In the past, the major parties have seen independents as a passing nuisance that fades over time, like the Australian Democrats. Their only concern was their preference flow. Times are indeed changing; unless the major parties change, these independents are here to stay … There are no safe seats any more.
Peter Beattie, former premier of Queensland, 22 April Sydney Morning Herald
To paraphrase old Karl, a spectre is looming over Australian politics – commentators on the right believe it’s haunting the Liberal and National Party Coalition. But it also hovers over the Labor opposition.
One number is now keeping major party leaders and their confidants awake at night: 76. That is the bare minimum needed to form majority government in the 151 seat House of Representatives. It is the number the Coalition currently commands. And, right now, all the public polls show neither major party has electoral support to hit it.
Voters decide who gets their preferences, not parties. But history shows that the most disciplined flow is from the Greens to Labor. Antony Green’s research on the 2019 result confirms that more than 80 per cent of Greens voters put a two in the Labor column. With the Greens primary at, or above, 10 per cent Labor appears in the best shape to form government because minor party preferences flow to the Coalition at a lower rate. And there is a smorgasbord on offer for disaffected Coalition voters on the left and right. Clive Palmer’s billions have bought roughly 3 per cent of the primary and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation commands a similar number. In 2019, both delivered 65 per cent of their second preferences to the Coalition and 35 per cent to Labor.
But a recent development in Australian electoral politics is sending the statistics skewiff.
Enter the self proclaimed ‘community independents, the so-called ‘voices of …’ movement, labelled by observers across the political spectrum as ‘The Teals’, named for their almost uniform choice in campaign colour. I republish below two typical opinion pieces.
The first is by Paul Kelly, The Australian’s Editor at Large. From time to time, I republish articles by News Ltd commentators that I believe are worth sharing with those who cannot scale the News Corporation paywall. Kelly is one of those. Though undoubtedly of the right, often assuming many of the positions adopted by his more partisan colleagues, though in a much more nuanced and ‘reasonable’ manner, he writes well and wisely, most probably due to his long experience and high reputation on the Australian political scene.
He recently wrote a cogent piece on how the cohort of Teal Independents, backed up by the financial and political resources, and very substantial donations ‘war chest’ of the Climate 200 group, are offering their electorates and ourselves a model of participatory parliamentary democracy that is built on shaky foundations. Climate 200 founder and funder Simon Holmes a Court claims that “the shortest and surest path to good government is a minority government with a quality cross-bench”.
It is probably one of the best analyses of the aspirations and apparent appeal of this relatively recent political phenomenon. I also republish a left-wing perspective by journalist Mark Stanley on the MichaelWestMedia blog. He endeavours to answer the same basic and obvious question as Kelly: is teal the real deal?
Kelly has observed that an unprecedented passion for independents is taking hold in some of the richest suburbs of Australia. Its vanguard comes from predominantly professional, business and educated women who reside in affluent inner-city suburb. Not exclusively so, however. There is Helen Haines, the sitting member for the rural Victorian seat of Indi – and her colour is actually orange. In my own seat of Cowper, on the mid north coast, the anointed independent is well-known and popular health professional with strong local and indeed left wing roots: she is a former member of the Greens. Nor are they all female. Andrew Wilkie, long time Tasmanian MP, Stephen is on the ticket as is Stephen Pocock in the ACT who is running for senate.
These independents believe their voice has been denied for too long. This denial is the genesis of the ‘voices of … ‘ movement although their call is a world of difference from the nihilistic ‘mad as hell and we ain’t gonna take it any more’ populism of the far right and it’s lugubrious svengalis. There is an apparent conviction that the political system somehow is either discredited or broken or corrupt – perhaps all three – and needs to be rescued by a higher moralism. And they appeal to the many voters who see the Labor and the Coalition as Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and possible hope that the independents will ‘keep the bastards honest”, to use an old and defunct catchphrase.
But, Kelly notes, “this is delusion on a grand scale. Public disenchantment with the major parties is a statistical fact. But leaping to the assertion the public wants minority government is a false conclusion”.
