Independents in Australian politics
This resource page provides links to key documents on the history and role of independents in Australian politics.
INDEPENDENTS have shaped Australian state and federal politics in myriad ways. Most obviously, they have been power-brokers negotiating legislative change when holding the balance of power, and have determined government in hung elections. Their power to shape public policy and governance raises questions about accountability. Are independents capable of, and should they be responsible for, holding the executive accountable? Should independents have the authority to decide which political party will form government? The ascent of independents to parliament also raises broader questions about the relevance of political parties to voters.
There are more non-party members of parliament in Australia than in any other comparable western country. The proliferation of independents in Australia is evident in the results of Australian federal elections. Another measure is a list of independents who received election funding payments in 2004.
From the beginning
Brian Costar and Jennifer Curtin’s book, Rebels with a Cause: Independents in Australian Politics (UNSW Press, 2004), points out that independents are far from a recent phenomenon in Australian politics; the history of independent candidates’ contesting elections in Australia is long and complex. Despite the received wisdom that Australia is a two-party system of democracy, independents have always been a feature of the Australian political landscape - it appears that sections of the electorate vote for independents because they mistrust party mechanisms and lack confidence that the parties will adequately represent issues of importance to them. The Australian Parliamentary Library’s breakdown of party representation in the Australian Parliament shows the presence of independents in federal parliament since federation (note that in these tables, independents are represented as “Others”), and the history of independents’ election to both state and federal parliaments can be found on the University of Western Australia’s Australian Government and Politics Database.
During the 1940s independents played a key role in challenging the dominance of the major parties in federal and state politics. In 1940 two independents, Alex Wilson and Arthur Coles, held the balance of power in the House of Representatives, curbing the power of the major parties over parliament and government. In 1941 these same two independents were instrumental in bringing down the Fadden federal government by supporting a Labor no-confidence motion. During this era, Queensland independents Tom Aikens and Frank Barnes placed social issues, rorting within political parties and police corruption on political agendas, highlighting concerns that were to reappear decades later in the Shepherdson and Fitzgerald inquiries.
In 1946 Doris Blackburn was the first woman to win a federal seat as an independent. Although Blackburn was defeated in the 1949 election, she advanced debates concerning women’s entitlements, peace and Aboriginal land rights during the three years she served in parliament. In the early federation era, suffragists advocated that women stand for parliament as independents to promote women’s rights. During this period, independent candidacy enabled women to rebel against entrenched patriarchy in political parties, where the men in control refused to accept the nomination of women as candidates. Vida Goldstein and Rose Scott, who believed that political parties privileged men’s interests over those of women, were further motivated to shun the party system. Goldstein and Scott stood for parliament as independent candidates but did not manage to win seats. Jennifer Curtin (2005) outlines the history of women’s aspirations to run as independent candidates in a Senate Occasional Lecture (PDF).
From federation to the present day, independents have been influential in upper and lower houses at both federal and state levels. While historically an independent’s stay in parliament has often been limited to one term, this pattern is showing signs of changing. A handful of independents are beginning to win successive terms as members of parliament, suggesting that their presence in, and influence over, parliament is becoming more entrenched. In her Senate Occasional Lecture (PDF), Jennifer Curtin (2005) analyses the history and patterns of independents’ presence in federal parliament, providing insights into how the decline of the major political parties has offered non-party-aligned candidates the chance to get elected.
Independent members of the Senate since 1901 have made a range of contributions to Australian politics, including changing political discourse, developing and amending legislative initiatives, and participating in extensive Senate Committee investigations. Campbell Sharman (1999) examines how independents and minor political parties operate to hold the executive to account in the Senate.
With the Senate intended as a “states”; house but often treated as a “party” house, independents have added another dimension to the upper house’s functions by casting deciding votes when holding the balance of power. On such occasions, the power to vote with or against legislation proposed by government has placed independent senators in a potent position. An Australian Parliamentary Library research paper on the history of the Australian Senate (PDF) delves into the issue of independents, in the context of a widespread view that the Senate’s powers have been extended too far, at the expense of the two-party system. Gwynneth Singleton’s paper Independents in a Multi-Party System: The Experience of the Australian Senate (PDF) reviews in detail how political parties and independents interact in the upper house.
