Thursday, September 09, 2010

The independents' quid pro quo

My responses to Ramana's question as to what the quid pro quo was in the deal between the two country independents and the ALP left him unsatisfied. So I thought that I should try to answer it more fully.

Both members are taking an electoral risk in supporting the ALP as compared to the coalition. While they have huge majorities in their seats (New England and Lyne), many in their electorates wanted them to go with the coalition. This includes a large number of traditionally coalition voters who have been voting independent, some of whom may now shift back. There has been quite a savage on the ground reaction to the decision among some of this group. Both men are going to be judged on the results of the arrangement as seen through the eyes of their electors.

There are two main components to the deal between the two country independents and the ALP, parliamentary reform plus regional development.

The effect of the parliamentary reform component is to somewhat strengthen the power of parliament relative to the executive. This is especially important to independents. All the Northern NSW independents at state and federal level (New England is the heart of the independents' movement) constantly battle the charge that an independent vote is a wasted vote because independents have no power. As the independents did in NSW earlier when they held the balance of power there, the aim is to entrench changes that enhance the power of all parliamentarians. All benefit, but the independents benefit most.

In this context, it is important to recognise that while the New England independents are not a party (the very concept of independence precludes this), they are effectively a movement that draws from the same type of traditions that I often write about. It is not a coincidence that Northern NSW is independent heartland just as it was Country Party (now National) before this. If, as is widely expected, Tony Windsor stands down at either the next election or the one after, then Richard Torbay, state independent member for the Northern Tablelands, is expected to run for the New England seat. Mr Torbay is the independent speaker of the NSW Parliament and also Chancellor of the University of New England.

Parliamentary reform was agreed with both ALP and coalition. With an equal quid pro quo, the deal then came down to what both sides offered regional voters in general, with flow-ons to their electorates. Here, I suspect, important strategic and tactical considerations came in that link back to the electoral position in Northern NSW,

Both Mr Windsor and Mr Oakeshott emphasised stability in government. Both wanted time to bed changes down, to get best use of their balancing position. I think that there was a concern that if they supported Mr Abbott, he was was more likely to do a run for the polls regardless of any agreement if he saw public opinion favouring his Government. In that event, the usual on-ground National vs independents contest would simply resume.

If we now look at the broad structure of the offerings, and accepting that I don't know the details of the coalition offerings, I think that the ALP plan offered certain advantages that can be summarised this way.

Broadband. Both the two New England independents have emphasised this one. Mr Windsor sees it as critical to the over-coming of some of the relative disadvantages faced by regional versus metro areas. The agreement for an Australia wide wholesale price, together with a re-prioritisation of roll-out to favour regional Australia, effectively levels the playing field.

If we now look at the purely local level, Armidale (the second largest centre in Mr Windsor's electorate) is one of the initial pilot sites for the National Broad Band network. The pilot area includes the University of New England, with plans recently announced to expand the coverage of the Armidale trial. As I understand it, a second contract development contract was due to be let, but was effectively on hold pending the election. Had the coalition won and cancelled the NBN, then these developments may have either gone or been put on hold for an extended period.

Health. Regional Australia faces major problems in health services, including attraction of doctors. This affects both member's electorates. Even in Tamworth, the biggest centre in Mr Windsor's electorate, local GPs have effectively had to close their books because there just aren't enough of them. This has been a hot issue in Tamworth.

Both Mr Windor and Mr Oakeshott have been campaigning for upgrades to Tamworth and Port Macquarie hospitals, the biggest base hospitals in their electorates. The on-again, off-again nature of development plans over a number of years especially for Tamworth base hospital has been another hot issue.

Both the Government and opposition have emphasised increased training of health professionals in regional Australia as a part solution to the supply problem. The Universities of Newcastle and New England have introduced a joint medical training program specifically targeting rural GP needs. This includes a new medical school at UNE.

One of the bottlenecks here is the availability of the appropriate clinical training in terms of both facilities and distance between facilities. Hospital upgrades in combination with broadband not only improve immediate service delivery, but also strengthen the longer term supply of health professionals.

I haven't been able to do a comparison between the ALP and coalition offers. My feeling is that the agreement with the ALP offers a better integrated longer term approach.

Education. Like health, education has been a significant issue in regional Australia in general and in both electorates in particular.

Mr Oakeshott has been campaigning for improved educational facilities in Port Macquarie. The Southern Cross campus that had provided some local tertiary options closed. In it's place, I understand that Mr Oakeshott has been campaigning for a new integrated facility that combines school, TAFE and university to achieve viability.

Lyne is a very poor electorate. I think that one of Mr Oakeshott's objectives is to create an improved base that might attract more jobs to the electorate.

Education is big business in the New England electorate and especially in Armidale. It is also a business that at tertiary level has been under challenge as a consequence of broader re-structuring of the sector.

The stagnation in the inland population, another of Mr Windsor's concerns, has created further problems for the University of New England because it reduces the size of its immediate catchment area. Beyond these issues, the electorate would have lost three trade training centres had the coalition formed government.

So one of the quid pro quos that I think likely to come from the agreement is action to develop and protect the region's educational base.

In Country independents, regional development and spin, I expressed some concern about elements of the regional development package, partly on wording, mainly on my own lack of understanding. I still haven't done a full analysis, but I hope that this will give Ramana a better feel for quid pro quo issues.

Of course, as the new parliament evolves, other things will come up, including the interactions between the major parties, the Greens and all the independents. I really don't know how this will break. There is sure to be a fair bit of horse-trading. However, so far as the two New England independents are concerned, we can be reasonably sure that they are likely to stay pretty focused. Having taken the pain, they have to justify their decision not just in immediate electoral terms, but more broadly.   


Winton Bates said...

Hi Jim
I was interested to read your comments about the independents. Your comment that New England is the heart of the independents' movement made me wonder whether the New State Movement is still in existence - or whether the movement you are talking about is some kind of substitute.
You have probably written about this previously. If so, please forgive me for not searching for the answer before I asked the question.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Winton.

The New England independents, the old Country Party and the New State Movement all drew/draw strength from the sense of regional identity, its geographical underpinnings, and the way that ideas have been articulated over time.

The infighting that followed the 1967 referendum loss broke the bonds that had existed between the new state movement and the CP. The movement collapsed, exhausted. To my mind, this left a vacuum that the independents captured. If you analyse their political views, core elements can be linked back to the traditions within what i have called New England populism, although they don't think of it in those terms.

There have been several attempts to revive the new state movement, but these failed to gain much traction until very recently. New state support is presently on the rise, coming especially out of the Hunter.

Rummuser said...

I am a bit wiser and am particularly interested in the Parliamentary reforms aimed at making the Parliament stronger compared to the Executive. I believe that this has been diluted quite a bit in all democracies and needs correction and if Australia can do something about it, it will be a trail blazer. I look forward to what actually happens with interest.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Ramana. I will report on progress as it translates in practice.