The preoccupations of Holmes a Court and his coterie of self-proclaimed ‘community’ Independents do not reflect the country at large. The idea that people in a few rich seats, some of the wealthiest (and least ethnically diverse) electorates in the nation, can redirect Australia towards the path of superior policy morality testifies to denial about the diversity and competing interests across Australia.
Whilst an infusion of progressive populists into the House of Representatives might sound exciting, the outcome could be a more fractured polity and a further decline in the capacity of parliament to legislate challenging national interest policy. This is no way to run a parliament or a government and to look after our country’s interests.
The most important function of an election, Kelly states, is to elect a government. Everyone knows where Liberals, Labor and the Greens stand – but the independents will not say, if given minority government, which party they want in office. A group espousing integrity and transparency will not be honest with the public on the single most important decision they would be required to take as MPs. The reason, of course, is they seek to maximize their vote; like the singer in Leonard Cohen’s sardonic song, they endeavour to be all things to all people: “If you want a lover, I’ll do anything you ask me to. And if you want another kind of love, I’ll wear a mask for you”. “In a sense”, Kelly notes, they trade genuine influence for gesture politics”.
So far so good – and for the most part, I couldn’t agree with him more. But at this juncture, Kelly removes HIS mask. I ought t gave seen it coming when he has commented earlier in his article : “if the public wants more action on climate change, here an easy answer. Vote Labor”. And then, midway through, he lets his conservative cat out of the bag: “It is one thing for these voters to elect independents over sitting Liberal MPs in an act of protest, but it is entirely another thing for voters to tolerate the independents putting a Labor government into power. Do that and your future as an independent is fatally compromised – your future will be tied to the Labor government and any decisions your electorate doesn’t like”.
He points to the lessons learned the hard way by erstwhile Coalition parliamentarians Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott who in 2010 ignored the conservative disposition of their seats when they put Julia Gillard’s government into office. Facing hate mail, trolling and even death threats, they were unprepared to stand at the next election. This is the salutary lesson for the teal wave of Independents – for that way madness lies.
Kelly sees the independents as a progressive movement to defeat the Morrison government and that this is their raison d’être: “They seek not just to defeat the Liberal Party but also to engineer, from the outside, a progressive remaking of the party
I disagree strongly with his contention that the independents seek to install Anthony Albanese and his social democrats, I actually regard them as a threat to the prospects of a Labor government. Teal, after all, is not a primary colour. Indeed, it’s primary color is blue, and it’s secondary is green. Chris Kenny, a colleague of Kelly’s at The Australian, has quipped that teal is a blend of Green and blue blood – a thinly veiled swipe at what he perceives the affluent upper-middle class status of most of the inner city independents. But to my mind, one thing thing is for certain – teal is no friend of red.
But I do concur with the argument that are trying to change the system from within. But I would argue that these are conservative “wet liberals” who rather than betraying the party, are trying to drag its dominant right wing grudgingly towards the centre, the so-called “reasonable middle” where the majority of engaged Australians reside. Katrina Grace Kelly, another commentator for The Australian reported a comment from an voter in treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s blue-ribbon but threatened inner-Melbourne seat of Kooyong: “We are educated, moderate and bewildered small ‘L” Liberals wondering what the hell happened top out party”. Kelly writes: ‘Using the brand “independent” is brilliant but also deceptive. They are not a party as such but they have a common cause, common funding and common strategy. They only target government MPs. Frydenberg calls them “fake independents”’. Grumpy former prime minister John Hoard recently referred to them as ‘anti-Liberal groupies’, his ‘banger sisters’ allusion going down a treat among those who reckon that the Coalition has a problem with women.
The irony is that far from recreating the Liberal Party in their own image, insisting en passant that Scott Morrison – and as a bonus, deputy PM Barnaby Joyce – are replaced, and targeting the seats of what moderate Liberal MPs remain in the government, members who actually agree with most of what the independents are advocating, and are also, incidentally, more culturally and ethnically diverse than their challengers, they could potentially hand the leadership and the Lodge not to all-around nice guy Josh Frydenberg but to the not so lean and but definitely hungry defence minister Peter Dutton. Maybe they believe that the prospects of the potentially unelectable Dutton ascending to the party leadership will shock the it into a rush to centre-field. But that is magical thinking!
