Original title: Independents don’t deserve a free pass into parliament.
At the last federal election in 2019, one in four Australians cast a first-preference vote for a minor party or independent. Over the past decade, this number has gradually climbed as voters slowly erode the two-party system that has governed Australia in the post-war era.
Australians will again head to the polls next year and it is likely the major party vote will continue to fall. There is real likelihood that Australia will once again find itself with a hung parliament and minority government. Unlike in 2010, where the election outcome and hung parliament came as a surprise, many political commentators have this time recognised the potential influence that independent MPs might hold after the election.
Independent Allegra Spender, left, kicks off her campaign for Wentworth with her sister, fashion designer Bianca Spender.
So feverish is the speculation, that it prompted the crossbench MPs and high-profile candidates to declare they are yet to pick a winner – that is to say, they’re not telling the Australian people who they would back to be our prime minister in the event of a hung parliament.
This should be of concern to every Australian. The independent class of 2022 are running on three issues – climate change; integrity in politics; and gender equity. These are worthwhile matters, and are important to many voters, but they are merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the issues confronting any federal government. Issues of national security, economic recovery, support for small business and manufacturing, investment in health and education and ensuring a strong retirement for seniors are of equal or greater importance to many.
The latest JWS Research ‘True Issues’ report published in November found the top issue on the minds of voters was hospitals, healthcare and ageing (37 per cent), followed by the environment and climate change (26 per cent) and economy and finances (22 per cent) – meaning only one of the three key issues on which the new class of independents is building its platform is driving votes at the ballot box. While Australians want to see more equal representation in our Parliament and be assured of integrity within our institutions, they aremore concerned about steady pay and access to essential services.
Throughout Australian history, true independents have forged grassroot campaigns, worked hard to pull resources together and arrived in Canberra with a genuine purpose to represent their local community. What we’re seeing in our new wave of independent candidates is a populist movement, bankrolled by millionaires with the aim of removing a sitting government.
PM Scott Morrison (centre) and some of the independent female candidates running in 2022. Pictured (clockwise from top left): Kylea Tink (North Sydney), Sophie Scamps (Mackellar), Allegra Spender (Wentworth), Penny Ackery (Hume), Claire Boardman (Flinders), Monique Ryan (Kooyong), Zoe Daniel (Goldstein) and Linda Seymour (Hughes).
Of course, within a democracy there is nothing wrong with such an objective, but it is incumbent on our media and commentators to ensure these candidates are being examined in the same way we interrogate our major political parties and would-be leaders. Even at a local level, voters know where the Liberal candidates who are being targeted stand on key issues.
Dave Sharma, Tim Wilson and Trent Zimmerman represent the next generation of Liberal leadership. They come from diverse backgrounds and have forged successful careers outside of Parliament. Voters know where they stand – they want climate action, they represent diversity in politics and they contribute to a government that has kept the economy strong throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Can the same be said for their challengers? We don’t have those answers. It’s easy for an independent candidate to outmanoeuvre the government on climate change. They can promise the world with no likelihood that they need to deliver. They can play to a single constituency without the need to register and respect the views of others across this vast nation. But we shouldn’t let them get away with a strong single-issue campaign.
The Morrison government is warning of uncertain times ahead. This is certainly true. Our COVID-19 recovery is going to need strong economic stewardship, tensions in the Pacific and the emerging conflict with China are going to require delicate diplomatic skills, and the changing labour market at home, disrupted by a change in international workforces, is going to test the resilience of Australian industries.
Voters need to be assured their Parliament is up to the task of managing these complex and competing issues. And while we know the next crossbench could force stronger action on climate change, deliver a NSW-style anti-corruption body (a commission with major flaws and shortcomings), and fight for improved gender equality, where will they stand when it comes to keeping our nation safe and economy strong?
We shouldn’t give any candidate a free pass to the Federal Parliament based on strong ideology alone. We must hold everyone to the same standard and that must start with understanding how they would serve all Australians, not just a select few.