Newsreader: Look who's calling the shots. Less than a week ago these three Independent MPs, Rob Oakshott, Tony Windsor, and Bob Catter, were virtual unknowns outside their own electorates and Parliament House.

Now they wield enormous power.

Rob Oakshott: And I get the irony that a new Gang of Four is in town, but I assure we act for good, not evil.

Annabelle Quince: The recent federal election has transformed Australian politics. No longer do the two main political parties dominate the political scene. There's a new force in Canberra , and they're called the Independents.

Hello, I'm Annabelle Quince and today on Rear Vision, here on ABC Radio National, we take a look at the long and rather colourful role Independents have played in Australia 's political history. For most of the 20th century, the main political parties have dominated politics. But there were times when Independents played a critical role, and according to historian and author, Humphrey McQueen, prior to federation, in 1901, virtually all politicians were Independents.

Humphrey McQueen: By the 1880s people like Henry Parkes in New South Wales , and the leaders of the Protectionist movement in Victoria , certainly had got together a group of pretty solid supporters who they could rely on. The problem was, of course, that people would defect from that or they would not be able to stay in parliament because there was no payment of members, so people would get elected and then they couldn't turn up, or they wouldn't turn up, or they'd drop out, so even a majority would become pretty unstable on you.

Annabelle Quince: So in essence, when we look back at the period before Federation, in a sense there were lots of individuals who came together to form groupings, moved apart, were there weren't there? So there was a much more sort of volatile political system in a sense.

Humphrey McQueen: Oh, far, far more. In fact it would be a bit of an exaggeration to say there were only Independents before the 1880s, but not much of an exaggeration.

Brian Costar: It wasn't really until the late 19th century that you started to get what we'd regard as a stable party system emerging.

Annabelle Quince: Brian Costar is Professor of Victorian Parliamentary Democracy at Swinburne University of Technology and the co-author of Rebel With a Cause - Independence in Australian Politics.

Brian Costar: I mean really, the formation of the Labor parties from 1890 onwards, really gave that a push, prior to that you really were looking at parliamentary factions and even in some places, virtually parliaments of Independents. And their record wasn't all that good. It tended to be an avoidance of major issues. For example, the hot topic issue of the day of the 19th century was education, because it involved this question about religion in schools and whether there was to be Bible reading or whether there wasn't. And one of the reasons we were pretty slow at getting State education access because parliaments were reluctant to touch them, because the members were susceptible of course to outside influences in the sense of organised group's campaign against them, and they had no protection from the Party system.

Annabelle Quince: So what happens at Federation, and that first Federal election? Do we see Independents running, or is it very much people running along party lines?

Brian Costar: Oh well, every man and his drover's dog was up to run in 1901. And indeed, quite a few drovers' dogs managed to get elected. There were a lot of what are called 'oncers', who got themselves voted in 1901, and then didn't stand again or were defeated. A lot of them had a long way to travel. I mean the people from Western Australia came across and didn't go home again until the next election, so the people over there have forgotten about them. So it's really in those early years of Federation when you've got three distinct groups. It was referred to as the period of the three elevenses, where you had a free trade grouping, a protectionist grouping, and a Labor party which was actually sharply divided between the free traders and the protectionists. And that doesn't get sorted out until about 1910 when the Labor party wins the first outright majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. And at that point, you really do begin to get strong Caucus discipline in the Labor party. It's there from the 1890s, but no-one really pays much attention to it, and there's no-one really to enforce it before about 1910. So things really have changed after the first ten years of Federation. But in the beginning, it was open slather.

Annabelle Quince: At the time of Federation, women were suspicious of the growth of political parties, and many stood a Independents in the early Federal elections. Jennifer Curtin is senior lecturer in politics at the University of Auckland and the other co-author of Rebel with a Cause - Independents in Australian Politics.

Jennifer Curtin: They saw the parties as a hangover of their development, coming out of a very male understanding of politics. And they felt that women hadn't been served well by male politicians, prior to women getting the vote in 1902. So I suppose at the State level, there was the sense that women's moral and social and economic wellbeing wasn't being taken into account, that there were a lot of issues around child health and maternity that weren't being addressed. And so once women got the vote, and the right to stand for parliament, there was this group of women that set up a Woman Voter Newsletter, which was really active until about 1917. It disseminated a wide range of information about politics and policies that women voters should be interested in. And for women like Vida Goldstein who stood on these sorts of issues to do with maternity allowances and the importance of recognising motherhood as something to be valued, and married women's property rights and those sorts f thing, they really felt that the political parties were extremely male-dominated, and needed women in there, and if they couldn't be there, certainly in the parliament, in order to ensure that women's friendly policies would result.

