Thursday, August 26, 2010

Independent conundrums - a chance for change

Interesting times continue in Australian politics. I don't want to comment on the detail, just note a few points.

The seat position is still unclear. There are 150 seats in the House of Representatives. To govern, you really need 177 seats. This leaves you with 76 seats, a majority of one after appointment of the speaker. 

Subject to final counting, the coalition is likely to have 72-73 seats. In addition, the WA National Tony Crook while formally sitting on the cross-bench can probably be counted as a coalition member for immediate purposes, bringing seat numbers to 73-74.

Mr Crook's position is an interesting one. The WA Nationals went to the electorate opposing the mining tax and supporting instead their Royalties for the Regions program. Since Labor continues to support the mining tax, it is hard to see Mr Crook supporting a Labor Government.

I know that some people have found the National's Party position confusing. The Party is a Federal body. At Federal level there is a coalition arrangement with the Liberals. However, the state position varies.

In the Northern Territory and Queensland, the Liberal and National Parties merged to form the Country Liberal and Liberal National Parties respectively. However at Federal level members may chose to sit with either the Liberal or National Parties. In other states, there may or may not be coalition agreements with the Liberals. In WA, the Nationals clawed their way back from the brink of extinction by differentiating themselves from the Liberals. So in the case of Mr Crook, he will (as I understand it) be a member of the Nationals party room but not of the joint coalition party room.   

Again subject to final counting, Labor is likely to have 71-72 seats. The new Green MP has indicated a preference for a Labor Government, so that potentially gives Labor 72-73 seats. Mr Wilkie has indicated that he wants to hew his own course.

If the three Country Independents support Labor, will have 75 to 76 seats; Mr Wilkie position's will then be clearly important. If the country independents support the coalition, then the coalition will have 76 to 77 seats. You can see why the independents are placing such weight on waiting for the final count. My feeling is that if the coalition gets to 74, then they will go with the coalition.

There is quite a lot of orchestrated pressure being placed on the country independents. A Galaxy poll commissioned by Sydney's Daily Telegraph suggested that 55 per cent of voters in their electorates favoured a deal with the coalition. An on-line poll in the Northern Daily Leader, Locals shun Labor: Majority of Tamworth voters urge Windsor to back the Coalition, gave a stronger if less scientific result. A Leader editorial, Responsibility heavy burden, essentially pleaded for Mr Windsor to be given more time.     

The media has always been a political player in its own right. You only have to look at press reporting over time, although I would argue that there is more use of news reports and especially columnists as compared to editorials than in the past .  The very publicity attached to this issue is attracting its own media responses. Just to quote Dennis Shanahan in the Australian.  

IT'S getting to the stage where Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and the nation would actually be better off if we just went back to the polls.

The early promise of stability for a minority government is dissipating as the independents threaten to force a new election, refuse to guarantee a bloc vote for either side and declare diametrically opposed positions on key policies that have split the Coalition and paralysed Labor.

Using spurious logic, obscure language and blackmail, three MPs accidentally thrust into the balance of power are claiming a "new paradigm" in politics where none exists as justification for unprecedented treatment and control. More than 90 per cent of Australians voted for Labor, the Coalition or the Greens -- the old-paradigm parties.

This isn't just horse-trading over amendments on a piece of legislation; this is demanding an erratic ransom for government and an ongoing part in that government.

Mr Shanahan is arguing a very particular position, one consistent with the line followed by his paper during the election. However, his remarks illustrate the way the issue is now clouding up.

The Indendents' Requests

The requests of the three country independents are set out below.  


