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Rebels with a cause.

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Thursday 10 June 2004

Brian Costar, Associate Professor of Politics, Monash University


Rebels with a Cause  


From the sometimes controversial deal making of Tasmanian Senator, Brian Harradine to the government making of Independent MPs in almost every State, non-party parliamentarians have had a significant impact on Australian politics over the past decade. 


They have held the balance of power in NSW, Vic.,QLD, SA, TAS and the ACT. A loose alliance of Independents currently holds the balance of power in the Senate and the re-election, with an increased majority, in 2001 of Peter Andren in the NSW seat of Calare shows that politicians holding unpopular views- in his case on asylum seekers-can still retain the respect and support of their constituents. 


As the federal election approaches, it is appropriate to examine how and why Independents have carved out a niche in our two-party dominant system. 


Independents are not a new ingredient in Australian politics. At the very first federal election in 1901 an Independent was elected. Twenty more followed, three of whom (Peter Andren, Bob Katter and Tony Windsor) serve in the current House of Representatives. While there have been Independents scattered throughout the federal and State parliaments for many years, it is only since the late 1980s that we have been able to speak of an “independent movement.”  


To speak of an “age of independents” is extravagant, but it is true that they currently hold an attraction for an increasing number of electors disenchanted with an ageing party system. 


This has positive and negative consequences. Independent parliamentarians can increase governmental accountability and transparency, but to whom are Independents accountable between elections? Despite their faults, the temptation to demonise the major parties should be resisted. They have delivered generally stable and effective government for a century and many party politicians serve the needs of their constituents as well as any Independents. 


Since 1980 an unprecedented 56 Independents have served in Australia’s parliaments; 25 of them are still there.  


A disproportionate number of them have come from rural or regional constituencies, reflecting a level of disillusionment with the major parties - particularly the Liberal and National parties. This disillusionment is the product of disruptive economic change in many areas of rural Australia.  


Australia currently is home to more non-party Independent parliamentarians than any other comparable country. This is puzzling since our political system has regularly been characterised as two-party dominant and highly stable. Three factors have produced the change. 


First, over the past three decades the major political parties have largely abandoned traditional rural policies and now require regional communities to be more self-reliant. 


Second, while overall support for the major parties is in long-term decline, the control those parties try to exert over the actions of their parliamentarians has rarely been greater. By adopting rigid neoliberal ideology and policies, the Liberal, Labor and National parties have rendered some of their local MPs electorally vulnerable to Independents who are unfettered by party discipline.  


Third, although it was designed by and for major parties, Australia’s electoral system of compulsory, preferential voting aids the cause of Independents. Those voters disillusioned with their traditional party of choice are compelled to vote and the major parties usually direct second preferences to Independents rather than to each other. 


Because the Liberal and National Parties hold more regional seats than the Labor Party, independents defeated Coalition candidates twice as often as they defeated Labor ones during the past two decades, and each of the seats they have won was previously very “safe” for the losing party.  


The major parties regularly deride Independents for being ineffective and tell electors not to “waste” their votes on them. The behaviour of the Howard government between the 1998 election, which it nearly lost to Labor, and 2001 suggests that the reality is otherwise. There is clear evidence that the Coalition, in order to regain ground lost to One Nation and Independents, pork barrelled regional and rural electorates. 


Ironically, the more governments spend in electorates held by Independents, the more it encourages voters to continue to support them so as to attract additional largesse. 


Independents stir passions within the political elite. Some welcome them as agents of accountability who break the hold of the major parties over both parliament and government; whereas others denounce them as self-interested blackmailers who corrupt the policy process.  


The voters, however, have developed a liking for a sprinkling of Independents and it is quite possible the next federal election may add to their numbers.  


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