Annabelle Quince: And did these women who stood as Independents, like Vida Goldstein, did they come out of the suffragette movement?

Jennifer Curtin: Yes. Yes many of them did. And so in that sense we're not talking about a majority of women, of course there were women who were interested in voting for political parties and we know that historically the Liberal party was actually the party that tended to receive more of the women's vote than the Labor party for the long time. But these women that were active, like Vida Goldstein and others, yes, they were very active around the suffragette movement but they were also really active around other issues like women's material wellbeing.

Annabelle Quince: None of these women even though there was quite a large number of them standing, actually ever got into parliament at the Federal level.

Jennifer Curtin: No, no. And I suppose that's perhaps symptomatic of the time, too, that parties were increasingly gaining a hold. It's always been difficult in the Australian system for an Independent to get elected because he had to get the 50% plus one of the vote in the electorate. And the first one, an Independent we see get elected, is not until 1946. And that's Doris Blackburn. And interestingly, she was a campaign secretary for Vita Goldstein back in the early days. So she was a political animal in her own right, and her husband had held the seat, but died, and so she stood as an Independent, but she was from the left rather than from a rural conservative electorate.

Annabelle Quince: And how long did she maintain her seat in Federal parliament?

Jennifer Curtin: Only three years. Yes. And then in 1949 when Labor was trounced, federally, she lost her seat. So she had a very short time there, and her impact, probably in the broader scheme of things, would be quite small. But she certainly demonstrated that what independence can represent, not only electorate-specific actually, but sometimes national, as you've said, don't necessarily get a hearing by the major parties who are attending to matters that their party have determined as primary or most important.

Annabelle Quince: While at the Federal level, Independents didn't have an impact until the 1940s, at the State level, they did.

Humphrey McQueen: The most important single individual in a State parliament of course is Percy Brookfield, who in 1920 does have balance of power. Both sides are evenly divided in the New South Wales Parliament; Brookfield is amazingly the sole member from Broken Hill, of the industrial socialist Labor party. He'd been in the ALP, he'd been expelled, and he uses his position to do two things. One is to get proper health and safety for the miners in Broken Hill, and secondly, to get a Royal Commission into the jailing of the industrial workers of the world, the Wobblys, who've been put in jail for trying to burn down Sydney during the First World War. And the Royal Commission gets 10 of the 12 released. So he uses his power, enormously. More I think than any other single individual. But of course he's shot and killed on a railway station in 1921. So it's a pretty glorious, but very tragic end to it.

Brian Costar: In the States, both historically and even up into the contemporary period, some of the States have very significant independence. For example, in South Australia , the long run of the Liberal-Country League government under Premier Playford was really underpinned by a selection of very small parties and independents, which kept them in power for quite some time. There's a lot of variation in independence. Victoria , for example, has proved very unwelcoming to Independent MPs. Even though they played a significant role in 1999 where they held the balance of power and negotiated a charter of good governance, which they eventually signed with the then leader of the Opposition, Labor's Steve Bracks, and of course that brought Labor to power.

New South Wales , by contrast has always had a lot of independent MPs, and for its size, so has Queensland . In fact the longest serving State Independent MP came from Queensland , by the name of Tom Aitkens, who sat in the Parliament from 1944 to 1977, a record that I think is going to take a lot of beating.

Annabelle Quince: This is Rear Vision on ABC Radio National. I'm Annabelle Quince and today we're taking a look at the role Independents have played in Australian politics since Federation.

In 1940, a year after Australia entered World War II, a Federal election was held. The incumbent government, a coalition of non-Labor parties, led by Robert Menzies, gained an equal number of seats as the Labor bloc, led by John Curtin. Menzies was only able to hold on to power with the support of two Independents, Alex Wilson and Arthur Coles. This was Australia 's first hung parliament at the Federal level. But as Humphrey McQueen explains, it was quite different from the situation today.

Humphrey McQueen: What Menzies was trying to do, hoping to do, was to bring the Labor party into a coalition, a grand coalition, like Churchill had established for the defence of the realm. But the Labor party was seriously divided between a pro-Communist group, a central group and a Lang-ite group who were half-radical and half-reactionary. And running through all of this there was a very strong Irish Catholic notion that a) you didn't want to fight for the Empire if you were Irish, and if you were Catholic, you supported Mussolini and the Fascists, because he was against the Communists. So to move into a pro-war government, would have split the Labor party in at least two ways, and possibly three or four.

