The party’s no fun anymore: @hiroyasugita study tour on Australian independents

Prime Minister Julia Gillard and cross-benchers in 2012 (Source: Fairfax).

Prime Minister Julia Gillard and cross-benchers in 2012 (Source: Fairfax).

Just one week in late March 2014 exposed how farcical Tony Abbott’s ‘government of adults’ is.

Supposedly consummate professional political operator, Arthur Sinodinos, proved to be naïve at best, greedy at worst, for not realising the dodgy company structure which had shadowy figure of Eddie Obeid lurking behind it. Then a supposedly moderate Attorney-General proposed flawed amendments to one of the most important legislations of the land for no other reason but to appease certain right-wing columnists and shock jocks. And on the same day, outrage turned to ridicule when Prime Minister Abbott reintroduced knighthoods, something even John Howard reckons is anachronistic.

These episodes clearly show why people are prepared to vote for credible independent or minor party candidates if available. However, there remains a question whether this would eventually lead to a fundamental change of the Australian party system. Are we witnessing the beginning of the end of major party dominance of Australia’s political scene?

On February 21, I was hitting the Hume Highway to find out a part of the answer. It was rather a hectic day. I had an appointment with Malcolm Fraser at 11.30am at his office on Collins Street, Melbourne. My appointment with new Member for Indi, Cathy McGowan, was at 4.00pm. In order to make it, I had to rent a car and drive up to Wangaratta.

As a matter of fact, this was my first return to Australia since August 2005. I did a PhD on the Australian Democrats at Flinders University from 1991 to 1995 and then worked for the Japanese Embassy in Canberra as a researcher from 1995 to 1998. Back in Japan, I lost my wife to lung cancer in 1999. I took my two (then little) daughters to Australia every August until 2005, when my finances were exhausted. Thus, I missed the entire Rudd-Gillard period.

This time, I took my students at Kanagawa University for a 5-week English course at QUT, stayed in Brisbane for a week and then travelled around Adelaide (for Gurrumul’s concert), Melbourne, Wangaratta and Sydney in 10 days, as though I was an old-fashioned Japanese tourist.

This proved to be a very intense, productive and joyful study tour. Starting from 23 hours’ delay of my Qantas flight (due to snow in Tokyo), I managed to meet Malcolm Fraser, Cathy McGowan, John Shakespeare and Tim Soutphommasane. Initial contact with Malcolm Fraser was made via a Twitter direct message!

As my PhD topic indicates, my political preference is small ‘l’ social liberal as well as non-major parties. After the 2010 election, I reached the conclusion that two-partism in Australia had come to the beginning of the end. It was partly because of the hung parliament, but it was more to do with the fact that non-major party members were elected in the city (Adam Bandt and Andrew Wilkie) as well as in the bush (Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott, Bob Katter and Tony Crook).

It was obvious that neither the ALP nor the LNP could afford to take their traditional and rusted-on supporters for granted.

I observed Cathy McGowan’s campaign for Indi with great interest and joy, perhaps only the positive aspect of the entire election for a left-winger. As I had been well aware of Sophie Mirabella’s reputation, Crikey’s article in early August about a possible upset in Indi did not surprise me. On the other hand, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, the two most prominent independents, with impeccable commitment to better parliamentary processes and integrity, had been abused by the Coalition as well as a section of media. If this outrageously co-ordinated smear campaign had a semblance of resonance on the voters in rural Victoria, it could have serious implication to Cathy McGowan ’s campaign.

One of my interests in Indi was how Cathy McGowan and her campaign team got over the line with such a short campaign.

Several post-election articles indicated that the serious campaign started in April-May 2013, while my experience with the Democrats had told me that it would require a 2-3 year continuous campaign for a non-major party candidate to unseat a major party incumbent. Both Cathy McGowan and her campaign team explained that, while the actual campaign was relatively short, there had been a long lead-up.

Unlike in the city, the McGowan team was able to utilise existing networks. Once the election was called, their readily available human resources and machinery were activated. Unlike the busload of Young Liberals the Mirabella team brought in from Melbourne, McGowan’s team were fully aware of the issues relevant to people in Indi. Younger members of her campaign introduced social media, and, blended with rural networks, they resulted in a marvellous synergy.

In February, very interesting figures were provided by the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC): Cathy McGowan raised $136,956 from 1120 donors, while fellow independent member, Andrew Wilkie, raised $109,141 from 192 donors. Cleary the McGowan team was very effective in raising small donations from a large number of supporters.

One of the McGowan campaign team members said that the organisational structure was flat without anyone dishing out, or at the receiving end of, orders, and this worked brilliantly as each member voluntarily did what they could do the best. They were determined the campaign would be positive, nice and not nasty. Considering the unimaginable depth of nastiness and vitriol the politics of Australia had fallen into (thanks to Lord Tony of Manly), such a message must have been welcomed by decent people in Indi. Cathy McGowan is a practical, down-to-earth, no-frills person. Decency is perhaps the most appropriate word to describe Cathy McGowan and her team.

As far as implications of Cathy McGowan’s Indi victory for other seats was concerned, she was not so sure if her experience could be exported to other seats. However, the answer seems to be obvious if you look at what Dr Sharman Stone, member for Murray, Indi’s neighbouring seat, has been saying for the past few months.

The story, however, did not start with Cathy McGowan, she is part of more than 20 years of tradition.

