Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Election 2015 - Being Independent

Given current polling, one of the possible outcomes of the coming State election is a hung parliament, meaning that government will need to be formed with the support of independents and minor parties.

Our major parties both hate this idea, and try to persuade voters against it.  Both parties are currently saying they won't form a minority government with the support of the cross-benches.  I don't think that promise is worth the air it was spoken into.  If we have a hung parliament, at least one of them will do a deal, even though they don't like it.

They say they don't like minority government because it creates instability, but actually it's just because they are so bad at negotiation.  Plenty of countries have multi-party governments as a matter of routine, and they include some of the most stable democracies on the planet.

The Queensland electoral system makes things difficult for minor parties.  We have no upper house, and a lower house made up exclusively of single-member electorates.  To increase the degree of difficulty, we have optional preferential voting.  This means urban-based minor parties like the Greens and, before them, the Democrats, have never made a serious impact on a Queensland election.  Even though they can command a significant amount of the vote, their supporters are spread through urban communities and there are not enough votes in any one electorate to propel anyone into parliament.

The real action here is in rural areas.  We have some accidental urban independents who bailed out of the LNP in disgust, but all those actually elected as independent or minor party members come from regional communities.

The Queensland Parliament has had two long-standing independents - Liz Cunningham has represented Gladstone since 1996, and Peter Wellington the Sunshine Coast hinterland seat of Nicklin since 1998.  Wellington is running again but Cunningham is retiring.

In this Parliament we also have three Katter's Australian Party members. Robbie Katter in Mt Isa and Shane Knuth in Dalrymple were both elected as KAP members in 2012, and Ray Hopper from Condamine defected from the LNP soon after.  The KAP is long term federal independent Bob Katter's attempt to convert his success as a rural independent into a wider political movement.  So far success has been limited.  Despite running 76 candidates in the 2012 election, the only two who were elected were in electorates that straddle Katter's own federal seat.  One of them is Bob's son and heir.

We are likely to have a couple of others after January 31.  Chris Foley, who served three terms as Member for Maryborough before narrowly losing the seat in 2012, is running again.  Former Mackay Mayor Julie Boyd's chances of winning in Mackay have been boosted by long-standing Labor member Tim Mulherin's sudden resignation last week.

Being a regional independent requires a different kind of politics from that practiced by the major parties.  The parties have big advertising budgets, a team of policy people to put together more or less credible policy positions, and an organisational infrastructure to raise large amounts of money and direct it to coordinated campaigning across the State.  Local candidates have a network of local branches whose members volunteer for grass-roots campaigning duties.  They will try and present each electorate with a credible local candidate, but their main objective is to sell their brand and win government.

Minor parties try to copy this strategy but don't have the resources or profile to make it work.  Independents can't even begin to dream of campaigning that way.  In practice, both rely on their local networks and on people in their local community trusting them and placing confidence in them.

This rarely works in urban areas because the communities there are too fragmented.  Electoral boundaries are more or less random, people only identify loosely with the community they live in, and their social and business networks are likely to extend across the city.  However, rural communities are different.  Their sense of local identity is a lot stronger, people tend to do a lot of their business and socialising within the one small area, and they see themselves as having a strong collective identity.

Party campaigning can often backfire in these communities.  The local candidate, even if they are well known and liked, can be seen to be controlled from Brisbane and therefore not able to properly represent their community.  The parties are often seen to betray rural communities at the behest of wealthy and powerful urban interests.  Often this perception is absolutely correct.

A good local independent can tap into this feeling.  They can claim that, in contrast to the party candidates who have to do the bidding of their Brisbane masters, they will stand up first and foremost for their community.  To be successful, the person needs to be well known and widely trusted in the community.  Cunningham had a profile as Mayor of Calliope. Wellington had served on Maroochy Shire Council.  Foley was a high profile local business person, church leader and musician.

They are largely reflective of their rural constituents - socially conservative, more practically than ideologically driven, committed to strengthening regional economies and services, firmly embedded in localism.  They can't be polarising in their local communities even if, like Bob Katter, they are controversial on a national scale.  People in their electorate, whatever their personal politics, need to see their independent representatives as standing for the whole community.

The gig doesn't get any easier once you get into parliament.  In times like now, when one or other party has a big majority, no-one outside your community cares what you think.  You will be in the mushroom club when any major decisions are being made, even ones that directly affect your electorate.  You will have to work hard for every little gain you make and the gains will be on seemingly trivial things - sorting out a constituent's problem with a State agency, getting a pothole fixed, getting a grant to fix the roof of the Senior Citizens Centre.  If you work hard, they will add up, word will spread, and you will be re-elected.

Then once in a blue moon, if you are lucky enough for it to happen on your watch, you will get your moment in the sun.  The major parties will need your support to form a government, and they will need to negotiate with you to get it.  Chances are you will be a better negotiator than they are because while they have been busy using their majority to ride roughshod over everybody, or whining and banging on about broken promises in opposition, you will have spent years negotiating hard for every little scrap you can get.  You will be able to deliver something serious for your local community - a new hospital, a proper highway upgrade, a community centre, 50 more nurses, a new sports club.  Whatever you want, they will give you in exchange for your vote.

I hope our independents are making their lists and checking them carefully, because there's a good chance they could be using them come February.
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