I believe that the independents are actually a political party in all but name. They spruik the same issues and causes, they sing from the same song sheet, and whilst they receive many donations from idealistic sympathisers from across the political spectrum, they are heavily funded by Climate 200. They even share that body’s financial controller. And they cleave broadly to the mission of Climate 200 cabal – a fairly homogeneous collective of like-minded, disaffected former politicians and pundits. It’s advisory panel includes former Tory John Hewson, disgraced Democrat leader Meg Lees (who many believe destroyed that party), former member for Wentworth Karyn Phelps, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott. The only former Labor luminary is Barry Jones. When I first viewed the panel a month or so back, I swear that list was considerably longer, including several high profile rebel Tories, including defecting MP Julia Banks. As the say, “if it walks like a duck and squawks like a duck, then it is a duck”. QED.
The independents promote a false reality amid a fog of moralism. As Kelly notes, they might “offer much, but their capacity to change politics is heavily limited. In their strengths and flaws, they are a genuine manifestation of Australian democracy” – in all its infinite variety, I might add, and its contradictions.
In the MichaelWest Media blog, Mark Sawyer argues that if the independents are a threat to the Liberals, why’s would Labor get in the way? After, all.the enemy of my enemy is my friend, right. But, he writes: “… smarter heads on the progressive side of politics are likely to be looking a bit further. They know the short-term gain of putting Liberal MPs to the sword could lead to long-term pain”.
Indeed. Whilst challenging the Coalition, the independents’ attitude of “a plague on both their houses”, and a refusal to make deals with the major parties, not only hurts the Liberals, but also weakens Labor. Because, long story short.they want the parties to depend on them.
And yet, as any soft-left and disaffected and defecting Labor and Green supporters argue naively, the Independents’s Big Four pledges around which they rally – climate, integrity, fiscal discipline and treatment of women – do resonate with the electorate.
But there scope is a restricted one. The progressive policies in their brief manifesto theirs are feel-good positions, not policy. In being all things to all men and women they’ve cherry-picked what Sawyer called “the fun bits of the progressive agenda”.
They won’t touch the hard bits, including education and health, and the redistributive economic and fiscal policies (like including increasing taxes for the wealthy and for large corporations) which are central to the social democratic values of the true believers. The independents’ push for equity equality only goes so far.
And there are more areas where the independents fear to tread, other than acknowledging their worthiness. Support for the National Disability Insurance Scheme, for example; help for small business in recovery from the pandemic; truth in political advertising; enshrining a First Nations voice in the Constitution. Issues that require well-thought out policies.
It is much easier to argue as they do that the party system has run its course. But this disingenuous if nor ignorant of Australian history and politics. Although political parties are not mentioned in the constitution, they are parties are actually needed to form and run governments. As all politics 101 students are told, parties inform, articulate and mobilize otherwise unorganized electorates around coherent political platforms. Our parliamentary system is representative democracy, not participatory democracy.
Sawyer states it bluntly: “Broad-based parties gave us Medicare, the NDIS, anti-discrimination legislation – an endless list of civilising measures that have enhanced our democracy. Whether the independents make a better replacement to these mass movements, and whether they are the solution to the challenges facing the nation, is a question that should be posed by the progressive side of Australian politics”.
I’ll leave the last word to Dennis:
Arthur: I am your king!
Woman: Well I didn’t vote for you!
Arthur: You don’t vote for kings!
Woman: Well ‘ow’d you become king then?
Arthur: The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying by divine providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. THAT is why I am your king!
Man: Listen: Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government! Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony. You can’t expect to wield supreme executive power just ’cause some watery tart threw a sword at you!! I mean, if I went ’round, saying I was an emperor, just because some moistened bint had lobbed a scimitar at me, they’d put me away!
Monty Python’s The Holy Grail
Where otherwise credited, © Paul Hemphill 2022. All rights reserved
There are many delusions in election 2022 but few match the ambition of Climate 200 founder and funder Simon Holmes a Court with his claim that “the shortest and surest path to good government is a minority government with a quality cross-bench”.
“The assertion that Australia’s purpose and performance can be resurrected by building up the independent crossbench and shifting towards minority government is a triumph of cultural fashion over governing reality”.
