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Independents are not the answer to our problems

By Dr Kay Rollison

Amidst the lovefest for independent political candidates, someone has to say it. Electing Independents in parliament is not the answer to our problems.

Scenario 1. Independents split the moderate vote, and the LNP is returned to government with a majority. Any Independents that are elected can propose all the legislation they like, but an LNP – especially one emboldened by another electoral victory – can take no notice of them. Just like now.

Scenario 2. Labor wins an absolute majority, as most independent candidates are running in safe LNP seats. Maybe some are elected. Hopefully a Labor government would consult with them where they have similar policies, but they are under no obligation to do so. And since Independents are likely to be moderate liberals, given the electorates that could potentially elect them, there are likely to be big differences, particularly on economic matters like taxation. Electing moderate liberals may force the LNP to rethink its ultra-right-wing position, which would be a good thing, but doesn’t solve our immediate problems, like growing economic inequality.

Scenario 3. Neither major party wins a majority. This is the only scenario in which independent members will have influence. They will hold the balance of power. This is presumably what their supporters want.

So, what next? A government is formed by the party that can command a majority of votes in the House of Assembly. Independents have to support one or other of the major parties to form a government. They have to choose, and we as voters have the right to know which way they will go. Not that they’ll tell us, of course.

At a minimum, enough independents have to agree to support a government to pass supply, which keeps the wheels of government turning. They would presumably make their choice on the basis of which major party offered them the best legislative deal. (This assumes that the independents are honourable, and not beholden to outside interests. Ok, let’s make that assumption).

But it’s not so easy to assume ‘they’ have common interests. Certainly, the prominent ones are espousing action on climate change, though not, as far as I know, with specific, detailed and costed policies. This would in any rational universe lead them to support Labor, but who knows? On just about any other matter, they may have a range of views. Will they cross the floor if they don’t like particular policies? Will they force a vote of no confidence, and bring down the government? If Labor introduces, say, free childcare, are they going to support it? Or are some of them going to argue it’s economically irresponsible? How about changes to industrial legislation? Or taxation? If the government – Labor or Liberal – has to negotiate on each and every piece of legislation with each and every independent, sound government will become impossible.

Governments need to be able to plan a whole programme. They need to be able to pass controversial legislation if it is something they are committed to. Where will the independents holding the balance of power stand?

It’s absolutely no use saying, as someone has to me recently, that we want policies, not political parties. It is political parties that pass policies through the parliament. This is not going to change in the immediate future. The alternative is political chaos, at a time when we desperately need leadership to tackle the problems we face.

It seems to me that at least some of the people who wax lyrical about independent candidates do so because they can’t bring themselves to vote Labor. Ask any Labor candidate if they support action on climate change, greater gender equity or more political transparency – the issues that seem to make the independents so attractive – and they will readily offer their support, and the support of their party to actually make changes happen. So why not just vote Labor?

Some say the Labor Party is offering an emissions reduction target that is too low, but then pragmatism is needed to understand this is a starting point which is far superior to the Liberal’s very low target.

If you live in the real world, you will know that a party needs to be elected with a majority before it can do ANYTHING. Labor needs to bring the voters with it, and to withstand the inevitable LNP/Murdoch shitshow of fear and misrepresentation that we see every election.

Furthermore, Labor has a costed suite of policies that focus on jobs – a crucial element of any transition to a renewable energy economy. Do independents support action that apportions the costs of change – or of not changing – equitably? We don’t know.

Some support for independents also derives from the ‘both parties are as bad as each other’ trope. This is simply not true, as should be obvious to anyone who looks at the reality. Sure, some Labor politicians do the wrong thing. But Labor supports a powerful federal anticorruption body. Sure, Labor haven’t reached gender equity, but they are almost there! Labor has worked hard, and successfully, to increase the number of Labor women in parliament. It is committed to a range of policies to improve gender equality not just in the parliament, but across a range of issues of importance to women.

And where Labor really differs from the LNP is in its rejection of neoliberal, trickle-down economics. Labor knows, from its roots in the union movement, that a good secure job is central to economic wellbeing, and that a proper safety net is necessary for those who for whatever reason are outside the paid workforce. Implementation is no doubt imperfect, but it is Labor’s light on the hill. How many of the independent candidates can say the same?

Yes, it’s great to see so many people, particularly women, energised to participate in politics. But spare a thought for those of us who have been doing all this for years. Never mind that most Labor candidates have worked long hours for the party before standing themselves. Somehow, it’s more acceptable to engage in political action as, or on behalf of an independent candidate than it is for a Labor candidate. We’re Labor hacks. Not that they’re likely to admit it, but many people don’t support Labor because of class awkwardness.

