Let’s hear it for independents in Parliament

Right now, the two big, outstanding items in Tasmania crying out for attention are climate change and how we manage our forests. Politicians like a good argument, and it’s a sad truth that some of them would like matters like these to remain unresolved.

For instance, chronic discord in our forests looked like ending a decade ago when past antagonists signed a painfully negotiated agreement to scale down native forest logging in favour of plantation forestry. But party politics – mainly the major parties dumping on the Greens – caused the agreement to fall apart and the wars to resume.

We continue to be haunted by those old ghosts. Last week, parliament might have addressed the urgent job of making Tasmania’s climate legislation fit for purpose. Instead the Liberals, with Labor support, turned back the clock to the bad old days by seeking to raise penalties for protest to the level of aggravated assault.

This is big-party politics at its nastiest. The major parties exist to ensure that political differences don’t make government unworkable – but not at the cost of democracy itself. Tasmania’s parliament today is far too preoccupied with protecting narrow interests, and not nearly enough with respecting and representing the full range of public opinion.

The great thing about democracy, when it works as it should, is that if we don’t like the way major parties behave we can replace them with people we prefer. Liberals won government last year, but voters gave signs of warming to independents. Clark, once a solid Labor electorate, gave just one seat to the ALP while returning both a Green and an independent.

In Tasmania that may be a sign of things to come, but if you listen to Coalition chatter about independents it’s already happening nationally in this year’s elections. They’re making such a fuss about “teal independents” it’s impossible to avoid thinking that these challengers might well give major parties a good shakeup on Saturday week. 

[To clarify: by “major parties” I mean the three main parties of government, Labor, Liberal and National. Others such as the Greens or the Local Party on the left, or the United Australia Party or Pauline Hanson’s One Nation on the right, I consider to be effectively independent of the influence of the major parties.]

The “teal independents” get their name from the corporate colour of Climate200, a lobby group founded in 2019 by investor-philanthropist Simon Holmes à Court. It backed several independents in that year’s election including successful Warringah candidate Zali Steggall. The name takes off the Melbourne-based Kooyong200 Club, set up to help pay for the re-election of Treasurer Josh Frydenberg. 

This is a personal affair. Holmes à Court was once friendly with Frydenberg and a member of Kooyong200, but in 2018 he publicly ripped into the Coalition for propping up ageing, costly coal power stations and was expelled just before the 2019 election. “The Treasurer says you have to leave now,” he was told at a club function. 

Frydenberg and other Liberals routinely call the teal candidates “fake independents” and former PM John Howard calls them “anti-Liberal groupies”. PM Scott Morrison warns they could hurt people’s incomes and jobs and “damage Australia’s security.” That aside, they do pose a threat to the job security of Coalition MPs in progressive electorates like North Sydney (currently held by Trent Zimmerman), Wentworth (Dave Sharma), Goldstein (Tim Wilson), and the birthplace of Climate200, Kooyong (Josh Frydenberg).

Amid all that noise, slipping under the radar are some impressive “Voices” candidates drawing on local discontent in regional seats, which brings the National Party into this debate. There’s a sense of volatility in the electorate and seat-level polling everywhere is notoriously unreliable, so election night is sure to bring big surprises. 

What is not in dispute among election observers, however, is that the main issues driving progressive independents – climate change and integrity in politics – are now more prominent than at any time since 2007, when Kevin Rudd took office declaring climate change to be our age’s “great moral challenge”. 

On integrity, Scott Morrison’s half-baked notion of an “independent” anti-corruption agency powerless to interrogate politicians and senior bureaucrats is ridiculous. As for climate change, the fact that fossil fuel emissions have barely moved under jurisdictions in both Canberra and Tasmania says everything about their priorities, and their grasp of the science. 

Functioning parties are essential to good government, but they can become complacent, self-serving and indifferent to public good. When they combine to try to exclude independents and smaller parties, voters are entitled to resist. In fact, democracy depends on it.

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