Paul Kelly .The Weekend Australian, April 8th 2022
This is an astonishing claim – that improvement in Australian governance hinges upon denying a majority party in the House of Representatives and expanding the cross bench. It is a novel idea seen by its champions as an idea whose time has come.
The assertion that Australia’s purpose and performance can be resurrected by building up the independent cross-bench and shifting towards minority government is a triumph of cultural fashion over governing reality. Campaigning in the cause of a weak national government – in order to maximizing your own leverage – makes the Liberal and Labor parties look honourable and honest in their effort to represent their broader constituencies.
Yet the passion for independents is taking hold in some of the richest suburbs of Australia. Its vanguard comes from professional, business and educated women who believe their voice has been denied for too long; from climate-change believers who are sure the supreme test of government today, beyond any other issue, is radical action against global warming; from a visceral distrust, and perhaps a loathing, of Scott Morrison; and from the apparent conviction that the political system somehow is either discredited or broken or corrupt – perhaps all three – and needs to be rescued by a higher moralism.
The independents enjoy a surge of refreshing, spontaneous support, against the backdrop of disenchantment with the major parties and Holmes a Court’s laments about a political system plagued by inaction, self-interest and corruption. He has waxed lyrical, saying if his plan works “the pay-off for Australia will be enormous”. His tweets talk about flipping three Liberal seats. That would do the job and “we wake up on the morning after the election to a new country, visualize that!”
A new country? Based on minority government? Well, we do need to visualize that. How does that actually work? Holmes a Court in his tweets offered an answer: “We’ve seen the strength of minority government. From 2010-13, Julia Gillard’s government worked effectively and efficiently with a quality cross-bench to deliver a well-designed framework for climate action” and, evidently, “opinion polls show there is enthusiasm among voters to make it happen again”.
This is delusion on a grand scale. Public disenchantment with the major parties is a statistical fact. But leaping to the assertion the public wants minority government is a false conclusion. It may be a consequence of a series of voting results across seats – but that’s a different issue. Certainly, the Gillard example cannot sustain the proposition.
If the public wants more action on climate change, there’s an easy answer. Vote Labor. Give Labor a sound mandate. But the leafy seats cultivated by Holmes a Court cannot stomach voting Labor. That’s because this movement (talking now about the blue-ribbon Liberal seats) is one of the most elitist, high-income revolts ever witnessed in our political history.
Its preoccupations don’t reflect the country at large while they do reflect a sizable slice of the post-material, high-wealth seats in question. The extent of uncritical media support for the independents is an insight into the outlook and values of much of the progressive media in Australia. The idea that people in a few rich seats can redirect Australia towards the path of superior policy morality testifies to denial about the diversity and competing interests across this big country.
Central to this movement is a community idealism, the rise of single-issue causes and crusades and intolerance of the major parties whose task is to reflect a wider constituency with its myriad views. The idea that climate-change independents holding the balance of power will intimidate or persuade the major parties into revising their election platforms and going for more climate ambition is neither realistic nor a sound basis on which to achieve change.
An infusion of progressive populists into the House of Representatives might sound exciting but the outcome will be a more fractured polity and a further decline in the capacity of parliament to legislate challenging national interest policy. How do we know this? We know by looking at the way the Senate is now hostage to special-interest minority crossbenchers and is a graveyard for any politically tough reform.
The more scrutiny the independents get, the more dubious their claims become. The most important function of an election is to elect a government. Everyone knows where Liberals, Labor and the Greens stand – but the independents won’t say, if given minority government, which party they want in office. They won’t be honest with the public on the single most important decision they would be required to take as MPs. Where’s the integrity in that?
The reason, of course, is they seek to maximize their vote. It’s about their self-interest, and that’s as old-fashioned as politics. Nothing new there. Holmes a Court should pray his goal of minority government doesn’t eventuate because that would mean the independents would confront the central dilemma of their existence: the conflict between their progressive policies based on their rejection of the Morrison Liberal Party, and the enduring Liberal identity of their seats in the Liberal-versus-Labor contest.
It is one thing for these voters to elect independents over sitting Liberal MPs in an act of protest, but it is entirely another thing for voters to tolerate the independents putting a Labor government into power.