To put it in a broader context, the independent lovefest comes down to a reassertion of the fact that the Labor Party is not accepted as fully legitimate. Decades of neoliberalism have undermined its ability to project a vision of the national interest that is equally valid as that of the corporate/politically conservative interests in Australia, where those interests include the media.

Labor always fights with one hand tied behind its back – and until they prove otherwise, the independent candidates are simply another manifestation of anti Labor sentiment. What we really need is to do whatever it takes to elect a majority Labor government that will actually do something about the challenges we face.


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  1. Henry Rodrigues

    Well said. Its could also be that the “independents’ are Liberal plants, there to draw away potential voters inclined to listen to Labors pitch, but confused when a so-called Independent comes wooing and insist out that they are looking after the interests of non aligned voters. In this parliament, the ‘Independents’ seemed to back the conservatives more than Labor, not to mention Hanson and her fellow ratbag travellers. Lambie seems now to have awakened and seen the light.

  2. Claudio Pompili

    Hi Kay
    Thank you for elucidating the issue of voting for independents…best I’ve read so far.

    However, I don’t concur on, “where Labor really differs from the LNP is in its rejection of neoliberal, trickle-down economics.” Witness the current, daily Labor announcements of positive note eg increase in university places…irrespective of how many funded uni places there are, the underlying issue is the massive HECS debt that a student incurs with evermore precarious prospects of employment ie the user-pays system that was re-introduced during the Hawke-Keating years. Similarly, other positive initiatives such as more child-care funding, or employment benefits funding etc….it looks and feels like it’s a more equitable way of ‘slicing the cake’ rather than the bold ‘rejection of neoliberal…economics’. If only it were so. At no point have I seen a rejection as such, not counting the transitory and extraordinarly successful handling of the GFC by Wayne Swan. The reality is that the ALP has been hijacked by its Right faction that has increasingly determined its policies. The Left exists in name but is almost risible and ineffectual in policy outcomes.

    Lastly, your concluding comments suggest an appeal to the heart of giving Labor a go and when in power it will implement more equitable policiies than the LNP. Possibly or aspirationally (think the ongoing mandatory off-shore detention, draconian Centrelink strategies, corporatisation of unis, the infamous NT Intervention etc), but if the ALP truly wanted to govern for the common good, they could do so, or at least have a much better chance, by creating a formal coalition with The Greens (whose membership is replete with former-ALP voters) and other progressive independents: take a leaf out of the LNP playbook. This, of course, is anathema to the ALP Right, and, in extraordinary outburst of hubris, declares that the ALP will only govern in outright majority. Even when its primary vote continues to languish and union membership is at historical lows. Consider recent events in Germany with a the formation of government comprising of a broad Centre-Left coalition including The Greens.


  3. Alan

    It seems you’re neglecting to consider the seats where Labor doesn’t actually try to win. Is an independent really a threat to Labor if they’re running in a safe Lib seat where Labor barely gives their candidate any resources? The more strong independents that run in safe coalition seats the more thinly spread the coalition’s resources will be. I just don’t understand why so many Labor die-hards fail to understand this.

  4. Florence Howarth

    Gillard managed to pass record legislation despite minorities in both houses while providing good governance. However, Abbott & Rudd made her job harder. There was no coalition. The government party was shambolic, but not the government.

  5. Kate Ahearne

    Thanks, Kay.

    You make a lot of good points. I’m not sure I agree 100% with all of them, but the urgent need for a Labor government to be returned with a clear majority is obvious. Let’s not pussy-foot around this time. The clock is ticking. If there ever was such a thing as an either/or election, this is the one!

    I do think there is room, though, for Independents in certain cases. Zali Steggall in Warringah is one. It would be horrible to see that seat go back to the Liberals.

  6. RomeoCharlie29

    Thanks for this Kay. I too am concerned that the (so far) three ‘voices of’ candidates all profess to be disenchanted Libs (although how an ABC journalist, Zoe Daniel, could ever vote Liberal given their hatred and persecution of the ABC has me tossed). I would hate to see a balance of power held by closet Libs and like you am concerned that beyond climate change and a tough ICAC, they might not feel able to support a Labor government.

    If I was to go away from Labor, it would only be to the Greens as a possible first choice.

    And oh the irony of Gough making University education free ( though sadly propping up the private schools) and Dawkins ( Hawke and Keating) imposing the execrable HECS scheme. Shame.