Requests for information

  1. We seek access to information under the ‘caretaker conventions’ to economic advice from the Secretary of the Treasury Ken Henry and Secretary of Finance David Tune, including the costings and impacts of Government and Opposition election promises and policies on the budget.
  2. We seek briefings from the following Secretaries of Departments:
    1. Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy
    2. Health and Ageing
    3. Education, Employment and Workplace Relations
    4. Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government
    5. Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry
    6. Climate Change, Energy Efficiency and Water
    7. Defence
    8. Resources, Energy and Tourism
  3. We seek briefings from caretaker Ministers and Shadow Ministers in the above portfolio areas to discuss their program for the next three years.
  4. We seek advice as soon as possible on their plans to work with the Clerks of the Parliament to improve the status and authority of all 150 local MP’s within parliamentary procedures and structures. In particular, we seek advice on timelines and actions for increasing the authority of the Committee system, private members business and private members bills, matters of public importance, 90 second statements, adjournment debates, and question time.
  5. We seek a commitment to explore all options from both sides in regard “consensus options” for the next three years, and a willingness to at least explore all options to reach a majority greater than 76 for the next three years. Included in these considerations is advice on how relationships between the House of Representatives and the Senate can be improved, and a proposed timetable for this to happen.
  6. We seek a commitment in writing as soon as possible that if negotiations are to take place on how to form Government, that each of these leaders, their Coalition partners, and all their affiliated MP’s, will negotiate in good faith and with the national interest as the only interest. In this same letter of comfort, we seek a written commitment that whoever forms majority Government will commit to a full three year term, and for an explanation in writing in this same letter as to how this commitment to a full term will be fulfilled, either by enabling legislation or other means.
  7. We seek advice as soon as possible on a timetable and reform plan for political donations, electoral funding, and truth in advertising reform, and a timetable for how this reform plan will be achieved in co-operation with the support of the House of Representatives and the Senate.

The three non-aligned MP’s will now be heading home to families, electorate duties, and a long-standing appointment with the Governor-General (unrelated to this political deadlock). We have agreed to be back in Canberra on Monday for the full week of meetings in relation to the above. We expect all the above information to be made available through best endeavours as soon as possible, so that formal negotiations with all stakeholders can begin by Friday 3rd September – if, based on final counts, negotiations are indeed needed at all.

If you look at the requests, they break into three parts:

  1. The first is requests for information. What is unusual here is that it the independents are seeking a quite wide range of information. This is the type of information provided, at least in part, to an incoming government. However, it goes beyond this because the independents are asking for information that will, in effect, help them to choose between sides and also to form their own policy views as to what is possible.
  2. Processes and proposals for Parliamentary and political reform.These draw in part from earlier NSW experience. One of the things that is interesting here is the revelation that Labor Party Election strategist Bruce Hawker had been in previous discussion with Rob Oakeshott about reform possibilities, discussions carried out at a time when the present situation was not envisaged. In this context, Bruce Hawker has been involved in the establishment of three state Labor minority governments, including the other side of the earlier NSW discussions. You will find the full transcript of the 7.30 Report here. It appears, in fact, that the independents have asked for discussions with the key strategists on both sides.
  3. Advice and assurances intended to allow any Government to run its full term.

The Responses 

The response from the Government is set out below:



The reported response from Opposition Leader Abbott has be far more muted. He refused, as he had done during the election campaign, to make the details available to Treasury for a common independent costing. Instead, he said that the Opposition would provide the independents with its own costings analysis. In doing so, Mr Abbott effectively completely discredited the Charter of Budget Honesty introduced by the Howard Government; ''It's very difficult for the public service to understand opposition policy with the same degree of insight and depth as government policy,'' Mr Abott stated.

This has not pleased the independents. While noting that it would not end negotiations, Mr Windsor stated that Mr Abbott's position was not acceptable: "I think it's appropriate that both sides be costed by the same person," he said.


The suggestions put forward and especially by Mr Oakeshott about things such as a grand coalition simply won't work, nor are they necessarily good. The intent - the development of a less adversarial system - may be praiseworthy, but the difficulties are to my mind just too great. However, there is also a simple practical intent, the desire to make it more difficult for a Government to simply rush to a new election just because the polls have moved in their favour.

The requests for information fall in a different class. I made my own position here clear in New media, independents and change when I wrote:

There is so much frustration about the current system that the possibility of a hung parliament has unleashed a wave of new ideas and optimism. Yet we have to be realistic. Some groups must be disappointed with the result.

To my mind, if we get improved access to independent sources of information, that will (of itself) be a major advance. I think that we can get this. If we do, I will be happy. Beyond this, every advance such as an improved question time would be an added bonus.         

I accept that the requests by the independents do raise difficulties under the current conventions. I also accept that Mr Abbott has justified grievances about leaks during the election campaign. If Treasury/Finance is to be provided with information, then that information has to be sacrosanct outside subsequent agreed releases of analysis.

All this said, I think that the Australian people and our Parliamentarians in particular are entitled to receive the information that they require for effective decision making and monitoring, not to be drip fed just that minimum amount that the Government thinks will support its cause. To take a simple practical example, how can the people judge the effectiveness of the various National Partnership agreements if they do not have access to the implementation plans?

