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Election 2022: The value of independents

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Few sights are more desperate than old political parties on the run. In this Australian federal election, the challenge from independents and smaller parties has sparked a nervous reaction, much of it negative and most of it misplaced.

An example of such nervousness came from startling remarks from former Treasurer Joe Hockey that he would sooner see Liberal seats fall to Labor than independents. Sounding distinctly illiberal, he suggested that independents were all too representative, populists of the electorate. Broad, party-based machines made the ‘tough decisions’ such as going to war, irrespective of whether popular will sought it; independents, being a mere ‘voice of one’, would only believe in principle rather than ‘consensus’.

This astonishing, if frank admission, belies the deeper problem with parties which continuously fail to understand that Parliament comprises a body of individuals supposedly representative of the electorate who put them there.

This same lack of understanding colours the reasoning of Australia’s second longest serving Prime Minister, John Howard, who can only reason along traditional party lines. For him, independent candidates on the conservative side of politics who were ‘disillusioned with the government’ were engaging in some ‘very strange logic’ in running. ‘The only possible consequence of these candidates being successful is medium to long term damage to the Liberal Party. They won’t inflict any damage to the Labor Party.’

Such an argument tends to ignore the fact that Labor faces, and has faced, its own threats from independents and Greens candidates disgruntled by the party’s erratic approach to fossil fuels and the opening of new mines. Along with the Liberals, they continue to insist on the status quo, refusing to make deals or arrangements with independent candidates to form government, even in the event of a hung parliament.

 

'A case can be made that Australia’s 43rd parliament, which saw the remarkable labours of such centrist independents as Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor, was truer to basic parliamentary principles than others.'

 

Australia’s longest serving Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, is similarly hostile to independents though gives little reason to appreciate an electoral system that sees, time and time again, a blood-letting battle between ‘the two major parties’ who fight ‘each other to a standstill.’

Understandably, his position is shaped by what yielded success: a long spell in government; the war chest filled with personnel and funds that comes with traditional politics. Independents – ‘so-called’, he sneers – were ‘little more than the most loathsome example of pork-barrel gangsters’. He implicitly touches on gender, suggesting that independent female candidates could potentially unseat MPs such as Josh Frydenberg and Dave Sharma, ‘who could become truly great men.’ Any victorious independents would eventually vanish, ‘totally forgotten in 10 years’ time.’

Such crude, incomplete assessments of independents ignore the fact that party machines are often filled with barely recognisable figures who react like obedient automata once they enter Parliament. They forget their electors with amnesiac flourish, elevating party discipline and conformity over parliamentary integrity. Voting against the government or party of the day – evidenced by the February crossing of the floor by five Liberal MPs - leads to stern sessions of scolding, recrimination and even, in some cases, expulsion. The party comes first; parliament is a mere vehicle to be oiled and tuned for policy.

High profile independents, boosted by the success of the ‘Voices of’ movement propelled by former Indi independent, Cathy McGowan, are threatening to upset the applecart in a number of seats. Almost all of them are women; and the seats, held by Liberals.

Former ABC journalist Zoe Daniel is running in Goldstein against Tim Wilson. In North Sydney, incumbent Trent Zimmerman is attempting to fend off the challenge from Kylea Tink. A similar challenge is being mounted by Allegra Spender in the seat of Wentworth, held by Dave Sharma.

There are already a number of independents with strong chances to be re-elected: Andrew Wilkie (Clark, Tasmania), Rebekha Sharkie (Mayo, South Australia), Zali Steggall (Warringah, NSW) and Bob Katter (Kennedy, Queensland). Helen Haines, who succeeded McGowan in Indi — the first example in Australian federal politics of one independent replacing another — is in with a fighting chance.

Support is also forthcoming from other sources keen to push independents into the parliamentary mix. Climate 200, an outfit founded by clean energy advocate Simon Holmes à Court, is promising to fund independent candidates who can challenge a system ‘too broken to tackle climate change’. Some 20 ‘underdog candidates who stand for cleaning politics and following the science on climate change’ will be backed.

The standard reaction from the major parties — in this case, the Liberals — is that such candidates are not genuinely independent at all. This is also a favourite theme of the Murdoch press stable, who pursue that rather novel line that independents who have never run for office should somehow have no access to advice or expertise in campaigning and fundraising. Sky News has been particularly insistent that candidates such as Spender and Tink were tarnished by receiving advice from the communications agency, Populares, founded by former GetUp Campaign Director Mark Connelly.

Another almost idiosyncratic prong in the argument against the independents, one run by David Crowe for Nine newspapers, is that their triumph potentially risks sweeping ‘moderate Liberals out of Parliament while leaving conservatives untouched.’ The implication here is that you are better off sticking to the traditional political set, lest it cause dramatic change, such as shifting the Liberal Party ‘to the right.’

Democracy, in its genuine form, is a messy, untidy business that requires industry, negotiation and working across the aisle. There is no better demonstration of this than a government needing to work, rather than one holding a thumping majority urging rubberstamping from Parliament. A case can be made that Australia’s 43rd parliament, which saw the remarkable labours of such centrist independents as Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor, was truer to basic parliamentary principles than others.

Despite being obstinately, even crankily devoted to Labor, that contrarian man of letters Bob Ellis swooned over Windsor and Oakeshott, along with Katter and a freshly elected Adam Bandt, the lower house’s only Greens MP. They had, he wrote, ‘reminded us of our duties in democracy: to think about our country and to plan, or dream, its future.’ They had been elected for their conscience and ‘because they thought about things.’ Australian voters have something to look forward to, much to the chagrin of traditional party strategists and apparatchiks.

