9. The importance of independents

The independent MPs in the Gillard lower house, and the independent senators in the Abbott government, have held a significant amount of power due to the lack of a complete majority.  Have these politicians been a help or a hindrance to these governments?  And have they been a help or a hindrance to the electorate?


One of the most interesting features of this, and the last parliament, is that neither government had a complete majority.  The Gillard government required support from the Greens, as well as a few of the independent members on the lower houses support in order to get legislation passed.  And whilst the Abbott government enjoys a majority in the lower house, they need support from a majority of cross-bench senators to get their legislation through the upper house.  In both these parliaments, the balance of power is effectively controlled outside the main parties, giving them an importance that they very rarely enjoy.  So how have they fared?

The Gillard government could very easily have been an Abbott government.  The independent members who held the balance were largely right leaning and more naturally aligned to the LNP than to a Labor that required total Greens support in the senate to pass legislation.  Yet much to Abbott’s clear anger, Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott and Andrew Wilkie threw their hats in with Gillard.   Conventional wisdom states that minority government are rarely effective, as they try to walk the tightrope of keeping a variety of different political perspective satisfied. Yet in passing 543 separate acts in 1098 days, this government has been particularly productive.

The current government enjoys a lower house majority, and as such has had no problems getting its legislation passed there.  Yet in the upper house, it has regularly failed to convince the cross-bench senators, either of minor parties or fully independent, that its legislation is reasonable.  Like the Gillard government, these cross-bench senators are largely right leaning, yet they have displayed a very different dynamic.  (On the same measure of productivity, they have been the least successful).

Ignoring the politics, what we can see is that in both governments, these independent members have had a significant influence.  Their different perspectives have been able to exert a moderating effect on legislative success or otherwise.

And because of this, the media has understandably shone a far greater light on these wielders of power. What has it revealed?

Firstly, the significant differences in how lower house and upper house members are elected does have an affect on the obvious political capability of those elected.   To obtain a seat in the lower house generally requires positive support from your electorate.  Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott, Andrew Wilkie, Bob Katter and Kathy McGowan are quite clearly well known and respected in their constituencies.  Even Clive Palmer enjoyed a clear degree of support in his electorate prior to his election.

Election to the senate is a somewhat different kettle of fish, with each state having 12 senators, each serving a 6 year term, and with only half being elected at each general election.  In the senate ballot, since voters are given a choice of a single tick above the line for their preferred party OR numbering your preference in order for each and every candidate (sometimes over 100), it perhaps isn’t surprising that a new anomalies occur, particularly due to the often complex preferencing rules that parties work out prior to the election.  Thus we have senators like Ricky Muir from the Driving Enthusiast party gaining a senate seat, despite having only polled less than 0.5% of the primary vote, preferences built his vote to 14.3%, and was duly elected as a senator. Or David Leyonhjelm of the Liberal Democratic whom many suspect was only elected due to his party being named the Liberal Democrats, and as it appeared in the ballot paper before the actual Liberals!  And the different rules bring in a very different complexion to the representation of smaller parties such as the Greens, or indeed the recently created Palmer United party, which delivered just the one MP, the eponymous Mr Palmer himself, but three senators (of whom two have since defected to become independents!).   Interestingly, it was the three senators that gave Mr Palmer his fairly short-lived political clout, since largely dissipated since now controlling only one senator, no longer a significant power bloc.

What is very clear however, is that being outside of a party system, these independents are much less restricted in what they can vote for, or indeed talk to the media about.  Shock, horror!  Politicians that actually follow their consciences and say what they think!  Which has made them utterly and absolutely invaluable in providing a buffer to the worst excesses of ideology of the major parties.

So how was Gillard’s government more effective in passing legislation than Abbott’s government?  Because in order to get legislation passed, it had to be acceptable to a much wider section of the community (or at least the representatives of those sections of the electorate – Labor, Greens AND the cross-bench).  This required much more discussion and negotiation prior to legislation being introduced to the parliament.  And despite having to negotiate with the very different perspectives of right leaning, left leaning, and Green leaning politicians, they managed.