So the Labor party wasn't prepared to come into government, nor was it anxious, nor its leader, John Curtin, anxious to overthrow the Menzies government that meant that they would have then been in charge, and all these divisions in the country, would have blown up. So even though from the elections in 1940, you get an equal number of Labor and non-Labor, plus 2 Independents, one of the Independents pointed out that there really wasn't a hung parliament, because the Opposition wasn't prepared to move a No Confidence motion, or do anything to give them a chance to vote the government out.

In October 1941, Menzies has been deposed as leader of the United Australia Party, as The Sydney Morning Herald said, 'He looked as amazed as Hamlet would have done, had he been stabbed by Polonius'. He's out of it. The new leader of the Country Party, Artie Fadden, comes in, and is Prime Minister for 40 days and 40 nights. So there are good reasons for them for getting a stronger government. And the threat of Japan really I think is the thing that means that the Independents and the Labor Party and a lot of pressure on them both to get rid of this hopeless, now, anti-Labor government that is so divided, so that's how when they move this censure motion on the budget, to reduce the first item by 1-pound, the two Independents now decide, for their own different reasons, one, because he's so reactionary and wanted Menzies to stay; the other because he was so radical and wants to do a good deal by the dirt farmers and stand up to the banks, both of them come across and support Curtin as Prime Minister.

But from 1940, for 15 months, although it appears that there's a hung parliament, in practice there wasn't a hung parliament. Therefore, drawing any parallel between 1940 and 2010 is really an indication that you're not paying any attention to the context or the dynamics or the structure of what was doing on in each case.

Annabelle Quince: So tell me about these two Independents, Alex Wilson and Arthur Coles, because as you said for 15 months, they held the balance, even though in a sense there wasn't a balance, but where did they come from and how did they get on together when they were such different characters?

Humphrey McQueen: Well I don't think they needed to get on together. And indeed, they were very different characters. Coles was the man who ran the chain stores; he'd been Lord Mayor of Melbourne . He was a great Menzies supporter before he got elected as a kind of Independent anti-Labor candidate. He was very right-wing politically.

Now meantime, you've got Wilson, who's the member for this very poor farming area in the Wimmera in Victoria , he's been elected in 1937, and while he's in the Country Party, he's not of the Country Party in one sense. He's part of this Victorian radical Country Party group, and he's got a whole range of policies that he wants, most of them to help the farmers out of the terrible financial situation that over-production of wheat in the 1920s, and then the Depression, all of these economic catastrophes have brought on the small farmers in his electorate. And you've always got to remember that there was a War on. That's the real context that changes things, and that's how those two decided to come across and vote with the Labor party to reduce the first item of the budget by one pound. Fadden, as Prime Minister, was probably happy to hand it over; the job was really beyond him, and Curtin and Evatt and Chifley and the others took over and then of course the Americans arrived, and we have a completely different political situation from 1942 onwards.

Annabelle Quince: Are we witnessing a significant change in Australian politics? Or merely the re-surfacing of an old phenomenon?

Humphrey McQueen: Well, as I said, particularly in relation to those Country Party type people, that's a thing that's been under the surface; it breaks through and then it gets pushed out again. What I think is happening though at the same time of course, is that is there a Labor party anymore? Has there been a Labor party for the last 20 years? So that if there isn't, then this ALP phenomenon has of course lost track of the people who'd supported it in the way in which the National Party have lost track of the people who'd supported the old Country Party. And there I think, we've seen the defection across to the Greens, so that in a way while the candidate for Melbourne is nominated as a Green, he's being supported by the most radical of the trade unions down there, you get a kind of Independent being elected for this central old Labor seat. So you get the Labor party breaking up, and that in a sense I think is a new phenomenon. How far it will go, whether the party can remake itself, which I would seriously doubt, because the machine people aren't going to hand over control to anybody else, then I think we are perhaps on the verge of a re-making of that half of the political system. Whereas on this occasion, it's the non-Labor groups, the Liberal-National Party, that is most united, partly because they'd driven out a lot of the people who were small-l Liberals, who would have supported environmental protection and things, so you may well get a whole set of new realignments coming out of this. So in that sense, I think there is really the potential for a great novelty coming about. But not, I think, because we've got the three Independent Country members. That I think does have a much longer tradition.

Annabelle Quince: Historian and author, Humphrey McQueen.

Our other guests were, co-authors of Rebel Without a Cause - Independents in Australian Politics, Brian Costar, and Jennifer Curtin.