No. 51

STONE the crows! There are independent gentlemen in parliament acting according to their conscience while ministers worry whether they have the numbers on each issue!

According to online commentator Graham Young this is no bad thing:

We’ve had almost two months of a hung parliament and it is already changing how the two main parties do business. With those adjustments will come broader changes in the perception of how politics can and should be conducted, and maybe even a lasting change in the paradigm. We may even become like the rest of the world, where compromise and gridlock are accepted as part of the parliamentary system, and we may like it that way. [i]

It is an ideal from the eighteenth century, before parliamentary parties emerged and one that has always appealed to Americans, where party discipline is not, nor ever has been especially strong. And it resonates with the Australian ideal of strong minded individuals making up their own minds. Independents are common in some states and now there are cross benchers in Canberra who have no fear of a word from the whip.

According to Jennifer Curtin, the major parties brought this on themselves:

Ironically, excessively strong party discipline may ultimately undermine the reputation of the major parties in the electorate; they may be unknowingly sowing the seeds of their own destruction. If they are to survive, the major parties need to reconnect with their supporters. One way to do so would be to grant their parliamentary members a greater degree of independence; unless, of course, they are prepared to lose more of their safe seats to Independents.[ii]

And more Independents may mean better government:

A hung parliament can produce a stable government, and even improved government. It may moderate extremism. It shifts the balance away from the major parties a little, but that will be a good thing, acceptable to, even welcomed by, the wider community. It will mean concessions and compromise all round.[iii]

As well as much more talk and little action on the business of government.

Certainly Independents can make great constituency members in Canberra, like Ted Mack and Peter Andren, who were less admired than adored by many of their electors. In state politics they can set agendas, like Macquarie Street anti-corruption campaigner John Hatton.

But by their very nature Independents either only represent single constituencies or focus on their own obsessions – they do not form ministries and they can make it hard for minority governments to accomplish anything.

Admittedly, the evidence from our other experience of minority national government, in 1941 is not so bad. The conservative Menzies Government won 37 seats in the 1940 election, the same as John Curtin’s Labor Party. The problem was one government MP, the member for the Northern Territory, could not vote outside of matters the Commonwealth territories. The resulting tie meant two Victorian Independents, Wimmera wheat grower Alex Wilson and Melbourne retailer Arthur Coles (yes, that Coles) decided which bums were on the ministerial seats of the House of Representatives.

Initially they backed Menzies, although with intermittent enthusiasm. Coles in particular kept changing his mind about the quality of the government’s war effort. But when the Country Party rolled Menzies, the Independents decided Labor was the better bet to protect the country and put Curtin into office, where they helped keep him until he won his own majority in the 1943 general election.[iv]

Minority government did not create chaos under either administration. Menzies twice proposed a national ministry. Curtin turned him down but Labor frontbenchers did serve on the Advisory War Council, which had cabinet powers on military matters.[v] With what was largely bipartisan policy on the war Coles and Wilson certainly did not need to make every division a drama.

As Humphrey McQueen puts it; “for 15 months, although it appears that there is a hung parliament, in practice there wasn’t.” [vi]

But this is not where we are now, with Independents pushing their own interests. It is entirely legitimate but it has nothing to do with running the country, which requires an all of government approach to policy. Always has, always will, wherever MPs understand governing requires coherence and continuity.

In the Tenth Federalist, James Madison wrote of the need to “break and control the violence of faction” and the way to do it, he thought, was to have legislatures which were not subject to the ambitions of MPs exclusively intent on advancing specific interests. [vii]

Even before the arrival of Labor MPS forced Australian conservatives to get organised, Australian legislatures were disciplined places. While MPs prided themselves on making up their own minds on every issue they tended to vote with like minds who followed the same leaders. As two historians of nineteenth century parliamentary politics put it; “a rarely small band of men provided over time the materials for constructing administrations and won on a chiefly personal basis the allegiance of a sufficiently large numbers of followers to allow government to be supported by what can best be called faction systems” [viii]

Nor do independents have a monopoly on crusades. Perhaps the most important advocate of economic reform to grace a post-war legislature was South Australian Liberal MP Bert Kelly (the self-styled “modest member”) who argued against protectionism, in press, party and parliament, making the case for the structural change of the 1980s and 1990s long, before its need was widely understood, let alone accepted. “Bert Kelly’s example remains an inspiration for what Members of Parliament — whether modest or not — can achieve,” Gary Banks writes.[ix]

And for all the talk of independent MPs representing the opinions of people who the major parties ignore, protecting a plurality of opinion relies on the coalition of ideas and interests which make up a major party. Whatever you think of Labor or the Liberals there is no denying they encompass a greater diversity of ideas than the monochrome Greens.

As Madison put it: “in a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects. The degree of security in both cases will depend on the number of interests and sects.”[x]

The argument applies to parliament, where the major parties are obliged to represent a majority of Australians, at least if they want to form a government which can implement its own agenda.


[i] Graham Young, “Welcome to the new age of parliamentary gridlock and compromise The Australian, November 6

[ii] Jennifer Curtin, “Independents in federal parliament: a new challenge or a passing phase?” Department of the Senate, March 18 2005 , recovered on November 13

[iii] John Warhurst, “ The election Rudd could have won” Eureka Street 16, 20 recovered on 9 November

[iv] There is remarkably little general political history on the fall of the Fadden minority government, which is only touched on briefly in volume one of Alan Martin’s biography of Menzies and David Day’s life of Curtin.

For a convenient summary see David Black and Lesley Wallace, John Curtin: a guide to archives of Australia’s prime ministers (Canberra. 2004)

[v] Black and Wallace ibid

[vi] (interviewed in) Radio National, Rear Vision, “The wild card: independent (sic) in Australian politics”, September 1 recovered on November 13

[vii] “The Federalist Number 10” (in) Jacob E Cooke (ed) The Federalist Papers (Middletown Ct, 1961) 56-65

[viii] P Loveday and A W Martin, “Colonial politics before 1890” (in) P Loveday, A W Martin and R S Parker (eds) The Emergence of the Australian party system (Sydney, 1977), 5-43, 42

[ix] Gary Banks, “Bert’s legacy: a talk to the ‘Society of Modest Members’ ” (in) Gary Banks, An economy-wide view: Speeches on structural reform, (Canberra, 2010), 311-319, 319

[x] “The Federalist Number 51” (in) Cooke ibid, 347-353