We need independents to hold the balance of power after the next election

Oct 9, 2021
parliament house of representatives
(Image: Unsplash)

The major parties are not serving Australia well, and voters know it. If independents held the balance of power in the House of Representatives, it would be a good thing for our democracy.

In the 1972 election the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and the Coalition received 91 per cent of first preference votes. Major parties now receive only 75 per cent of first preference votes.

This trend is likely to continue as we  become increasingly disillusioned by the Liberal, National and Labor parties. The Coalition has power but no purpose. The ALP has no power and shows little purpose. It is so determined to be a small target that it is hard to know what it stands for any more.

The Greens, Centre Alliance and Independents hold five seats in the House of Representatives. They have become an almost permanent fixture.

There is now a surge of interest and money to support more independent candidates in electorates such as North Sydney, Pearce, Cowper, Berowra and Wentworth.

The “Voices of Indi” model is gaining wide support as disappointment with the major parties grows on such issues as climate change.

New Zealand has a unicameral Parliament that works well. In that Parliament the party with the largest number of seats is able to negotiate successfully with minor parties and independents. It works much better than our Parliament.

Following the experience of the Gillard government in a hung Parliament 2010–2013, we were told repeatedly that hung Parliaments where Independents held the balance of power was to be avoided at all costs. I disagree.

On June 2 2013 in Pearls and Irritations I wrote:

We have been told many times since the 2010 election that the hung parliament was an abomination, it wouldn’t work and that it wouldn’t last. Denied government after the last election, the Coalition tried to make the government as well as the parliament as unworkable as possible. Paul Keating put it more colourfully: “If Tony Abbott doesn’t get his way, he sets about wrecking the joint.”

But here we are almost three years later with the Parliament seeing out its full term.

It hasn’t such a bad record as the Jeremiahs said. Let’s look first at some achievements.

The establishment of the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) was a major change. We will hear more about it during the election campaign. It will provide independent advice to the whole Parliament, including the Opposition, which was never available before on key budget issues. For a long time executive government, supported by a disciplined party system, has dominated the Parliament. The information the Parliament and we received was largely determined by the government. Rolling back domination of the Parliament by the executive will be an important achievement. Hopefully the PBO is just a start in that process.

There were many legislative achievements and I believe that the carbon tax was one despite the violence of the language and the opposition. Changes to the present carbon tax arrangements will be necessary but the carbon tax remains the best and most efficient way of reducing carbon pollution and global warming leading hopefully to an emissions trading scheme.

For decades the tobacco lobby has brought great harm to hundreds of millions of people around the world. The plain packaging of cigarettes show that Australia is a world leader in rolling back the damage of tobacco.

The National Disability Insurance Scheme may rank with Medibank and Medicare as one of the most important social reforms of the last 40 years.

There was also the Murray Darling Basin Plan, paid personal leave and hopefully, the Gonski (educational) reforms even though they will be a paler version than what Gonski intended.

The NBN has opened the way for a fast, world leading 21st century communications system.

All the appropriation bills have been passed, which has helped Australia achieve one of the best performing economies in the world. In 2011 and 2012, 199 and 195 Bills were passed by the House of Representatives. Apart from 2009 this was the highest number since 1997 and above the annual average of 184. This was achieved despite the Gillard government not having a majority in the House or the Senate

In 2011 23 private member bills were presented, with the same again in 2012. The average number of such bills since Federation is four per year. Thirty per cent of all legislation was amended through negotiations between the government the Independents and the Greens. The independents, and particularly Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott performed with good sense and responsibility despite the vitriol often heaped on them.

There were clearly some downsides.

  • The House of Representatives was often disorganised and with intimidatory language. Both parties have responsibility for that but the provocation in my view was mainly by the coalition with Tony Abbott with his wrecking ball approach. It was determined to prove that the Parliament was unworkable and that the government was illegitimate.
  • There were three speakers. Not all performed creditably.
  • The shadow of Craig Thomson hung over the Parliament but he is still there!
  • The mining tax was a mess.

All in all I think the evidence is that the “hung Parliament” performed quite well in the circumstances. It has survived almost three years with considerable achievements to its credit.

The next election is unlikely to produce a hung Parliament. But I wouldn’t be disturbed if it did.

(See also Ross Gittins on October 9 on the carbon price: “We wouldn’t be trembling in our boots if we had a carbon price“)

The most important thing the Gillard government did in this “hung Parliament’ was to enact a carbon tax. But for the destructive opposition by Tony Abbott and the corporate media, we would today have a sensible policy to address climate change.

A decade has been lost in spiteful and destructive debate. We would have also had a modern NBN.

The major political parties are not serving Australia well.

Eight or nine independents holding the balance of power in the House of Representatives could serve Australia well.

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