Reginald “Spot” Turnbull was Australia’s first independent senator. A former Lord Mayor of Launceston, Turnbull was the Tasmanian treasurer until he was dismissed from the state parliament on 7 April 1959. He was elected to the Australian Senate in 1962 and continued until 1974, serving as an independent except for a brief period (August 1969 - April 1970) when he was the leader of the Australia Party. Turnbull could be considered the father of the Tasmanian independent tradition, a tradition carried on by one of the most effective and influential independents since federation, Brian Harradine, who served multiple terms as a Tasmanian senator, from 1975 to 2005.
Harradine was acutely aware of how he could use his bargaining power in the Senate to progress his own agenda. When he first acquired the balance of power he ensured that family allowances were increased. In 1996 he supported the government’s policy of privatising Telstra in exchange for $150 million from the government to fund environmental initiatives and a range of other programs in Tasmania.
Harradine also demonstrated how independents are able to set political agendas by proposing legislative measures of their own. In 1985 he introduced the Human Embryo Experimentation Bill to the Senate. While this Bill was not passed as legislation, it sparked a debate about biotechnology that was a forerunner of more recent parliamentary and public debate concerning the use of foetal embryos in developing medical cures.
Brian Harradine’s political success and status in Tasmania, which saw him re-elected as an independent five times, also reinforce how independents can forge a relationship with their communities and establish a core of faithful supporters. Harradine’s means of attracting a following were similar to Peter Andren’s (see below) - production of a newsletter, addressing small meetings, being on tap to talk with voters, using local media. However, Harradine’s influence extended beyond his electorate as he developed a prominent public profile politicising social issues - promoting the traditional family and opposing abortion, biotechnology and euthanasia - and trading his vote for special funding for Tasmania.
The power of independent senators continues to be pertinent when evaluating the practice of parliamentary democracy, but the changing complexion of the Senate requires consideration. More often than not Australian governments have not had a majority in the upper house and senators have often exercised their power of review. However, since July 2005 the Howard government has gained the majority in the upper house, enabling the passage of most of its key legislation without obstruction from independents or minor political parties.
House of Representatives
There have been fewer independents in the House of Representatives since 1901 than in the Senate. In the first federal elections held in Australia in 1901, Alexander Paterson, an independent, won the north Queensland lower-house seat of Capricornia (Rockhampton). Paterson supported restrictions on immigration, particularly Chinese immigration, and spoke to the introduction of the Immigration Restriction Act (1901), which enshrined in legislation the White Australia Policy.
The prominence of lower-house independents has increased in recent years. In the 2001 federal election, votes for independents surpassed those for minor parties in the House of Representatives, indicating an increase in voters’ dissatisfaction with political parties across the spectrum. In federal politics, independents have been most successful in rural areas of Australia, lending weight to the idea that constituents in remote parts of Australia are feeling abandoned by political parties. The electoral success of Peter Andren is an example of how certain areas of rural Australia are turning to independents to represent them in the lower house of parliament.
Peter Andren epitomises the independent who actively reaches out to voters feeling neglected by the major parties. Andren has held the federal seat of Calare as an independent since 1996, despite the fact that every seat surrounding Calare (located in the central western tablelands of New South Wales) is either a safe Liberal or Labor seat. An outstanding feature of Andren’s campaigns has been his ability to disseminate his policies and profile within his electorate through the local media. Andren has seized opportunities to communicate with his electorate through regional television, three radio stations and four newspapers, resulting in a level of exposure that outstrips the media coverage that many aspiring city candidates receive.
While at odds with some of his supporters’ views, Andren’s pro-asylum seeker stance in 2001 did not impede his electoral success. Indeed, Andren remained popular even with his supporters who were opposed to the intake of “illegal immigrants,” which indicated that he was respected and rewarded for his preparedness to adopt a strong and well-articulated position on asylum seeker policy. His book The Andren Report: An Independent Way in Australian Politics offers many insights into his experiences as an independent member of parliament during three successive terms of the Howard government. In addition to his parliamentary home page, Andren maintains a personal home page, which outlines the principal policy areas on which he focuses. Andren’s inaugural parliamentary speech also shows how he and other independents see their role in the context of party politics.
