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Independents and micro party success stories



The brand images of independents and minor parties are now totally confused because in the Senate the antics of so-called independents who flit backwards and forwards are almost unbelievable. The time is right then, when the independent/micro party brand has been so badly damaged, to look at the success stories in the non-major party world.

Cathy McGowanThe Greens, often side-lined in current debates, have largely held together despite their bitter internal arguments and divisions in places like their NSW branch and in Batman in Victoria. They have managed the leadership transition from Bob Brown to Christine Milne and then to Richard di Natale and voted together as a unified Senate team throughout the Rudd-Gillard-Abbott-Turnbull years. More importantly they have maintained deep, grass-roots community links and attracted extensive, and often youthful, representation in local governments and state parliaments.

Cathy McGowan (pictured), independent MHR for Indi (Victoria) since 2013, has also been successful. The Indi story has been dissected by Associate Professor Carolyn Hendricks of ANU in the Australian Journal of Political Science and her article, called 'Citizen-led democratic reform', should be read by anyone interested in independent or minor party politics. The ingredients were displayed earlier this month in Wodonga in a workshop for 'people interested in representing their community by standing as a candidate at a local, state or federal election or people seeking to support a future candidate'.

This workshop, 'Getting Elected to Represent Your Community', was presented by Voices4Indi, the community movement behind McGowan's election, which has grown and diversified to be a powerful force for community education, engagement and activism in the wider north-east Victoria region. This intensive workshop was addressed not only by Hendricks and myself, but also by Mary Crooks of the Victorian Women's Trust on 20 years of the trust's 'Kitchen Table Conversation Model', which is a successful approach to grass-roots-led change in organisations and in political representation.

McGowan spoke too, along with other successful Independents like the State Member for Shepparton District, Suzanna Sheed, and young Independent and Green new-style local government representatives, including Dr Amanda Cohn, Greens Deputy Mayor of Albury, and Jenny O'Connor, Independent Mayor of Indigo Shire Council.

Yet work-shopping in Wodonga we seemed to be in a parallel universe because, in the middle of such positive energy, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party was disintegrating once again. But that was just one example of failure and confusion as Independents Nick Xenophon, Cory Bernardi and Jacqui Lambie formed parties, teams or networks.

The replacement of Senators who are declared ineligible under S. 44, like Lambie, Malcolm Roberts and Bob Day, showed the organisational immaturity within these micro parties. Their replacements have each joined other parties after a brief period as an Independent. Steve Martin is now a National, Fraser Anning with Katter's Australian Party and Lucy Gichuhi a Liberal.


"Constantly in the limelight, they are pursued relentlessly by the government and opposition. It has made teamwork essential but fraught, while giving many team leaders dangerous delusions of grandeur."


The parliamentary instability in micro parties, like the Palmer United Party and Hanson's One Nation, has been exacerbated by their leaders' failure to knit together the disparate bunch of MPs elected in their name.

Unlike the Green Senators these independent-cum-micro party senators are not bound together by party values or even by tribalism but by the thin threads of anti-major party angst. Without roots in the community or a decent organisational wing they fall apart.

The Nick Xenophon Team, now Centre Alliance, did best because they came from one state, and several of them had previously worked for Xenophon. Even then the choice of replacements for Xenophon and Senator Skye Kakoschke-Moore caused internal dissension, meaning Tim Storer now sits as an Independent.

The final straw has been the pressure that holding the balance of power has put on these newly-elected teams and individuals. Constantly in the limelight, they are pursued relentlessly by the government and opposition. It has made teamwork essential but fraught, while giving many team leaders dangerous delusions of grandeur.

The contrast between success and failure shows that successful independents and minor parties cannot just be based on major party disillusionment, creative election campaigns, or attractive candidates, but also on deep listening to and engaging with their communities which enable a positive and grounded alternative to be offered to voters.



John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and chairs Concerned Catholics Canberra-Goulburn.

Topic tags: John Warhurst, banks, royal commission, clergy sexual abuse



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Existing comments

The key ingredient for independent success appears to be that they are a single unit. It allows the electorate to bond with the person and to test their integrity on an individual basis. Cathy McGowan has developed personal relationships and answers directly to her electorate not complicated by a party structure. In contrast, Pauline Hanson et al have tried to run a party the same way, it doesn't work.

Carol | 20 June 2018  

Great analysis that supports those working in the community sector where societal change, accountability and hopefulness occurs.

Patricia Gates | 20 June 2018  

A clear and sound analysis John. You noted something I’ve suspected for a while. The micro parties built around personality rather than policy – Hanson, Palmer and others – are not united by any positive message they have to contribute to better the community. Their unity comes from negatives – what they don’t like about our system. Along with minimal, if any, party structure, they fall apart because, outside their shared negativity, their members don’t really agree with each other. In contrast, Cathy McGowan is an interesting example of an independent with a strong local base. She is the sort of successful conservative person whom you would normally expect to find in the Liberal Party. In her electorate I think the Liberals made a mistake preselecting a candidate who, frankly, much of the electorate simply did not want when they got to know her. Then the Liberals repeated the mistake. When the independent values are closer to the community than those of the major party the outcome is going to be pretty obvious. BTW John, I heard you on community radio in Canberra a few weeks ago. You made good sense then too.

Brett | 20 June 2018  

The very architecture of the parliament building predicates or dictates two ways of looking at everything. But beyond the bifurcation it may be the third or fourth option which is needed. Instead of, John, as your article suggests tribal reactions to the other on, for want of a better word, principle. And the current limelight for folks without the structures, traditions and know how of a major party is a toxic mix for novices. It means that a single fanatic can sway the whole result. Maybe with backing from the NRA. The hopefulness of the scene is the workshop in Wodonga addressed by those who could supply a less contaminated version of what a major party might supply and the hopefulness of the number of women involved. Maybe if you don't have to answer to a party you can more ably answer to your electorate and your conscience.

Michael D. Breen | 20 June 2018  

I was part of the Victorian Women's Trust's 'Kitchen Table Conversation Model'. The Purple Sage project book sits on my table as a reminder of what is possible when the fabric of society is being ripped apart by policies that destroy individual and societal trust and transparency (together). Just look at relevant countries today .. separating families at a border and mocking the suffering humanity emanating from it. It's unbearable. Meaningful conversations (like kitchen table ones) have the capacity to engage people in the things that matter ... and in ways that bring needs and wisdom to the table without rank, privilege or judgment. There are skills required in how the initial approach needs to be made (a do or die moment!) as this is the first point at which trust is either held or lost ... but having a good bull-detector helps ... the credibility of the VWT was already embedded in the lives of the women who knew its work ... and re Cathy McGowan, country people tend to be very earthy which also helps. Ultimately though, what is being "sniffed out", "tested", and "accepted or rejected", are values ... hence the difference between Cathy McGowan and Pauline Hanson .. and, as you rightly say John, organisational immaturity.

Mary Tehan | 20 June 2018  

My choice will certainly be Sustainable Australia with its realistic policies regarding immigration reduction (but not for genuine refugees) and moderate, middle of the road policies in other areas. Its founder I have found to be an unassuming, level-headed and thoughtful, very different to some of those mentioned.

John Bunyan | 21 June 2018  

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