Do that and your future as an independent is fatally compromised – your future will be tied to the Labor government and any decisions your electorate doesn’t like.
The examples of independents Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott in 2010 constitute the enduring morality tale. Violating the conservative disposition of their seats, they put the Gillard government into office – far preferring her policies – and neither was prepared to stand at the next election. This is the fast route to terminating an independent’s career.
This dilemma was captured by independent Zali Steggall on the ABC’s recent Q+A program, when she vacillated on which side she would support in minority government only to suggest she might consider the Liberals if they ditched Morrison as leader and that her other problem was Barnaby Joyce as Nationals leader. What’s next? Because the good people of Warringah don’t like Joyce, does he have to go as well?
This is political farce, no way to run a parliament or government, and no way to advance Australia’s real interest. Our political system is already struggling to deliver public interest outcomes, and having minority government for one term or longer is the last step the nation needs.
Sitting Liberals, however, know they face a threat from pivotal cultural changes in their seats. ABC election analyst Antony Green recently told Michelle Grattan from The Conversation that he believed “some” of the new independent candidates will win, thereby increasing the size of the cross-bench and deepening the Liberal Party’s woes.
A bigger question arises about the 2022 election: might success for the independent movement presage a structural change or realignment within conservative politics and the Liberal Party? Is the formula on which John Howard relied – social conservatism and liberal economics – now outdated?
If so, how will the Liberals renovate their profile? And how deep might any re-positioning run?
Basic to this issue is how do blue-ribbon Liberal electorates feel about being rendered largely impotent in the parliament. These are the seats that now or in the recent past have been represented by the most influential figures in the Liberal Party and in Australian governments – Josh Frydenberg, Joe Hockey, Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbott, Peter Costello, Andrew Robb, Julie Bishop, Andrew Peacock, among others.
This history and guaranteed influence in the cabinet room is a substantial sacrifice to make. And for what? Independents always get far greater publicity than the standard Liberal MP. Most, if not all, independents are hardworking, intelligent and diligent in following the needs of their electorates. But independents have limited real impact, policy influence and political leverage. In a sense, voters, by making this decision, trade genuine influence for gesture politics.
Perhaps voters won’t care. Independents have a record of holding their seats once they win. Yet the full ramifications of the cultural realignment that is under way are not clear. The independents, driven above all by climate change, believe the Liberals have betrayed their mission and dismiss with contempt Morrison’s major shift in Coalition policy to net zero at 2050.
They demand a climate-change policy that a Coalition government in the current context of Australian politics cannot deliver. But if you are a Wentworth voter keen for climate action, on what basis would you prefer independent Allegra Spender to sitting Liberal Dave Sharma, who is a supporter of more action and destined for a future cabinet? Again, to be brutal, it is the difference between waving the flag and having real influence in future governments.
The independents constitute a progressive movement designed to defeat the Morrison government. This is their reason for being and, in that sense, they assist Labor’s cause at this election. Indeed, their role in securing a change of government could be vital.
Using the brand “independent” is brilliant but also deceptive. They are not a party as such but they have a common cause, common funding and common strategy. They only target government MPs. Frydenberg calls them “fake independents”. They seek not just to defeat the Liberal Party but also to engineer, from the outside, a progressive remaking of the party.
They specialise in a “feel good” elusive rhetoric that sounds appealing but is designed to deceive and disguise. They say their task is always to consider legislation “on its merits” – but as journalist Margaret Simons pointed out in The Monthly, politics is about “competing merits” and competing interests. Their language aims only to conceal and deny scrutiny.
The job of politicians and parties is to arbitrate between competing merits. That’s what politics is about. It’s why politics is hard, tough and risky. It’s why political parties cannot satisfy everybody, why they need to compromise in meeting the demands of a diverse nation, and why they will always upset people.
The independents promote a false reality amid a fog of moralism. They offer much but their capacity to change politics is heavily limited. In their strengths and flaws, they are a genuine manifestation of Australian democracy.
The big question is whether they will peak at this poll with its anti-Liberal, anti-Morrison sentiment or whether they will put down deeper roots in promise of a political realignment.