Who's Afraid Of The Indies In The House?


If ever a federal election campaign needed a therapist, it was the one we just endured together. New Matilda is delighted to lie down on the couch and welcome back Dr Zoe, our resident therapist. We had so many questions for her, we didn’t know where to start. Such as: Did the media ruin politics — or did politicians destroy the media? And when did election campaigns become tantamount to endurance events? And what happened to climate policy?

And then the votes were cast and we waited and waited for a government to be formed. This, of course, put the four MPs who held the balance of power into the spotlight — and once in the spotlight, Messrs Bandt, Oakeshott, Windsor and Katter were the target of sustained rage. Why, we asked Dr Zoe, does the spectacle of political independence apparently make everyone — pundits, punters and pollies — so uncomfortable?

Like the Americans, we exist in a two party adversarial system, where votes given to minor parties, even when they are given to candidates whose views are are much closer to our political ideals than those representing the bigger parties, are often classed as "wasted".

Last month, as the dust settled on the election results, Australia was facing a new political landscape. For some time, the highest peaks on this landscape were three independents and a Green in the seat of Melbourne. A great deal of criticism and outrage was fomented and was then fired particularly at the three independents.

So what’s so scary about independents?

We like lone rangers in this country — but only up to a point. We admire them for having the courage of their convictions and some of the time we celebrate their bravery. But like our pet dogs, we don’t appreciate it when independents pack up. Then we have to see their nature more clearly.

What was so outrageous about Katter, Windsor and Oakeshott, was partly that they broke an unspoken cultural rule that you can step out, but then you can’t step up — and once you step out on your own, you’re not allowed colleagues. Not only did they forge cross-party alliances, they had the audacity to work to reset part of the political agenda. They decided to take on the rules and not just the game.

The result? In many quarters the three independents were portrayed as men who at some point had had a major tantrum, and like all tantrum-throwers, they were expected eventually to calm down. They would choose a side like proper players, and the real teams would then get on with playing the game. No wonder then there was such outrage when not only did they take their time to make a decision, they (god forbid!) decided now was the time to push their own political agendas nationally.

A two party adversarial system that is increasingly focused on discrediting whoever’s on the other side must rely on military strategy based on the assessment and exploitation of weaknesses. The current situation showed how unused we have become to actual negotiation.

Indeed, the change in tone from the Coalition after it became apparent they would not be forming government made it abundantly clear that we negotiate politically in this country as if the other person’s a kidnapper; we tell them what we think they want to hear, while actually planning our own defence and counter-attack. So the fear of independents can also be about control.

When someone moves away to set their own agenda, we have to work to keep them onside. Why? Because we know their support is not automatic and our ability to push an agenda is never guaranteed. We especially need control when we feel under threat. Solidarity is necessary when we are fighting an enemy. And the easiest enemy to shoot is the defector. Independents are too risky in this political landscape because they are elected to act as individuals rather than on the understanding that they will toe the party line. They water down the divisions between one side and the other and the field gets muddy.

Independents provoke a fear of political dilution that requires a nationalist culture in which to flourish. In those cultures without such strong nationalism, such as Canada, where I come from, there is far less support for the kind of party flag-waving we saw after the last election. There have of course also been many occasions in Canada, where one party did not hold a clear majority. We don’t use the term, "un-Canadian" in Canada, because it’s too hard to be clear about what exactly being Canadian means.

I was at the dentist recently having this conversation (or rather listening and grunting) with a dental technician who was also from Canada. I asked her what she thought about the recent election here. "This would never happen in Canada," she said. We Canadians like to define ourselves by what we’re not. While annoying and occasionally over-earnest and self-critical, this is at least protective when it comes to embracing pluralism.

When a clear idea of national or party identity does exist, it is more likely that those not in the club will be vilified. We already know that racism and nationalism go hand in hand. I’m not trying to say that things are better in Canada — that would certainly be un-Canadian of me! Maybe I should go back to where I came from, eh? However, I do think it’s useful to examine the ecosystems in which particular situations flourish, and important to be equally curious about where they do not.

Of the absurdities that besmirch the political process like those little stickers on fruit, my personal favourite is the idea of the conscience vote. What the hell do they do with their consciences the rest of the time? Independents are a challenge to the current political system most particularly when they are seen to be acting out of a conscientious objection to their former party’s policies. This is threatening because it undermines the agenda of getting things done, and shows others up, rightly or wrongly, as having surrendered their personal will. Which isn’t sexy. Is Penny Wong actually against gay marriage? And if she is not, what does it say about our process that she is expected to toe the party line?

What was so incredible to many people from other countries was the suggestion that the prospect of a hung parliament in Australia might require a re-election. As if somehow we had all made a terrible mistake at the booths, and needed to go back and try again. As if we hadn’t actually sent a clear message. God forbid that the democratic process should lead to anything but the tyranny of the majority.


Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.