If I could make just one change to the way Australia does politics, it would be to somehow enforce the right of every parliamentarian, at every level, to vote in accordance with his or her conscience and constituency’s wishes. We could certainly learn from the United States and United Kingdom, where crossing the floor is often unremarkable.
This is one of the reasons I became an independent in 2008. After five years in public life I was over all the personal and political nonsense that seems to preoccupy so many party members and distracts them from the public interest. I was also very concerned at the emergence of the party-based professional political ruling class: in other words, those party members who go to university, become political staffers and spend a disproportionate amount of time playing political games and currying favour. You can imagine the sort: born to rule and having never done much else than play politics. No wonder so many of these hacks continue to look like they’re playing student politics well after they’ve moved up to the big house. The very best hacks become the very worst politicians. Parliament House, in Canberra but just as much in Hobart, is full of them.
Even the best of people with the best of intentions can struggle in a party environment. In fact, it’s probably the best people with the best intentions who struggle the most in parties because they’re so constrained by all the iron-clad policies and rules to be found there. Critics of the ALP would say Labor’s the worst offender because members must toe the party line and are expelled for crossing it. By comparison, the Liberal Party and Greens like to trumpet that their members are allowed the freedom to follow their conscience. But of course the reality is quite different: Liberal Party and Greens members face enormous pressure to behave and would likely see their political aspirations curtailed if ever they should cross the floor.
Independents have often held more influence in Canberra than their numbers alone suggest they should. Former Tasmanian senator Brian Harradine in particular was a political giant of his time, which included a stint holding the balance of power. More recently South Australian Senator Nick Xenophon has shared the balance of power and will do so again when the new Senate sits from July 1.
But it’s not just about occasionally holding the balance of power. History shows that governments often crave the imprimatur of well-regarded independents and will just as often pork-barrel their seats if only to try to win such sanction, or the seat itself, off them. But of course, much of this effort can be counterproductive because the more a government talks to and about an independent, and the more it dispenses largesse, the more the electorate sees the benefit in holding on to its independent. It’s not lost on some mainland politicians and commentators that the Abbott government is pushing ahead with the $16 million grant to Cadbury in Hobart while at the same time refusing SPC’s plea for $25 million in federal government investment in Victoria.
Mind you, there was no shortage of criticism levelled at independents Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott and me during the 43rd Parliament. We were described as Labor stooges because we backed Julia Gillard into government, and the prime ministership, after the 2010 election. The reality, though, is that the 150 members elected to the House of Representatives at that election were all elected fairly, and it was our responsibility to make the Parliament work, including the formation of a government and opposition. The alternative was to say the electorate had got it wrong and that we all had to keep going back to the polls until we got it right.
“A curious twist in the story is how Gillard effectively offered me Denison for keeps in mid-2011 …”
The 43rd Parliament — and the independents — did not deserve the criticism they attracted from their political opponents. Yes, it was often fractious, but that reflected the conduct of some of the people populating the Parliament, in particular the opposition’s efforts to destabilise proceedings. The reality is that the Parliament was remarkably stable, productive and reformist.
I doubt that Windsor or Oakeshott, or Katter for that matter, expected to face a power-sharing Parliament after the 2010 election. I certainly didn’t. But when confronted with one we all did our best to make it work as best we could. And for Windsor, Oakeshott and me, that ultimately meant giving certainty of supply and confidence to Julia Gillard or Labor; and I say “or”, because Windsor and Oakeshott entered into agreements with Labor, whereas I was careful to sign my deal with Gillard personally. I can’t speak for Windsor and Oakeshott, but what I can say is that I felt it appropriate to sign my deal with the person I’d negotiated it with, an approach that for a time, at least, may well have had the effect of helping to shore up her leadership and in doing so foster political stability.
A curious twist in the story is how Gillard effectively offered me Denison for keeps in mid-2011. We were holding one of our frequent meetings in Canberra and out of the blue she said I needed to think about my future and, in particular, whether I wanted to be the ALP Denison candidate at the next federal election or wanted Labor to not even run a candidate there at all. The alternative, clearly, was business as usual — and by implication a tough Labor campaign directed at me come election time. Of course Gillard’s approach to me was in the context of her trying to find a way to head off my bringing the government down. I rejected the suggestions.
But why didn’t Labor-leaning Denison turn on me after I tore up my agreement to support Gillard when, in January 2012, she reneged on her agreement with me to deliver deep poker machine reform? Perhaps that reflected the declining popularity of the prime minister, but in the mix has to be a craving in the community for principled political leadership. To that end Gillard failed to honour her word and it reflected very badly on her. For my part I’d promised repeatedly to withdraw my support if Gillard failed to honour her agreement, and that’s exactly what I did. Frequently afterwards constituents, often traditional Labor supporters, have voiced their approval of my response to the prime minister’s behaviour.
The opposition, and indeed some political commentators, speculated that the 2013 election would spell the end of the independents. But this didn’t happen, with the space left by Windsor and Oakeshott partly filled by Victorian independent Cathy McGowan after her defeat of Liberal frontbencher Sophie Mirabella, while Xenophon stormed home, winning almost two Senate quotas. My own figures were a swing of almost 17% to me on primaries and more than 14% on a two-candidate preferred basis.
There’s certainly a hunger for more independents by many in the community who are sick and tired of politics, politicians and the political parties. But it’s a tough road to hoe for independents, and the parties will do their best to make it all the tougher. After all, the parties like their cushy duopoly on power and don’t take kindly to those who come along and threaten it. Bad luck, I say; they’d better get used to it because we’re here to stay and hopefully prosper.
*This is an extract of an article originally published in Island #136