No. 41

STONE the crows! We’re reduced to red bike and pony politics!

With independent MPs picking the prime minister, optimists are arguing that the need for party leaders to secure support from cross benchers heralds a new era in consultation.

As David Hetherington, self described director of “a progressive think tank” puts it, “The election result means policy reform may now be the big winner: the independents have stated clearly that, alongside parliamentary reform, policy delivery will be the price of their support.”[1]

To which the crows just caw.

In fact all the election creates is less an opportunity than an unavoidable certainty of pork barreling as we return to the Australian situation in the nineteenth century and American politics in the twenty-first, where a lack of party discipline means the executive needs to buy support for important votes on a regular basis.

For two weeks, independents and minority interest MPs have been sending wish lists that have more to do with their own hobby horses than matters of major policy. Some are not especially expensive, reflecting an MPs desire to impose his own opinions on all Australians, like those of Greens MP for Melbourne Adam Bandt who says he supports a Labor government, but wants legislation to allow gay marriage and ban mandatory detention of asylum seekers.[2]

But Bob Katter from Queensland wants serious economic change. He has 20 demands, ranging from tariffs on bananas through regulating supermarkets share of sales, to ending restrictions on where we can “boil the billy” in the bush.[3] On the weekend he added indigenous rights.[4]

And Andrew Wilkie really rolled out the barrel with his first wish list, demanding everything from an increase in pensions to a vote on gay marriage. Demonstrating all politics is local he also wanted piles of pork all over his electorate, including a new hospital, the National Broadband Network, and that permanent fixture on every lefty’s list, a light rail network.[5]

That Mr Wilkie appeared embarrassed enough to turn down Liberal leader Tony Abbott’s offer of $1bn for the hospital demonstrates just how profligate the special pleading has got.[6]

For that relief, much thanks. But it still shows the mess we are in when independents representing single seats are able to set agendas and assume what is good for their electorate or interest group matters most.

We have been here before. Tasmanian senator Brian Harradine treated Treasury as a Tasmanian support fund and was not averse to imposing his own conservative convictions on the rest of us as the price of allowing Howard Government legislation to pass the Senate.

Mr Wilkie attributed part of his electoral success to what he called a “Harradine hang-over factor … with many remembering the success of independent Tasmanian Senator Brian Harradine in delivering disproportionate largesse in his power deals with various federal governments.”[7]

Nor are single issue obsessives hitherto unknown in federal politics. Senator Sid Negus from Western Australia was elected on a platform of opposing death duties, despite their being state imposts.

It is all understandable, but it ignores what MPs are elected to do. Members of parliament are morally bound to do more than advance the interests of their immediate electors or favoured interest groups. Just as directors must protect the entire organisation they supervise, so MPs must stand up for all Australians. They are not there to pork barrel for their pals or push pet proposals.

Certainly independents make great local members, especially in state politics which supplies most community services. As Brian Costar and Jennifer Curtin point out, past parliaments have seen plenty of them.

Since 1990 NSW has seen some 17 independents in one or the other chamber. [8] And they have come and gone in Canberra since federation. In 1941 two independents brought down the Fadden Government when they decided Labor would make a better war time administration.

The independents who hold the balance of power in Canberra now are under the same obligation. Whether they are elected on the basis of a protest vote against the major parties, a taste for pork among their constituents or to advance a particular cause does not matter. They are obliged to legislate in the national not the local interest.

As Edmund Burke put it in his famous speech to the voters of Bristol.

Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. You choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not member of Bristol, but he is a member of parliament. If the local constituent should have an interest, or should form an hasty opinion, evidently opposite to the real good of the rest of the community, the member for that place ought to be as far, as any other, from any endeavour to give it effect. [9]

The crows don’t know what the voters of Bristol made of the speech but it is a fair bet that the pork growers and barrel manufacturers did not like it much. And a sure thing Edmund Burke could not have cared less.

Stephen4@hotkey.net.au


[1] David Hetherington, “Independents may hold key to policy reform”, The Australian, 30 August 2010

[2] Sarah Collerton. “Gay marriage, asylum seekers top Bandt’s to-do list”, ABC News, 1 September 2010 @ http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2010/09/01/2999955.htm?section=justin, recovered on 1 September 2010

[3] Michael Madigan, Bob Katter’s wish list targets food, fuels, Coles and Woolworths” The Courier- Mail, 3 September 2010

[4] Patricia Karvelas, “Black rights top Bob Katter’s wish list” The Weekend Australian, 4 September 2010

[5] James Massola, “Wilkie demands pension rise, vote on gay marriage” The Australian, 30 August 2010

[6] Tim Leslie, “Abbott’s ‘reckless’offer pushed Wilkie to Labor” ABC News, 3 September 2010, @ http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2010/09/03/3001227.htm recovered 3 September 2010

[7] Sue Neales, “Libs, Labor wooing Wilkie” The Mercury, 23 August 2010

[8] Brian Costar and Jennifer Curtin, “Rebels with a cause” Australian Policy Online, 27 August , recovered on 29 August @ http://www.apo.org.au/commentary/

[9] Edmund Burke, “Speech to the electors of Bristol, 3 November 1774” (in) Edmund Burke, Works vol I 446-448 @http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/indexes/indexes.html, recovered on 1 September 2010

'2012