 

 


 

Binoy KampmarkDr Binoy Kampmark is a former Commonwealth Scholar who lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Main image: A view of voters in the electorate of Eden-Monaro in Canberra, Australia. (Martin Ollman / Getty Images) 

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, Election, AusPol, AustraliaVotes2022, Independents, parliament

 

 

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Existing comments

Some of the serving Independents in Parliament, like Helen Haines, Cathy McGowan's successor in Indi; that wonderful maverick, North Queensland's own Bob Katter and Andrew Wilkie, who forfeited a career to tell the truth about the Invasion of Iraq have provided sterling service, which I doubt a party hack of either side could. Allegra Spender is political royalty, whose family have provided exemplary service to this nation. She is a Wentworth local, born and bred and reflects the feelings of the electorate, as did Kerryn Phelps. She is interestingly, a Cambridge graduate, as is her Liberal opponent, Dave Sharma. It will, I think, be a close contest there. If Sharma loses he is too good for the Liberal Party to lose and will have to be parachuted into another electorate later. The Liberal Party is no longer the Liberal Party of Menzies but hard line Conservative. Labor has basically lost its working class roots. They both need a good shakeup, which I think they will receive this election. The sky won't fall in if more good Independents, responsive to their electorates, as Zali Stegall is, are elected. Countries such as Switzerland function well with coalitions of more than two parties. Why not Australia? We are in for a new era in federal politics.


Edward Fido | 22 April 2022  

One reason for the rise of independents is the poor way the parties treat voters in the selection of candidates. Cathy McGowan’s success came largely from widespread dissatisfaction with the former Liberal MP for Indi. In other circumstances, someone with Cathy’s solid profile in her community could be expected to be the Liberal candidate. Voters elected someone they felt safe in trusting and she didn’t let them down. In Mayo in 2019, Rebekha Sharkie defeated Georgina Downer, a good Liberal candidate with possibly more nous to offer than her old man ever did. But she was a blow-in from Victoria who may have had more success had she contested a seat closer to her home. She may also have suffered from the Downer name, that made it look like she was inheriting the seat. Zali Steggall’s success showed that the Liberals should have ditched the former Member years ago. Steggall in other circumstances also might have been a Liberal candidate.

There are examples on the Labor side too, as the Parramatta candidate may show on 21 May.

Edward is right about the need for a shakeup to get the big parties to focus on community. Ideally I’d like to see proportional representation for the House of Representatives, but the Liberal/Labor coalition will ensure that never happens. So in some ways independent MPs are the next best thing for democracy.


Brett | 22 April 2022  

I concur with the concerns expressed by both major parties when it comes to voting for independents. After living through years of natural disasters and a global pandemic we need a government elected who can govern without needing to make shonky deals with ministers just to get things done. We experienced a hung parliament in 2010 and that parliamentary term was nothing more than shambolic. We also don’t need independents in the House who are there purely to drive the personal agendas of millionaires, or leaders like, Adam Bandt, who made some very outrageous statements during a National Press Conference Address recently on what he sees as the Greens position in the Senate. If we really want to see change within government we need a strong government leading, and the only way that will happen is to vote for one of the major parties. Then, it’s up to us to hold the MPs in our electorates accountable for underperformance and mismanagement by giving constructive feedback, or more importantly, acknowledgement when they get things right. As Australians, we all have a responsibility to drive the change to ensure we protect this beautiful country for future generations.


Anna | 23 April 2022  

While Binoy makes some excellent points about independence, some of his remarks lack context. In today's world the leading democratic theorist is the rational choice writer, Anthony Downs.

The problem with Downs' theory, persuasive though it is, is that it is a product of nearly a half-century of neo-liberal thought (or what's in it for me?).

Thus, good democratic leaders must not only gain the trust of their parties but also garner support for their vision and plans from a sizable component of the electorate.

Unfortunately party discipline militates against this and reinforces conformity and obedience. Hence the lack-lustre performance of our politicians. What is to be done about this?

Assuming that their Catholicism once informed their politics, some leaders, like Shirley Williams, lead their followers away from their party of origin and formed coalitions with other parties. While this sometimes works, the weakness of whips, as in India, led to a disastrous split which brought populist parties to the fore, such as the BJP.

I'd recommend, with prior permission, an interesting scholar called Udit Bhatia of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. His recent essay, 'CRACKING THE WHIP: THE DELIBERATIVE COSTS OF STRICT PARTY DISCIPLINE' is available to be read online.


Michael Furtado | 28 April 2022  

The 7.30 Report on the ABC last night was interesting. It featured several 'teal independents', including Zali Stegall. They all appeared as extremely well-educated, capable and progressive women. Someone said, if a few were elected, they may perform the function the Democrats once did of 'keeping the bastards honest'. Brett is correct: they are Liberals with insight and compassion. They need to avoid being drawn into a coalition of any sort. They should stay independent. Someone like Emmanuel Macron could change the sad, tired, ineffective face of Right/Left politics in France. He has won again. Both the Coalition and Labor are stale and tired. We need someone worthwhile to vote for. We need someone with vision and ability. ScoMo or Albo? Is that the only choice? Surely there is someone better out there?


Edward Fido | 28 April 2022  

Thank you Mr Kampmark for writing for Eureka when others (I imagine) offer much more. I always enjoy reading your balanced, well informed articles. Cheers, Bill


Bill | 29 April 2022  

There is an excellent article by Frank Bongiorno called 'Politics by other means' in this moth's issue of ABR ( see https://www.australianbookreview.com.au/abr-online/current-issue/977-may-2022-no-442/9088-politics-by-other-means-enlarging-our-diminished-sense-of-political-leadership-by-frank-bongiorno ) in which he points out the way in which both major parties have corrupted the notion of democracy and now operate as if they were simply corporations competing in a market for access to power and privilege. It's easy to read and well worth reading.


Ginger Meggs | 05 May 2022  

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