POST WAR AUSTRALIA - INDEPENDENTS
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.
they wield enormous power.
I get the irony that a new Gang of Four is in town, but I assure we act
for good, not evil.
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
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
By the 1880s people like Henry Parkes in
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.
wasn't really until the late 19th century that you started to get what
we'd regard as a stable party system emerging.
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.
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.
So what happens at Federation, and that first Federal election?
Do we see Independents running, or is it very much people running along
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
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
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.
And did these women who stood as Independents, like Vida
Goldstein, did they come out of the suffragette movement?
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.
None of these women even though there was quite a large number of
them standing, actually ever got into parliament at the Federal level.
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.
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.
While at the Federal level, Independents didn't have an impact until the
1940s, at the State level, they did.
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;
the States, both historically and even up into the contemporary period,
some of the States have very significant independence. For example, in
, by contrast has always had a
lot of independent MPs, and for its size, so has
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.
1940, a year after
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
meantime, you've got Wilson, who's the member for this very poor farming
area in the Wimmera in
Are we witnessing a significant change in Australian politics? Or
merely the re-surfacing of an old phenomenon?
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.
Historian and author, Humphrey McQueen.
other guests were, co-authors of Rebel Without a Cause -
Independents in Australian Politics, Brian Costar, and Jennifer