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The perils of holding the balance of power


'Independents' by Chris JohnstonThe election result has already anointed winners and losers. They will only be confirmed by the final minority government outcome. The early winners are the balance of power holders, the rural Independents in the House of Representatives and the Greens in the Senate.

The Independents have hit the jackpot in terms of popularity and potential power. They have generated an amazing level of euphoria among the media and within the general community about their merits as individuals and as MPs; merits it must be said that were not previously recognised so enthusiastically.

They can now put demands to the major party leaders knowing that they have great leverage. These demands can range widely over what I have called the three Ps: policy, pork-barrel and preferment. To that list can be added a fourth P: Parliament.

They have already generated a range of interesting ideas about reform of Parliament and possible new public policies, capitalising on widespread public disillusionment with the party political system.

Sitting on large majorities in their own electorates they speak from a position of personal security. But they know that that security can always evaporate if they neglect or anger their own constituents.

An even bigger danger facing the Independents is that they are raising expectations about a 'new politics', like others before them, that may be eventually dashed. Kevin Rudd was one who suffered from raising expectations with excessive hyperbole about great moral challenges. This happened too with the Democrats who promised to keep the bastards honest.

Some of their ideas, like limited parliamentary reform, are practical, but others, like grand coalitions, are naive. The forces behind the status quo are strong and the public is fickle. If the Independents fail to deliver they might eventually suffer a backlash.

The Australian Greens' vote share has risen to new heights despite considerable opposition, including a vigorous last-minute attempt to scuttle them by a coalition that included sections of the media, the mining magnate Andrew Forrest on economic issues, and church magnate Cardinal George Pell on social issues. Like minor parties before them, the Greens, with limited resources to fight back, were hit hard but survived.

Notably the Greens represented an alternative to the major parties on issues like climate change, asylum seekers and refugees, same sex marriage, and the war in Afghanistan.

On some of these issues, like climate change and same sex marriage, opinion polls suggest they represent majority public opinion. On others, like asylum seekers and Afghanistan, their policies may only represent minority opinion, but they are contested issues on which debate should not be closed off.

Already a more open debate on the military commitment to Afghanistan is on the agenda.

The Greens too have scored by winning the balance of power in the Senate from next July. When that happens, it will generate the same hyper-publicity as is now enveloping the Independents. It will be the new Greens team on the front pages. The Greens too will have their opportunity to influence government policy (whether Abbott or Gillard) and, if they wish, to attempt to reform the operations of the Senate.

Not only do the Greens share similar opportunities as the Independents but they, in time, will come to share the dangers. They must satisfy rising expectations, among their members and supporters especially, while maintaining their core values.

That will not be easy as the Democrats found to their peril and eventual demise. The Democrats did their most productive work under Hawke-Keating Labor, and split and ultimately perished under a Howard Coalition government. The Greens too will be more relaxed, but still alert, under a Labor government, but may have to cross swords with a Coalition government.

This is an exciting time in parliamentary politics. However, history contains some sobering lessons for both the Independents and the Greens. They have to steel themselves for extensive negotiations and carefully manage the rising expectations that their success has created.

John WarhurstEmeritus Professor John Warhurst of the Australian National University is a Canberra Times columnist and worked for SBS television on election night.


Topic tags: independents, green, adam bandt, rob oakeshott, tony windsor, bob katter, hung parliament, election 2010



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Existing comments

Thank you, Eureka Street, for publishing commentaries by Prof Warhurst.

He is a credit to ANU and the discipline of Political Science. I don't know what store he would set on anecdotal evidence but I have heard Catholic voices in my NSW seaside community say that the strident attacks on The Greens by Cardinal Pell and CEO Catholic Education Victoria convinced them to give The Greens the Number One vote for the Senate - even though they were not their first choice for House of Reps.

I shouldn't be surprised that working class Catholics in the pews have a better appreciation of the subtleties of democratic politics than comfortable clerics in the pulpit and self-serving bureaucrats in sinecures.

Uncle Pat | 30 August 2010  

In many ways Labor and Coalition have suffered because of their success in controlling the loony elements and actually providing achievable policies. To me it looks many voters had become bored as the old battle between the left and right was no longer clearly defined. The election was no longer a battle between “good” and “bad”; it was a contest between two fair and acceptable combatants. A few years ago Pauline Hanson attracted frustrated voters from the ultra right, more recently the Greens provided a dump for of ultra left frustration. Most Australians want a good centralist Government with fair policies towards all. Over 80% of voters gave Labor and Liberals the thumbs up. It will be important for Labor and the Coalition to start working together for the good of Australia. If they remain firm, they will keep on having the confidence of most Australians.

Beat Odermatt | 30 August 2010  

Thanks for this, John. The paragraph summarising the relative popularity of Greens' policy stances well expresses their political position.

