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Whichever way they jump, the independents risk alienating those who put

28 August 2010 1,363 views No Comment

IN political terms, the stakes in the aftermath of the 2010 election have rarely, if ever, been higher. The disunited Australian Labor Party must salvage something from the wreckage of the election after its disastrous campaign left Julia Gillard a damaged leader with her political future resting on her capacity to form government.

The machine men that installed Gillard into the leadership are also sweating on the outcome given that their present, and in some cases aspiring, political careers are hanging in the balance.

Bill Shorten is positioning himself for Gillard’s inevitable removal and is the bookies’ favourite to lead Labor to the next election.

Shorten may want to reflect on the old adage that he who wields the knife never wears the crown.

Kevin Rudd is likely to play hardball, demanding that he be given a senior portfolio of his choice, namely foreign affairs, in a Labor-Green government.

If he is not accommodated, the possibility of Rudd leaving federal parliament and forcing a by-election in his seat of Griffith, under which circumstances Labor could lose, is real.

Given the 9 per cent swing against Rudd on primary votes, the thought of a contested by-election would add fuel to the

internecine war being waged within the Labor Party factions and across its state divisions.

It is easy to envisage Labor imploding, even if its increasingly irascible leader were able to convince the Governor-General that it could provide stable government at this point.

The pending NSW election, widely believed to be another Labor train wreck waiting to happen, will again expose the under-belly of the Sussex Street political machine.

The reality is that the Coalition has come from far behind almost to snatch outright victory.

Yet instability is likely to return if it fails to form a minority government and there will be internal recriminations within the Coalition if Tony Abbott fails to garner the support of the three regional independents.

One of Abbott’s secret weapons in working with the three independents is his party deputy, Julie Bishop, from Western Australia, who understands the concerns of the outlying states. Bishop has maintained cordial relations with Bob Katter and Tony Windsor through the years and is increasingly regarded as a stabilising influence within the Coalition. In politics, as in life, genuine longstanding relations count for more than fair-weather friendships that blossom opportunistically.

If the Coalition wins 73 seats, all the independents will be at the crossroads of Australian political history.

There will be an exponential increase in the weight of responsibility and the level of scrutiny of their policies, opinions and performance.

The independents will see this circumstance as an opportunity to progress their policy ideals, but opportunity comes with risk. The most obvious risk to the three regional independents will be alienating their support base should they choose to support Labor. Each represent conservative seats classified by the Australian Electoral Commission as predominantly rural.

Windsor’s seat of New England is a Federation seat held by the conservative side of politics since 1913. Irrigation and water supply issues are critical to his electorate.

The seat was held by National Party stalwart Ian Sinclair from 1963 to 1998 and long regarded as one of the jewels in the crown.

To some of his Coalition opponents, Windsor is viewed as an interloper occupying one of the Nationals’ most important seats, which in part explains the combative relationship Windsor has with his former party.

However, Windsor represents a deeply conservative electorate where the Labor candidate won only 8 per cent of the vote, and many people would be aghast if their popular local member threw in his lot with Gillard, Wayne Swan and, indirectly, Bob Brown.

The seat of Kennedy covers a huge swath of northern Queensland, from the Atherton Tableland and sugarcane country on the Pacific Ocean coast to the southern Gulf of Carpentaria, arid regions along the Northern Territory border and the Channel Country.

Katter, a highly popular independent maverick, has an agenda almost as diverse as his electorate, but the common thread is a better deal for farmers and for regional Australia.

Kennedy is also a Federation seat held comfortably by Katter since 1993, when he won it from Labor’s Rob Hulls, who held it for only one term. Bob Katter Sr held it from 1966 to 1990.

The fact Kennedy includes numerous mining towns makes it less conservative than New England, and Labor may fancy its chances at a more favourable point in the electoral cycle.

While Katter’s nearest rival from the Liberal National Party won about 26 per cent of the primary vote, the Labor vote was only a tad more than 20 per cent.

The seat of Lyne, created in 1949, was held by the Country/National Party from 1949 to 2008, when Rob Oakeshott won it in a by-election after the retirement of former Nationals leader and deputy prime minister Mark Vaile.

The loss of this seat has also grieved the Nationals, particularly given that Oakeshott was a former media adviser to Vaile and a Nationals MP in the NSW state seat of Port Macquarie.

According to the most recent census, more than 21 per cent of voters in Lyne are aged over 65 (the highest percentage of any seat). The threat to recreational fishing through Labor’s proposed marine parks appears to have alienated many Labor voters, as it garnered only 13 per cent of the primary vote.

Oakeshott is arguably the most vulnerable of the three independents, gaining 47 per cent of the primary vote against the Nationals’ 35 per cent, although he does command a comfortable 62 per cent on preferences.

Windsor and Katter are closer to the end of their parliamentary careers than the beginning and may be less concerned about a backlash against any decision that would enable Labor to form government. Oakeshott has been in federal parliament for only two years following a by-election win after Vaile resigned and would be more sensitive to the mood of his electorate.

All three independents are mindful that their decision could well define everything for which they have worked and sacrificed in their political careers.

There are many precedents, but one that may play on their minds is that of South Australian Nationals member Karlene Maywald, who agreed in 2004 to serve as minister in a minority Labor government. Voters in her electorate were initially understanding of her controversial decision because it gave her electorate political leverage.

Maywald retained her ministerial post after the 2006 election despite Labor winning a comfortable majority.

However, her decision to remain in a majority Labor government caused a huge backlash and she lost her seat at the 2010 election, with a swing against her of 20 per cent.

In the present federal situation, some conservative voters may be willing to tolerate independent representatives siding with Labor if it holds more seats than the Coalition.

Yet even then they would need to be convinced of the utter necessity of such a decision.

But if the Abbott-Bishop team gains more seats than the ALP there would be an almost overwhelming case for the conservative independents to do a deal with the Coalition.

And woe betide any independent who strays too far from the natural inclination of the conservative electoral base.

The Weekend Australian, August 28-29, 2010