I am not a supporter of information for the sake of information. I actually have problems with some of the expectations about just what information should be made available under, for example, Freedom of Information because release can actually constrain effective decision making. However, when we get to the stage that citizens and Parliamentarians cannot make independent judgements because of information control, we have a problem.

The idea of reform of Parliamentary and political processes is a good one from my viewpoint, although I am not blind to the difficulties. The reforms introduced by the independents in NSW are a case in point. They did improve the working of Parliament but did not improve the working of Government. NSW in 2010 demonstrates this!

One of the difficulties faced by the independents is that reform of the Parliamentary and political process required cultural change, and that takes time, more time than they have. Still, if we can get some changes, that to my mind is a good thing.            


Anonymous said...


Just a couple of entirely unoriginal thoughts to add to the pile:

If you removed the Independents from their seats I believe those seats would fall to the Coalition side. Much as it pains me, I therefore think Mr Abbott deserves his chance as PM. (Two “reasons” I would give are 1) my desire to give Ms Gillard a further opportunity – I believe her loss may be our greater loss and 2) on several policy fronts I prefer Labor’s position)

I believe Abbott’s refusal to have his policies costed is understandable politically, but wrong in principle – in fact quite deliberately arrogant now the election is over. I cannot see how the earlier leaks are any justification as of now, but I do see them as an issue for any party prior to an election. I think he has in fact already begun his next campaign.

I think the Abbott/Independent coalition is basically unworkable, and will overly benefit Abbott if he then shortly goes to the people quoting his position as untenable. He would win handsomely, hence Ms Gillard’s desperation.

Election reforms I would like to see include: set terms; an absolute limit on the amount of radio and TV minutes advertising; no new policy launches within two weeks of the election date; unlink electoral campaign funding from ‘campaign launch’ - i.e a set cut off date to which taxpayer money is available; Treasury costing on all major party policies to be mandatory, and to be released no later than a week prior to election. These would require much goodwill on all sides to be effective, so no doubt will never come to pass.

On the Independents, while I respect Mr Windsor, I think that Messrs Katter and Oakeshott provide several good reasons why non-aligned candidates should be disregarded when calculating parliamentary majority. Their votes on declared matters of importance (which needs definition) should automatically flow to the government of the day, leaving them free to influence most policy areas, including of course the position and angle of the pork barrel.

Finally, (sorry for length) I think the idea of a cabinet composed partly of unelected members does not fit with our form of parliament, just as I thought Ms Gillard’s 150 citizen congress on climate change was unrealistic. Idealism (and I include the Greens in this) is a very fine thing, but has little to do with stable government of any flavour. Meanwhile the GFC rolls on, and our troops continue to mark time.

Ps The footer line on Ms Gillard’s letter to the Independents began “this paper contains recycled content”. Prophetic not?

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi KVD. You start by saying that Mr Abbott deserves his chance as PM and then seem to argue strongly against it. Seriously conflicted.

Parliamentary reform first. I am not a supporter of fixed terms because I don't think that they work really well. PNG is an example. To control advertising, control cash. I quite like Mr Turnbull's suggestion on limitations on donations. The idea of no new policy launches two weeks before the election. Need to think about that. In fact, I am beginning to wonder about the question of controls vs principles! Another post?

On matters of importance, the two areas that have been defined are confidence matters plus supply. On everything else, freedom.

Of course, if the votes were such that a Government could never get anything through, then things would change. However, that's probably unlikely.

Anonymous said...

Dear Jim

My choice of the word ‘deserves’ was not appropriate. I should have said something like 'Mr Abbott is entitled to the job’. And you are right – I am thereby conflicted as that result is not my preferred option, given the policy areas that interest me.

Fixed terms: we differ, but that’s ok. Advertising: I would like to get some period of electronic ‘clear air’, unpolluted by strident advertising.

Print is different in my mind, because I can consume it at my pace, rather than have the message rammed down my throat complete with flashing lights and superficial questions and 30 second sound bites. And I think an advertising budget ‘controlled’ by minutes (tv/radio) airtime rather than by dollars is much simpler to monitor/report/regulate.

Thanks for accepting my comments. We seriously differ on at least these points, and that is a good thing in a democracy, I think - but Turnbull and 'control of cash' just does not compute!


Jim Belshaw said...

David, I have confusions in my own mind on the electoral reform issues that I am trying to think through. My preference is to go for a principles rather than rule based approach. I don't think rule based approaches really work. They just create another set of problems. But what principles?