  7. corvusboreus

    Independent or branded franchise?

    For me that depends upon a combination of the quality of product offered and the likelihood of actual delivery.

    I live in a lifelong NATs area.
    Last time round I opted INDI for both state and federal election.
    This was because both INDI candidates had better performance pedigree and policy articulation than the ALP or GRN candidates, and also offered a far better chance of winning.
    Both explicitly expressed willingness to work with both ALP/NSW Labor and GRNs to help formulate reasonable governace.
    Both came a credible 2nd.

    Did I vote wrong?

  8. David Stakes

    Agree we could end up wit another 3 yrs of Morrison with Independent support, a scary prospect indeed. And all because the 2 major partys are on the nose.

  9. Terence Mills

    Independents may not be the answer but they sure have the Liberal Party worried !

    The likes of Steggall and Helen Haines in Indi have given those electorates a voice and as independents can always squeeze the government of the day to the benefit of their electorate.

    We have an independent in my electorate of Kennedy : Bob Katter and whilst he may be a bit of a goose you would be surprised how much the Howard/Abbott/Turnbull and Morrison governments have quietly conceded to get Bob’s vote from time to time – that’s why he is so popular up here.

  10. Michael Taylor

    Labor is practically unheard of in my electorate (Indi) yet a vote for them is, oddly, a vote for the Liberals.

    It comes down to two choices: 1) Vote for our independent (Helen Haines) and it’s like a vote for Labor as Helen is more Labor than Labor, or 2) Vote for Labor and take votes off Helen, and given that Helen only just got over the line in 2019, this could hand victory to the Liberals.

    It’s complex.

  11. New England Cocky

    @Kay Rollison: A reasonable analysis except in country electorates where too many rustics still vote the same way as their great grandfathers told their wives to vote.

    In Northern Tablelands (NSW) and New England we have in the past elected both Labor and Independent candidates who have dragged the electorate screaming in protest into first the 20th century, then into the 21st century.

    The key to breaking the COALition hold on NSW & feral misgovernment lies in breaking the Nazional$ Party in 4/8 electorates west of the Great Dividing Range. Presently four electorates are held by SFF and Independent MPs who are perceived as doing a good job holding the corrupt NSW COALition to account for MDB water abuses among other likely corrupt practices.

    In Sydney electorates new LABOR leader Chris Minns is exposing and publicising the too many deficiencies of the Dead Parrot Liarbral misgovernment in a manner reminiscent of Bob Carr. Naturally the mediocre stench minions are ignoring his comments about public transport literally falling apart.

    Interestingly, the NSW Council elections in Armidale have shown that the Nazional$ lack any appeal for voters, with fresh blood seemingly set to fill about six (6) positions plus four (4) re-elected Councillors less one rusted on Nazional$ stalwart.

    Seems town folk understand that doing a dirty water deal with a multinational horticultural corporation to supply Armidale drinking water in Malpas Dam at about a 60% discount to the increased 2022 water rates, does jog their hip pockets, even after the worst drought in living memory when the dealing was done.

  12. corvusboreus

    Holy scatology, by some of the examples cited it is almost as if each state, and the electorates contained within, can have specific nuanced complexities that confound sweeping general analysis.

    I guess it probably works in the same way that the annual aggregation of taxation records can have serious discrepancies with fortnightly calculated welfare payments when one is automatedly used for the purposes of leveeing potential debts against the other.

    One size don’t fit all?

  13. Kaye Lee

    “If the government – Labor or Liberal – has to negotiate on each and every piece of legislation with each and every independent, sound government will become impossible.”

    The whole point of representative government is that each individual member is supposed to be assessing and voting on each piece of legislation. If the legislation is good enough and explained well enough, individual horse trading should not be necessary. In fact, it shouldn’t happen at all.

    “It is political parties that pass policies through the parliament.”

    The medivac legislation was introduced by an independent. A federal ICAC bill was introduced by an independent. It was individuals who kept agitating for marriage equality because both major parties were too scared of losing the religious vote. The constitution says nothing about political parties.

    “If you live in the real world, you will know that a party needs to be elected with a majority before it can do ANYTHING.”

    Perhaps you need to revisit what the minority Gillard government achieved.

    “where Labor really differs from the LNP is in its rejection of neoliberal, trickle-down economics.”

    Does that mean they will be opposing the tax cuts for the rich?

    In my opinion, we need a crossbench to make Labor courageous. They are way too weak when it comes to the fossil fuel industry. They allow themselves to be dictated to by the church. They are terrified of helping refugees. Working with a brave crossbench could actually be advantageous for Labor.