The present kerfuffle revolves around the sometimes contradictory requirements of establishing ministerial government and fulfilling the obligation of electoral representation. There is a trend in the electorate toward the realisation that the LibLab Party has not always met this contradiction with satisfactory balance.

Perhaps there should be formal separation of representation and ministerial government. This would be effected by doing away with the State-based electoral division of the Senate, and electing it from a single nationwide electorate.

Senators would then elect Prime Minister and ministers from among its own ranks, and the House of single-member Representatives would become the House of Review.

David Arthur | 30 August 2010  

We should see more pragmaticism and less ideology. Over recent years we have seen the independence of the public service decimated by both sides of politics with the ideology of the 1980s. Then the fashionable dogma was that governments should keep out of business leaving it to private enterprise. Overseas both in the USA and Europe it has been found that private enterprise by itself will not invest in large infrastructure projects that don't make money. Governments have to underwrite such projects but there has to be safeguards against shoddy operators and corruption. That is where a good public service comes in in the Westminster system.

John Ozanne | 30 August 2010  

I'm not so sure that the Senate Greens and the Reps independents do occupy similar position.

For one thing, any one or two of the independents could bring down the government by crossing the floor, whereas the Greens will not be able to do that and will only be able to block government legislation if the Opposition also opposes it.

For another, the political future of each independent depends directly on the vote in his (there are no hers) electorate, whereas each of the Green senators has a much larger electorate in which she or he only needs a quota, not a majority. One or more of the independents may lose his seat at the next election over some local issue, but I doubt that the Greens will suffer as the Democrats did.

The Democrats fell because Meg Lees was seduced by the Coalition into abandoning her fellow Dems and supporting the GST when the electorate had put the Dems there to oppose it. That photo of Lees and Howard smiling together after their deal was the beginning of the end. The Greens are much more tightly organised than the Dems ever were, and they are unlikely to be caught out like that.

Some people are urging another election to resolve the impasse, but there is no reason to believe that another election will solve the problem. The truth is that both major parties lost this election. Neither obtained an absolute majority of seats in the reps, and their Senate results were even worse. Another election could very well reduce the votes of the major parties and result in another hung parliament.

The problem is that the major parties haven't yet got the message. Despite his words about a gentler parliament, Abbott is still behaving as a pugilist and Heffernan has now demonstrated that he is beyond learning. Gillard is making all the right noises of sweet reasonableness, but even if she personally is genuine, I doubt that the Sussex Street push has any intention of modifying its behaviour.

I frankly look forward to a period of knife-edge minority government where whoever is in government has to tread carefully and negotiate every step of the way.

Trevor | 30 August 2010  

Politicians 'need' to stop thinking Australian voters cannot 'handle' the truth! A recent, perfect example of this was with the leadership change in the Labor Party. Ms Gillard would have had a lot less shallow voters in Qld succumbing to Abbott and his cohort's "two proxy-state elections," at the federal election, had she followed her nose (which I believe she wanted to do) and explained to mystified Queenslanders - "Mr Rudd is experiencing a form of 'mental gridlock,' communication-wise, which he does not seem to be able to counter, and the better communicator has taken the helm. Mr Rudd remains a very important member of The Australian Labor Movement, and always will!"

People would have appreciated the facts being addressed, there is no shame in them. Leadership changes occur in powerful political parties, huge corporations and the like, every single day, all over the world. These political parties, corporations and movements then go on to successfully prosecute their agendas, as should The Australian Labor Party!

Karen-Maree Kelly | 30 August 2010  

I do not thank Eureka Street or Prof Warhurst. I am very disappointed by the above article and some of the submitted comments for being unkind to Cardinal George Pell. I thank God that we have Cardinal George Pell in Sydney, a loyal priest, a muscular Christian with the courage to stand up and defend and protect our Holy Catholic Faith from evil forces, the greens and the dissidents.

Ron Cini | 30 August 2010  

'Unkind to Cardinal George Pell'? I'm mystified by your posting Ron. John Warhurst mentions the Cardinal once,describing him as a 'church magnate', and saying that he was part of a 'vigorous last-minute attempt to scuttle them [the Greens]'. Pretty much the truth, I would have thought, and hardly 'unkind'.

There was only one (not some) submitted comment that mentioned the Cardinal, and that simply reported, presumably truthfully, an instance of the response by some Catholics to the Cardinal's words. How is that unkind?

Trevor | 31 August 2010  

Obviously your readers do not understand what the Greens stand for and I believe that Cardinal Pell is right to oppose this movement I would have thought that Eureka and its readers would echo that view.

The outcome of the election is an absolute disaster. It has left most people I talk to worried to say the least and these are people who voted for both the major parties.

The Greens are assuming a role that only a small minority voted for.

Even the informal voters who actually wasted their vote by not following some sortof positive track to fulfil their obligations did not choose to vote for the Greens

Michael Wagner | 02 September 2010  

Professor Warhurst has great insights on this election. If you would like to hear more of his comments please visit.

Matthew Howard | 03 September 2010  

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