Bob Katter, another prominent independent parliamentarian, illustrates how renegade politicians develop a public profile when free of the constraints of party discipline. Katter resigned from the National Party to become a lower-house independent member of federal parliament in protest at the Coalition’s plans to privatise Telstra.
Independents have been active in state parliaments for many years, but since the 1980s there has been a marked increase in their numbers, which at times has resulted in fundamental changes to processes of governing.
When choosing lower-house representatives in state parliaments, voters have rejected political parties in favour of independents more than they have at the federal level. The success of independents in being elected to state lower houses has changed the dynamics of political power, especially since the 1990s. Of particular significance has been the ability of independents to decide which major political party will form government in the case of a hung parliament. The 1999 Victorian election, where Russell Savage, Craig Ingram and Susan Davies won seats as independents in the Legislative Assembly, provides a telling example of how independents can band together to determine and enable the formation of a minority government. Not only was the development of a compact between the Labor Party and the three independents an essential component of striking a deal; the then leader-in-waiting, Steve Bracks, was rewarded by the independents for his timely communication during negotiations to form government. Victoria is not an isolated example of independents’ holding the balance of power. At various times, independents have held the balance of power in New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory. Independents have risen to influential positions in South Australia, most notably when appointed to the position of Speaker and to the ministry.
Often it can be advantageous for independents to group together in order to effect legislative change. Independent federal senators have reconciled stark ideological differences to achieve agreement when holding the balance of power - in 2003, for example, four independent senators came together to develop a united response to the government’s amendments to the Broadcasting Services Act. But at the state level of politics, a more comprehensive and cohesive type of arrangement among independents, as well as between independents and political parties, has emerged. Copies of two of these agreements are available online: Independents’ Charter Victoria and the South Australian Compact for Good Government.
Counting the votes
Voting systems can be crucial in determining whether independents get elected to the parliament and with what portion of the primary vote. For example, Tasmanian candidates for the Senate require fewer outright votes to achieve a quota than do candidates in the other states and territories, which assists Tasmanian independents in winning seats. Independent candidates in that state also benefit from the higher percentage of Tasmanians, relative to other regions in Australia, who vote below the line - a habit that has been established by proportional voting in the state House of Assembly.
Some other aspects of voting systems can work in favour of independents. For example, preferences are likely to flow to independents - Labor and the Coalition direct preferences to non-party candidates to avoid advancing each other. Compulsory preferential voting in single-member electorates further enhances this advantage for independents. Yet independents encounter setbacks because of other aspects of the voting process. Independents experience disadvantages that do not apply to members of political parties, including: lack of access to electoral rolls in most states; inability to be listed above the line on the Senate ballot paper unless banded with other independents; and restrictive tax and fundraising regulations. An audit paper (PDF) by Jennifer Curtin (2005) provides more detail on discrepancies in nomination processes, voting systems and parliamentary entitlement.
Independents pursue their own agendas, but there are some commonalities among independents that reveal why and how they get elected. One such shared trait concerns how independents consult with and pitch their campaigns to their electorates. Independents can challenge dominant concepts of representation, which revolve primarily around national rather than local interests. Attuned to the grievances of voters who feel alienated by the rigidity of the party system, independents present themselves to their electorates in ways that distinguish them from politicians who are members of the major political parties. Election outcomes and qualitative research reveal that independents’ grassroots campaign styles have appealed to voters, particularly in regional and rural Australia, where disaffected voters seek direct, personal and visible presence from their members of parliament. Currently, there is a backlash against major political parties in rural electorates that have not shared with city regions in the spoils of a strong national economy.
The rise of independents’ popularity in rural and regional areas has been raised in the NSW Parliament, with independent MLA Clover Moore identifying why independents have displaced major political parties at the state and federal levels. The swing towards independents presents a particular challenge to the Liberal and National parties, which traditionally have collected the primary vote in rural Australia. Rather than transfer votes to Labor, voters in rural heartlands are more likely to defect from the National Party to an independent candidate who demonstrates avid understanding of local social and economic issues. Independents who convey to voters that they are accessible and responsive, free of factional and ideological politics and accountable to their electorates rather than captive to party line, present a viable alternative to candidates from political parties whom voters have come to perceive as out of touch with local issues.
