More independents in Parliament is not the answer

Independents Zali Steggall, right, and Helen Haines. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
Independents Zali Steggall, right, and Helen Haines. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

If you think our federal parliament has been less stable over the last 15 years or so wait until we get more independents in there. If instability and uncertainty is what you want, vote independent. It is a warm and fuzzy, feel good word.

Conveniently independents don't have to tell you much about the philosophy that guides their decision making. In fact they indicate they are independent of the two main streams of political thinking that have emerged over the last few hundred years. Untied by the burden of working within a team they will be free spirits wafting from issue to issue as they please.

Governments don't get to waft around with such luxurious indifference to the issues of the day. Problems get bowled up to governments and like it or not they have to be dealt with.

The awkward reality is that when we vote for our local member we are at the same time helping to construct the makeup of the next parliament. Politics101 tells us the party with the majority of members in the lower house forms government. If neither gets a majority then who forms government is decided by whatever deal can be struck with minor party and independent members. The horse trading starts on day one.

Picture yourself as one of say five members who collectively can give one party or the other the right to form a government. Do you think, Pollyanna style, that each of these five will just go with the party they intuitively prefer? Or do you think there might be some bargaining? Some demands to be met before your support is forthcoming. In less attractive language its called blackmail. Or holding to ransom.

Either of the major parties may have the support of millions of Australians but these independents might start with only 20 or 30 per cent of the vote in their electorate. They just have to come behind one of the major parties and generally ahead of the other candidates. As candidates with fewer votes than them are excluded the preferences are allocated. Its a fair system.

It is just worth remembering that you may get people in parliament who start with the first preferences of one third of their own electorate. They then collect the second, third and maybe fourth choice votes of excluded candidates. And with that uncertain ragbag of begrudging support they get to decide who forms our government.

Government is a team. Independents don't always join the team, they simply indicate to the governor-general who they will support. Thus they remain unfettered by the laborious burden of resolving differences of opinion, of listening to the views across Australia. That's the work left to the major parties. The independents come in after that work has been done and simply haggle.


Someone holding the balance of power in the reps or the Senate might not be so crude as to say "I'll support you on this bill if you do x, y or z". That would feel too much like cheap horse trading. They might rather say "I'm very concerned about (insert here some pork barrelling issue)". Surprise surprise the issue is dealt with and the independent supports the legislation. Starting off with a 30 something per cent voter support and ending up holding a government to ransom is an extraordinary outcome.

In the Senate, independents can get elected with a small portion of a Senate quota and still end up holding a government to ransom. A government can be elected with a clear mandate for a particular policy and a minor party in the Senate feels entitled to block the will of the Australian people.

It is a very frustrating system. Having two houses elected on different systems does make for dynamic tension in the parliament. For all its faults it is better than a unicameral system where one party does what it likes for a few years.

There's always plenty of criticism, some of it justified, of how the major parties conduct themselves. However, thinking that might be fixed by having more so-called independents in parliament is not so much delusional as it is crazy.

Recently out of the mouth of one aspiring independent came the pompous promise to remain independent and represent their own electorate's view. The reality that their own electorate will not have a unanimous view on anything just hadn't dawned. Will they remain independent of donors who funded their campaigns?

What will they do if a majority of people in their electorate are opposed to something which is objectively in the national interest. Please spare me the platitudinous rubbish that some come out with ..."I'll listen to my electorate". Really? Independent candidates tend to imply that they will always do what their electorate wants. I hope not. Public opinion is mercurial and fickle. It must be taken into account. But the real question is what is in Australia's best interest.

We don't get that by going around a table and asking "what does your electorate think" and drawing up a table of the most preferred ideas. It's laughable. We do it by teams of representatives listening to experts in the problem, to experts in policy design and working to find the best way forward. The electorates views don't always win. Gun control legislation after the Port Arthur massacre is a classic example.

Consider that a number of people get elected on a platform of more action on climate change. What action? Will they get together and agree on some policies to put to the electorate or would that be too much like forming a party? Good heavens, they'd have to meet and despite no doubt differing views come to some sort of compromise.

Or are they marketing themselves as people of such wisdom and insight that you and I should just trust that they'd do a better job than anybody else. They won't come out and say it but they believe it.

Ego rarely markets its true self. "I'm an egomaniac and I'm certain that I'll be better than others at being a member of parliament" isn't going to win votes. I'm independent sounds much better.

  • Amanda Vanstone is a former Howard government minister and a fortnightly columnist.
This story More independents in Parliament is not the answer first appeared on The Canberra Times.