    Single party majority governments are very rare.

  14. corvusboreus

    ‘If we (aka ‘the gubment’) had to navigate the legal minefield of accountability under scrutiny of an effective permanently standing federal independent anti-corruption commission (aka fed ICAC) then the current modus operandi of conducting business within governance would become practicably impossible’

    2IC PM Barnaby Joyce MP, (paraphrased for the sake of sobriety).

  15. RomeoCharlie29

    CB, absolutely why a Fed ICAC is needed, thanks Bananaby. Current MO of governance should be impossible, corrupt beyond belief

  16. Andrew J. Smith

    I’d agree with the sentiments of the article but how to involve more grass roots or community input when Libs, Nats and Labor are hollowed out at branch level and Labor has no neutral voice/access to media?

    Unfortunate that our politics or supposed ‘liberal democracy’ becomes gridlocked by powerful nativist/conservative forces, and resorting to many independents should not be required as it could lead to breakdown of parties, leaving parliamentary democracy at risk of anarchy and indirectly preferences flowing back to conservatives….?

    On the latter, on occasion it could be seen as astroturfing of nominal independents splitting centre right through left votes (one is especially suspicious of ON, Lib Dems and UAP); this is exactly what many alt/far right and radical libertarians desire when one observes the political modus operandi in the US.

  17. wam

    Dr Rollison, Happily, it is almost impossible for the libs to rule without the nats.
    Sadly, the above line voting gives the party the rights to preferences and that will ensure some small parties will succeed.
    For 30 years harridine was the tassie independent then the loonies and now, to the chagrin of the bandit, PHON and anyone else who bobs up.
    ps michael now you are thinking like the loonies leader. He gets in on lib preferences.

  18. Geoff Andrews

    What a bastard that bandit is, wam. Imagine being elected on the preferences of one’s enemy – some people have no shame or ethics.
    Happily, it’s impossible for many labourers to be elected, let alone rule, without the loonies’ preferences.

  19. wam

    gday, Geof, Something in your cheek or are you just crowing? It is not the same as the libs choose to pick the bandit because they know he is nothing in the lower house. So if the loonies can get above the libs bob’s your uncle.
    The extremists vote, green, PHON and Palmer. But some labor idiots are seduced by loonies’ paper propaganda dreaming to give them the AEC cash and still vote labor. If these simpletons looked at the bandit’s greens they may realise the greens are no longer the greens of last century. They are now a practical party seeking power and cash. The journey to reach its aims takes the courage to act against labor and for the LNP. This will continue despite re-electing a corrupt inept government. The bandtians scheme to take 9 labor seats in the bandit manner (described by michael in Indi).
    The bandtians will carp and wait till they get labor to give in to extortion. So far the bandtians have cost two seats in qld and may have played a part in the two losses in tassie? Ergo Shorten would be PM without the ambition of the bandit ps look at his record of political participation and good luck to the loonies for hiding their ambitions behind a glossy pamphlet.

  20. Douglas Pritchard

    Did anyone notice the last State election in WA. The liberals had demonstrated a shocking performance, and up stepped a solid labour leader who took the day.
    For voters in WA it was a welcome outcome.

  21. Keith

    Despite having to contend with a hung Parliament PM Gillard managed to get much legislation through.We need a progressive cross bench. Those elected for the major parties are little more than rubber stamps for what Cabinet pushes it seems. We need to get a stronger goal in relation to climate change; the Coalition have nothing to offer, while Labor has a mediocre plan. Labor is not following the recommendations of climate scientists in relation to developing a strong enough policy on climate change. Already methane emissions coming from coal mines in Queensland are at the level of greenhouse emissions from a middle sized European country.

    Labor needs a strong cross bench to push for a better policy on climate change, the Independents are for an ICAC and stronger climate policies .

    Having the Coalition form the next Federal government is quite scary.

    Our children are already going to suffer enough from climate change, a strong goal for 2030 will reduce impacts created by an amplified climate.

  22. Kaye Lee


    re Labor’s emissions reduction target, I’m not too concerned. It didn’t scare the horses but it gave business a signal. We can easily overshoot it without too much effort.

  23. Kaye Lee

    Ian Macphee was the Liberal member for Goldstein for 16 years. But next year he’ll be casting his ballot for an independent, Zoe Daniels, who he says ‘will do all that she can to return our federal Parliament to a democratic institution’.

    It would be great to see Tim Wilson go and I doubt Labor could win Goldstein – another reason I don’t understand the hostility towards Independents.

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