun. The inference seems to be, enjoy it, it won't last long. He even declared us to be without a government. I could have sworn we had a caretaker government but I must be mistaken.

These three Independents have 68 years experience between them and I feel confident that they are sincere in wanting a stable government which will last for three years and they should be allowed to work it out without being told what to do by the news media.

P. Oliver | 29 August 2010  

This election is one of the best things that has happened to our democratic process in years. My family. Back to my great grandparents has a long history of involvement in politics. If I look so much of that has been in the centre and the changing parties has occurred as the parties have changed the ground they hold. I spent years in local government unaligned fighting on issues not the party line.

Back when Howard became prime minister I ran a winning election campaign for an independent beating the party hacks. In recent years though I have despaired as opinion polls and focus groups have replaced values and debate. To me it felt like we were losing our democracy and freedom and identity. It is as if we sold out to fear and replaced it with emptiness. This uncertainty is such a creative opportunity.

John Dallimore | 31 August 2010  

Similar Articles

Beyond the selfish election

  • Andrew Hamilton
  • 27 August 2010

The churches, with their tradition of recognising the deeper values in human beings and society, can play an important part in generating a richer vision of Australian society. They'll need to cooperate with other groups who decry the self-interested focus in Australian politics.


Hung parliament could be the making of Gillard

  • Tony Kevin
  • 24 August 2010

There was a massive loss of confidence in Labor's policies. The Australian electorate saw through the triviality of what both major parties were offering. Gillard would deserve her party's full support in leading a Labor Government in a hung parliament. This may be the making of her as a great prime minister.



Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up