Amid Australia’s election deadlock, independent candidates have become a lightning rod for discontented voters, and there are lessons for NZ political parties, writes Jennifer Curtin.
It might not be as internationally extraordinary as Brexit or Trump winning the Republican nomination, but the result of the Australian election has revealed a profound disaffection with both major parties across the Tasman. It seems that close to one third of Australians cast their vote for someone other than Liberal-National and Labor candidates. The final result hangs in the balance, with a sense that the second hung parliament in six years is a very real possibility. And, although the major parties and the Greens had expected changes in Senate voting rules to eliminate the presence of micro parties, it looks like 10 “teams” of independents, including the phoenix-like Pauline Hanson, will fill the cross benches in the upper house.
This trend in voting “independent” is not new in Australian politics. Between 1990 and 2013, 66 independents served in the lower houses of Australian parliaments, and most notable were the two, along with Greens MP, who kept the Gillard government alive from 2010-2013. A disproportionate number of these independents have won rural and regional seats held by the Liberals or Nationals that were considered to be “safe”. This happened again on Saturday. Cathy McGowan, an independent MP in the Victorian seat of Indi, won the safe Liberal seat in 2013, and increased her margin this election.
In New South Wales, two former independents gave sitting National MPs, including the deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce, a serious run for their money. In Queensland, maverick Bob Katter was returned, as was former whistleblower Andrew Wilkie in Tasmania. Meanwhile in South Australia, centrist independent senator Nick Xenophon formed a team of candidates (NXT) to run in House and Senate races. At least one former Liberal seat, Mayo, has been won by NXT’s Rebekha Sharkie. Another, the vast seat of Grey, encompassing Whyalla and Port Augusta, and which stretches all the way to the Western Australian border, may yet be won by a second NXT candidate. From all of this we find four independents and one Green become the deal makers and breakers in the chaos that seems to be Australian politics.
Of course the disillusionment with the major parties goes beyond country Australia, and beyond the House of Representatives. But a focus on why those in the “bush” have turned away from the parties to whom they were once wedded helps us to understand how the unthinkable in Australian politics has happened again.
The first reason is policy-related. Over the past three decades the major Australian parties – Labor, Liberal and National – slowly but surely abandoned traditional rural and regional economic development policies and services, instead requiring these communities to take more responsibility for their own sustainability. Combined with a major restructuring of the rural economy, unreliable commodity prices and cuts to public services, some parts of rural and regional Australia have been denied the benefits of an otherwise healthy national economy, prior to the end of the mining boom. These changes created the perception of a social, cultural and economic divide between city and country. Numerous reports were published and revealed regional gaps in income levels, access to digital technology and resourced educational facilities. In 1999 the federal leader of the National Party, John Anderson, acknowledged that rural and regional voters may feel their political parties had forgotten them: “the sense of alienation, of no longer being recognised and respected for the contribution to the nation being made, is deep and palpable in much of rural and regional Australia.”
The second point of note is that while vote share for the major parties has decreased in Australia in recent years, the control major parties exert over their parliamentarians and over the processes of candidate selection has rarely been greater. By adopting unpalatable policies, the Liberal, National and Labor parties rendered some of their local MPs and candidates – who are required to advocate the party line – electorally vulnerable to candidates free from toeing a party line. Independent and small-party locally grown candidates became more visible, more easily able to voice electorate concerns, and the electorates were of a size that allowed those without the support of a party machine to campaign and win.
Finally, in national elections at least, major parties are required to focus their campaign on the big picture, and on marginal electorates, in order to win a majority to govern. Increasingly this focus requires a presidential-style campaign, and assumes the popularity of the party leader is the most significant factor in play. This has created a space in which independent candidates can appeal to local issues and then, once in parliament, to take up the role of electorate champion.
Unsurprisingly, the major parties in Australia deride independent candidates for being ineffective and implore voters not to “waste” their vote. The 2016 campaign was no different, with Prime Minister Turnbull invoking Brexit fall-out in his plea to voters to avoid independents. However, the behaviour of governments who want to win these seats back from independents necessarily requires a degree of largesse.
The result of this attention is often paradoxical. For example, after almost losing the 1998 election because of the surge of support for Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, the Howard government invested heavily in rural electorates and went on to win the 2001 election with a sizeable majority. But two new independents were also elected that year, bringing the total to three. Nor has the success of independents proved a passing phase. In 2013, despite the populist rhetoric that the Gillard government had become beholden to independents, three were elected to the federal House of Representatives, when Abbott won in a landslide. Alongside this several other independents have been re-elected to state parliaments over the past 18 months and it is not unusual to see supporters of independents calling on voters to make their safe seat “marginal”.
In this way, independent candidates in Australia have become a lightning rod for discontented voters from both sides of the political spectrum, most of whom are seldom likely to switch sides completely. And of course this result is emphasised by compulsory voting and the lower house electoral system where parties trade preferences in order to win the required 50 per cent plus one, features that are absent from the New Zealand political system.
So what do such trends suggest for New Zealand politics and for the National government in particular? Political commentators often ruminate over the persistent threat the Greens pose to Labour’s place as a major party, while a similar threat to National seems unthinkable. In part, we are lulled into such thinking by the proportional part of our electoral system. It is the party vote that determines who wins, so a focus on the party leader and big-picture issues has become even more important to the campaign process. The smaller flank parties tend to concentrate on reaching the five percent threshold through nationwide rather than local campaigns because of the difficulties associated with winning a geographically concentrated proportion of the vote (ACT is an obvious exception).
However, the same cannot be said of the Northland byelection. Winston Peters does not represent a niche flank party but sits in the centre of the political spectrum; he presents himself as an “independently” minded candidate and as such, was able to appeal to discontented voters from both the left and the right when he won the seat last year. Peters has demonstrated that the New Zealand system can still reward a popular local candidate who attracts sufficient geographical support.
There is a tendency for pundits to write off byelections as a “one-off” punishment – it is the case that governments often have experienced a swing against them in the comparatively small number of byelections held in New Zealand. Smaller parties have sometimes benefitted as a result; for example when Social Credit won Rangitīkei in 1978. Bruce Beetham then went on to hold the seat in the 1978 and 1981 general elections, suggesting incumbency for non-major party candidates is possible beyond byelections. It may be that Northland returns to the National fold in 2017. It may be that the housing crisis in Auckland will overshadow regional resentment. But financial attention in the form of roads and bridges has been delivered nevertheless. It may not be enough. Jobs, schools, public services and decent wages are also important to rural and regional communities that do not always feel the benefits of the alleged “rock star” economy, particularly now that dairy prices have dropped. However, governments of the right tend to shy away from increasing state expenditure and exposing themselves to claims of “nanny” statism.
Much of this is theoretical. John Key’s personal standing remains high, and National’s candidate selection processes are sufficiently decentralised to enable them to choose “local notables” rather than political careerists. But as the Australian experience shows, attending to one regional electorate once is seldom sufficient, and career politicians are increasingly perceived as estranged from the communities they purport to represent. Listening tours, community cabinets, as well as broader regional development and redistributive policies may also be needed in order to prevent traditional country voters in New Zealand going rogue. If nothing else, the Australian experience in 2016 reminds us that the voices of the “masses” still matter to major parties.
Jennifer Curtin is a University of Auckland academic and co-author with Brian Costar of Rebels with a Cause: Independents in Australian Politics (UNSW Press).