Independents have been effective in challenging the notion that only major political parties define the parameters of public policy and political culture. Even when independents do not hold the balance of power or achieve legislative change, they can set the pace in policy design by defining issues as problematic and by offering up alternatives. This was particularly effective in regional and rural Australia in the late 1990s to 2001 when independents identified areas requiring policy improvement, placing the Howard government in a position where it had to court country voters actively to win back support for the Coalition. During this period, the government endeavoured to address rural voters’ concerns by engaging in wider consultation with communities, increasing funding for specific projects, and investing in employment and infrastructure. The government's plans to privatise Telstra fully were deferred in response to protests from independents and constituents about the need to address social obligations to rural areas in the delivery of telecommunications.
Despite the success of independents in entering parliament, non-party-aligned members of parliament generally lead a more precarious political life than their party-affiliated counterparts. Without the backing of a well-oiled, entrenched political party, independents often contend with a relative lack of funding, campaign support, mentoring and voter identification. Other disadvantages that independents encounter include: discrepancies in the electoral system, as discussed earlier; dealing with a greater parliamentary workload than most other backbenchers; and taking more personal responsibility for decisions than politicians who can avoid personal input into controversial issues by adhering to a party line. One support available to independents is the Independent Candidate Advisory Network (ICAN), formed in 1995 by independents in the House of Representatives to support the establishment of a strong independent parliamentary force. ICAN advises independent candidates on their bids to get elected to state and federal parliaments.
Often the success of independent candidates is determined by the extent to which their current policies affect the immediate welfare of local communities, rather than by how they will serve their electorates in the long term. An independent’s place in parliament is decided to a great extent by a protest vote, rather than a lasting change in voting behaviour or a vote for the candidate in his or her own right. Major political parties are an established strength in Australia’s political system and have the resources to continue to field candidates and resurface to defeat independents in fresh elections. But opportunities for independents to rally support continue to emerge. Recently, political parties have exercised greater control over their parliamentarians, providing even more reason for voters who are dissatisfied with the inflexibility of the party system to respond to new avenues of political expression. The fluctuation of social and economic climates can also work to independents’ advantage, creating new openings for independents to capture votes through the development of contemporary and responsive agendas.
- Katrina Gorjanicyn, October 2006, with David Prater
SELECTED REPORTS ON THIS TOPIC FROM APO MEMBERS
In this article published after the 2004 federal election, Peter Andren, the independent member for Calare, attacks the excesses of parliamentary “entitlements” employed in the pursuit of re-election. “We have a system,” he writes, “that delivers all representatives incredible privileges and power through incumbency.”
Australia’s major political parties operate powerful databases using information contained on the electoral roll about every Australian voter. Peter van Onselen provides an overview of the way the databases function and shows how they impinge negatively on the value of political equality through entrenching incumbency.
How important are our democratic beliefs to the way we run federal elections, asks Marian Sawer. Political equality and popular control of government are generally accepted as being basic to democracy. Flowing from the principle of political equality is the principle that political parties or independents supported by citizens should be able to compete on a level playing field. This means that political parties’ access to finance and broadcasting time should relate to electoral support rather than business backing or the benefits of being in office.
Graeme Orr assesses key aspects of Australia’s electoral systems against the ideal of political equality. Political equality means formal equality (treating people equally as electors), and it requires systems that are representative and inclusive, accessible to all and competitive (so that elections are open to outsiders and newcomers, not just to incumbents).
In this Democratic Audit of Australia paper Jennifer Curtin examines discrepancies in rules that apply to independents and members of political parties. Certain electoral procedures discriminate against independents, affecting independents’ ability to stand for election and campaign for votes. Elements of voting methods tend to work in favour of political parties rather than independents. Furthermore, independents have encountered intimidation in parliaments that are dominated by members of political parties. While independents have had opportunities to participate in an electoral system configured by and for the benefit of the major political parties, reform of electoral rules is required in order to achieve greater equity between independents and political parties.