Since 1990 there have always been cross-bench members elected to the House or Representatives (of course the 1990 election was the great lost opportunity for the Democrats. As Senator Nick Minchin said to the Senate in June 2008, on the last sitting day for the Democrat Senators, Janine Haines’ victory would have changed the course of the Democrats and the Australian party system). They are Ted Mack (North Sydney, 1990-96), Phil Cleary (Wills, 1992-96), Peter Andren (Calare, 1996-2007), Allan Rocher (Curtin, 1996-98), Paul Filing (Moore, 1996-98), Pauline Hanson (Oxley, 1996-98), Graeme Campbell (Kalgoorie 1996-98), Tony Windsor (New England 2001-13), Bob Katter (2001- ), Michael Organ (Cunningham, 2002-04), Rob Oakeshott (2008-13), Tony Crook (O’Conner 2010-13), Adam Bandt (Melbourne, 2010-), Andrew Wilkie (Denison, 2010-), Clive Palmer (Fairfax, 2013-) and Cathy McGowan (Indi 2013-).

Some of them were disendorsed Liberal or Labor members and candidates. It seems to me, however, that those who at least won elections twice as cross-bench candidates – Mack, Cleary, Andren, Windsor, Katter Oakeshott, Bandt and Wilkie – are high quality members of parliament whose contributions have been considerable.

What this list tells is that people have been fed up with major parties and are prepared to vote for independent and minor party candidates with substance. The voters seem to resent major party’s rigid discipline, and this propensity of Australian voters can be a double-edged sword for independent members.

If they wish to expand their brand of politics by forming an organisation, sharing resources, workload and expertise and co-ordinating the campaign, they may have more chance to succeed electorally and gain more parliamentary influence. This means, in other words, the formation of a political party. However, this would diminish their attractiveness as independents. This is the kind of dilemma which the Democrats had to face from time to time. What would happen to a flat organisational structure so cherished by some of the McGowan campaign team?

The McGowan team’s compassionate attitude towards ‘boat people’ or same-sex marriage, and their idealism and enthusiasm for politics, remind me of the best of the Australian Democrats. The Democrats, most notably their rejection of party discipline through the practice of conscience voting, showed the way for cross-bench co-operation. Their eventual messy party room turmoil and subsequent demise, on the other hand, cannot be seen as a good omen.

Before going to Wangaratta, I interviewed Malcolm Fraser, exchanging and sharing our thoughts on Australia’s foreign policy, the disturbingly dangerous situation in east Asia caused by a reactionary and revisionist Prime Minister of Japan, and the possibility of a workable and humane asylum seeker policy.

Towards the end, I told him I was about to drive up to Wangaratta to see Cathy McGowan. Malcolm Fraser described Cathy McGowan as a “very considerable person”. Then I asked him about the possibility of new political forces. Stating that both major parties were despised by voters, Malcolm Fraser said that if young and enthusiastic people start a broad-based and broad-church party, hundreds of thousands of people would vote for such a party. This was almost exactly the same expression Don Chipp had made in March 1977. Who could that young and enthusiastic person be? Can Natasha Stott Despoja rise again?

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  1. john921fraser says


    Informative and insightful.

    I still think the Greens are the party of youth and no matter how much both major political parties try to kill (politically speaking) them, the more damage they do to themselves in the long run.

    The ALP are the natural partners of the Greens and the sooner they wake up and get back to their basics the sooner they will start attracting disenchanted youth.

    The moron Abbott has , in effect, destroyed the Liberal party and marginalised it so much even the big $ cannot save it.

    Coming back to Australia and looking at her with "fresh" eyes usually results in an accurate description.

    But not one that people want to hear ….. unfortunately.

  2. gorgeousdunny1 says

    I see a future for high-profile independents also. It is interesting that you should refer to Janine Haines’s bold but unsuccessful campaign for Kingston in 1990. In some ways, the wrong lessons were taken at the time.

    Kingston then was a classic middle-of-the-road marginal. It was assumed that the Democrats being very much middle-of-the-road ought to have had their greatest chance of a lower house seat in such a constituency. But I’d suggest that that was a flawed assumption. A middle-of-the-road candidate actually has a better chance in what we’d normally consider a safe party seat. This is especially so in metropolitan areas where you’ve had Ted Mack representing (safe Liberal)) North Sydney, Phil Cleary (safe Labor) Wills, and Andrew Wilkie (safe Labor (Denison).

    Independents probably have a greater chance in country areas because often they can reach into the grass roots of a community as McGowan has done in Indi. But the same principle applies. They have a better chance in a very safe electorate. Peter Andren was able to use his high TV profile, and then later (through his integrity as an MP) increase his local support in a seat which would normally have been safe National, The two stars of the 43rd parliament, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, began their political careers as National MPs before abandoning the party and building up their following as Andren had done.

    I don’t know that it will completely change our landscape or how quickly the change will occur. I think that PUP and KAT probably reflect some of that voter discontent but are ultimately red herrings. The way the Newman and the Abbott governments have functioned has given greater impetus to independents.

    Labor’s current wrestle to try and shift control from the unions and factional groupings to more community-based voters may ultimately save them as a party. Judging by the exposure just given to Joe Bullock at the head of Labor’s WA Senate ticket that change might occur sooner than we think. Issues such as marriage equality will never be settled while people like him and Joe de Bruyn can control so many votes.

  3. Neil Forscutt says

    I have, for some time, been publicly deploring the duopoly we have been oppressed by.

    Frank Hardy in his book “The Hard Way” which described the battle he had to get his earlier book “Power Without Glory” printed and published and available. His determination and fight against the “establishment” who wanted him convicted of defamation was astonishing. During the end of his battle a letter appeared in one of the Melbourne Dailys.

    I cannot find my copy of the book so I cannot name the writer who was a former politician, nor can I quote the correct words.

    The writer praised Hardy for his courage and said that it was time the swill in Parliament that calls itself Liberals was cleaned up.

    Nothing has changed with the duopoly we have in this country, various ones of them are doing what they like in each state and the federal government.

    The writer I have tried to quote identified himself by name and political affiliation.