While the odds are heavily against it (and getting longer), pundits love to talk up the chance of a hung parliament, in which independents would hold the balance of power in the House of Representatives. Probably the only people who love it more are the independents themselves. Hence, Bob Katter, member for Kennedy, clearly enjoying the attention he’s been getting from media outlets, including yesterday’s Crikey.

But Katter also told Crikey that there’s potentially more to the equation than the three sitting independents (himself, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott) and the possible new Greens member for Melbourne, Adam Bandt. He points us to John Clements, independent candidate for Parkes, the seat next to Windsor’s New England, and says he might just be joining the others in the new parliament.

Parkes is held by the Nationals’ Mark Coulton with a margin of 13.7%. But that overstates its safety: last time Coulton only had 46.8% of the primary vote, and an independent, Tim Horan, got 20.7%. If Horan had had just 3.5% more he would have gotten ahead of Labor, and then come close to winning the seat on Labor preferences. That’s what Clements (a former staffer to Windsor) hopes to do this time; as of this morning, Centrebet rates him a pretty creditable 5-1 shot.

The rise of independents has been every bit as striking as Katter makes out (although it’s not true to say he’s the first independent to win re-election — Ted Mack and Peter Andren managed it before him).

For the first 50 years of federal parliament, independents were relatively common — famously, it was the votes of two independents that put John Curtin into power in 1941. But they died out mid-century; for the 40 years before Mack’s win in 1990, only one independent won election to the lower house — Labor defector Sam Benson in 1966 — and then only for one term.

In the past 20 years, there has been a major revival. Mack was joined in 1993 by Phil Cleary, and in 1996 five independents won seats. Only Andren survived in 1998 (he retired in 2007), but Katter, Windsor and Oakeshott have successively bolstered the cross-bench contingent, and all of them look like staying for as long as they want — the major parties have pretty much given up attempting to unseat them.

Historically, most independents have started out in one of the major parties, and the current three are no exception, having all started out in the National Party. Clearly one of the factors in the rise of independents has been that party’s decline. Voting National is just no longer the universal norm it used to be in many rural areas, and this sets up a vicious circle: the Nationals lose viability and therefore cling more tightly to the Liberal Party, and country voters see that their independent voice has been lost and so shift even further towards the independents.

But independents have had success in the cities as well. Mack and Cleary represented urban seats, and Sydney, Perth and Adelaide have all elected multiple independents to their state parliaments in recent years. Something about the condition of our major parties is evidently driving people not just towards the Greens but also to an ideologically diverse range of independents.

Katter and his colleagues may miss out on their day of glory this year, but they’re not going away any time soon.