It is useful to remind ourelves that there have always been independents standing for Parliament and in recent years a number of high profile ones have been successful – such as in the power sharing arrangements with the Gillard Government – in achieving policy change.
But the current situation is remarkably unusual – particularly in terms of political perceptions and commentary. Why is it so? as Julius Sumner Miller asked.
There are the obvious explanations – the failure of major parties to address critical issues, the dire state of political discourse, the treatment of women in politics and the impact of climate change – which are all correct but perhaps not enough.
The best starting place for the genesis of the latest spate of Independents is Cathy McGowan’s defeat of Sophie Mirabella. Not for the reasons usually advanced but for deeper ones. The simple explanation was that Mirabella was unpopular. Indeed, at the time the unpopularity was such that teachers who had taught her at school decades before travelled to Indi to campaign for McGowan.
But the more profound explanation was that Cathy McGowan and her supporters rekindled the idea that politics was about the community and communities. What they did was to produce a blueprint for mobilising disparate groups and individuals in the local community and discussing with them their concerns and what the community needed. It was less about the ‘big’ issues political parties are obsessed with and more about the issues which affect the daily lives of people.
I came across a strange indicator which illustrated the impact of all this – an indicator few Canberra-based journalists would have noticed or even heard about. Attending a bush cemetery funeral at Violet Town we parked under the trees and noticed that almost every car parked there had a Cathy McGowan sticker.
The person who had died was very old. She was not political but had been a big part of her community and that community came out for her funeral in recognition of her and to reaffirm their sense of community. They were also the people who attended the many community meetings discussing the real issues facing the electorate.
Political operatives – starting on the process of becoming an apparatchik very early – are obsessed with tactics, polling statistics, focus groups and their careers. They are the antithesis of people in communities who are more concerned about the everyday realities of life. Their community is a community of like-minded players of the game.
Today there are many other factors influencing the current crop of Independents. Disgust with major parties, urgency about climate change and integrity – but also a sense of what their community needs and what the community means to them. They are not just about ‘big’ issues but more about extending the community links which build a stronger community and addressing the issues which impact on that.
Of course, as well as having the McGowan playbook to draw on they have some massive advantages. No previous independent candidates have been as well-resourced as these ones have. The impact of Climate 200 and Simon Holmes a Court’s contributions plus the many others who have contributed to their campaigns – is massively significant.
Moreover, at a time when polls show the proportion of women supporting the Liberal Party is the lowest in its history the fact that they are all women is a major factor in analysing their chances. During the Menzies era middle class and aspirational women were one of the cornerstones of the Menzies’s majorities. As Judith Brett has demonstrated Menzies drew women’s concerns and experiences into the centre of his account of the middle class – the group he defined as Australia’s Forgotten People. Morrison has driven them away.
The Independents are also tapping into a fundamental principle of human communication – homophily. In recent times homophily is most often talked about in terms of when it leads to lower levels of tolerance of those who are different. It is easy when thinking of this aspect of the phenomenon to identify those who feel powerful and able to bully others when surrounded by people like themselves. This has been on display in Parliament and is what Independents and the women who support them are rejecting.
However, another aspect of homophily is that the sharing of ideas between like individuals is homophilous – the extent to which people who interact are similar in certain attributes, beliefs, education and social status.
In considering that you don’t need to employ any Marxist interpretation of class but just to consider the class of women who feel in solidarity with each other – and these are the ones who rallied across Australia and outside Parliament. The ones who don’t suffer from an empathy deficit – unlike Scott Morrison who said the women were lucky they didn’t live in another country where they might have been shot.
But the big questions are still: can they win and what will the do if they hold the balance of power?
We don’t know and – despite the inevitable cries from the media to make it clear before the election – they are smart and responsible enough to know that there are many options which can only be addressed if and when the time comes. Some may support a Liberal Government without Morrison. Others will want to give support to whichever party has the most seats. Some will want to negotiate on specific policy issues such as climate and integrity.
As for whether they will be in the position to be considering these options we also don’t know. However, if a large proportion of the women who have had enough of Morrison switch to Independents and lots of Labor voters take a tactical approach then their chances are good.
If the Labor polls position holds up – which is unlikely – they would probably not have to think too much about what stance they take after the election.
If not, on election night their primary vote is between 25% and 30% both Liberals and Labor could need to be thinking about what they will be offering the week after the election.