So-called ‘teal’ independents are pitted against moderate liberals in seats like Mackellar, North Sydney, Warringah, Wentworth, Kooyong and Goldstein. Most operate on a platform of climate change, integrity and equality. It is a populist rebellion directed primarily against the Morrison government but also against the rigidity of the two-party system. If an Albanian government does not keep its promises, it is conceivable that independents will run against Labor candidates in the next federal election.
This tsunami of community activism and the mobilization of genuine citizen revolt are refreshing signs that the plant of parliamentary democracy is deeply rooted and sprouting green shoots. On the other hand, what practical effect will it have?
There is nothing more impotent in parliament than an independent without checks and balances. They are ostracized by the main parties, ignored by ministers, lack the support to carry out their agenda and have no one to mentor them in the intricacies of parliamentary practice and procedure.
What about a balance of power situation? In the Senate, it degenerated into bargaining: that’s what I want if you want my vote. A disparate and unruly group of independents and minor party representatives in positions of power can lead to instability and poor political outcomes. This raises serious questions about the legitimacy of thwarting a government’s electoral mandate.
There is, however, a way for independents to bring about change without disruption or instability, as evidenced by the situation in the New South Wales Parliament after the 1991 election. Four independents held the power of life or death over the coalition government of Nick Greiner. One, Tony Windsor, a national unhappy with his failure to win the preselection, was easily bought off by concessions for his electorate.
The other three, John Hatton (South Coast), Peter Macdonald (Manly) and Clover Moore (Bligh), had a different attitude. All were motivated by a desire to use their crucial position to reform the parliamentary process and strengthen accountability and integrity in government. They overwhelmed their individual differences – Hatton represented the rural south coast, Macdonald on the Manly beach side and Moore downtown – for the greater good. What they came up with is a model for all responsible independents. First, respect the will of the people by offering to support the party with the majority of seats. Second, don’t do it indiscriminately.
The driving force behind the Unaligned Independents, as they called themselves, was Hatton. He had been elected in 1973 and had had a long and lonely apprenticeship of marginalization and denigration by the big parties. He used this time productively to master the procedures of the Legislative Assembly and to develop a far-reaching reform agenda. When his time came, with the full backing of Macdonald and Moore, he seized it.
A detailed and thoughtful program was presented to Greiner as a prize for keeping him in office. Nonaligned independents reserved the right to vote as they saw fit on other issues. The Prime Minister agreed and an era of major reforms ensued: a lower house without government domination; election financing, defamation law and freedom of information reform; the protection of whistleblowers; strengthening the independence of the Auditor General and the Ombudsman; a fixed term of four years.