Contrast this to the current government which has the worst record.  It’s failure to produce legislation in the lower house that is acceptable to the opposition and the cross-bench, is due to a lack of ability to work with the cross-bench to build legislation that is acceptable to those politicians most susceptible to the attitudes of the general public.  They have tried every trick they can to try and coerce the cross bench with differing degrees of success.  Bribery, blackmail, threats, ridicule – all attempted, yet rarely successful.

And there lies the rub.  To become a politician representing a political party, you can only get that role by joining that party and getting endorsement from local party members (with the blessings of the central party apparatus).  In return you are much more likely to be elected as a representative of a party than as an independent, as much because voters think they understand what each party stands for and thus tend to vote for that “concept” or indeed the “leader” rather than the “candidate”.  Even if unpopular locally, the party supported candidate is more likely to keep their seat if their party maintains enough popularity – you only get to vote for whom the party supplies.  And they tend to retain their seats because the major parties will continue to repeat the mantra that voting for the smaller parties and independents are wasted votes.  These parties will never form government, therefore why bother supporting them. It is a persuasive argument, particularly in political systems like the UK which still maintain a “first past the post” rather than the system of preferences we have in Australia, but the argument will still be trotted out nonetheless.

In contrast, independents are much more beholden to their electorate.  They become a candidate through grass-roots support, rather than party endorsement.  In a government with a majority in both the lower and upper houses, their impact is very limited.  But when either house is hung, their importance is critical.

When first elected, many members of the media and the electorate were quick to criticise some of the new senators, particularly Ricky Muir (Driving Enthusiasts) and Jacquie Lambie (Palmer United, now independent).  Thrust into power, they were clearly naive to their new jobs, and the surrounding media maelstrom, and it showed.  They truly looked like fish out of water, and many commentators were quick to opine on the awfulness of a system where such embarrassments could be elected into our vaunted institutions.  However, over the course of the parliament, and with a bit of training, both have shown to be eminently capable of representing sections of the community who are often ignored, and giving opinions that might otherwise never be heard.  These opinions might not always be well articulated and thought through, but then that is the case for many members of the electorate, whose views are often formed from listening to overly biased “shock-jocks” and media commentators who know exactly which hot buttons to press with their viewers and listeners, and who are happy to do so, whatever the outcome on society.  But whether agreed with or not, it is important that such views are heard in the context of our seat of power.  Because only by being heard can they be effectively argued against.  And they can also alert those in power to the undercurrent thinking of society at large, instead of the internal political schemings of the party rooms.

Our next two chapters deal with these two vital parts of our political system, the media and the electorate.  But before we do, lets summarise the value of independent in our parliament.

  1. They are not beholden to the views of a political party.
  2. Every vote in the house for them is effectively a conscience vote.
  3. Where they hold the balance of power, the government must either be able to persuade them or offer concessions and changes to the legislation to gain their support.  Not once, but for each new piece of legislation.
  4. Their seat is gained through representing their electorate NOT through how well they support their party branches.  They can’t use the divide and rule mentality of only appealing to their supporters, and forget the rest which party politicians rely on.
  5. They can be more creative in their problem solving.
  6. Unlike most party politicians whose most important quality for being made candidate is slavish obedience to the party, independents can be more open minded and recognise that their may be many ways of doing things.
  7. Unlike most party politicians who are often ambitious, cunning and manipulative (well, that is often how you get the candidacy!), independents don’t have to resort to political tactics to get the party ticket.
  8. Unfortunately independents are highly unlikely to be given a position of any power as the system now operates.  Their role, therefore, is to provide a balanced perspective, quality review of what is taking place, and supply an independent voice to the media on the workings of power.

In summary, independents need to be first and foremost loyal to those who voted for them.  Party politicians first loyalty is to the party.  Which are most likely to prioritise the needs of the people? Which ones are the democrats?

About Steve Laing

Political observer, free thinker and problem solver, Steve contends that the current democratic processes have neither kept up to date with globalisation nor modern business practices, resulting in increasing dissatisfaction with modern politics. However, new technology could be used to not only reconfigure our system, but give the electorate even greater representation than was previously the case. For more background information on Steve, please check his LinkedIn profile.

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