23 August 2010

In praise of mavericks

Election day 2010 produced exactly the result I had hoped for – a Greens-dominated Senate, and a “hung Parliament” in which whoever formed a government would have to deal in the House of Representatives with the three country Independents, and now, as it happens, Greens Adam Bandt in the seat of Melbourne and perhaps Andrew Wilkie as an Independent in the Tasmanian seat of Denison (see A plague a’ both their houses). I wanted neither side to be able to claim victory and press on with a business as usual approach in the grotesquely deformed caricature of a Parliamentary system which currently graces the nation’s capital.

The focus is now on the three rural independents Bob Katter (Kennedy – Far North Queensland), Rob Oakeshott (Lyne – Mid-North Coast of NSW) and Tony Windsor (New England, taking in Tamworth and my old home town of Armidale where I cast my first vote, in a NSW State election).

This is not an entirely welcome development amongst the urban commentariat.  On the front page of today’s edition of The Age, Michelle Grattan worries about the fact that “a few MPs decide who should be PM” (see here). On the same front page a headline writer adorned national affairs editor Tony Wright’s sensible and balanced piece (see here) with the title Mavericks saddle up for some old-time wrangling.

Mavericks? These are experienced political practitioners who are deeply in touch with the communities they serve – otherwise they wouldn’t be in Parliament.  They have no Parliamentary machine backing them, no Party elders dropping by to help raise their profile, and no Party budget to help finance their campaigns. They do it on their own, and at their own risk. They are fighting for their jobs every day of their lives, and they all command very solid majorities. The benefit they bring to our Parliament is that they are beholden to no-one except their electors; as Tony Wright commented in his piece, these are very independent Independents.

If this is maverick behaviour, consider the deal that is on offer from the political mainstream. The deal is, in effect, “If you elect me, I promise you that I will always vote the way my party tells me to, and that I will always put the interests of my party first, even if I think that they are contrary to your interests, the national interest, or common human decency.”

Where this strictly disciplined approach to party politics leaves us all is that Bob Windsor is a maverick, but the deplorable Mark Arbib, fresh from helping to reduce NSW to what it is today, and secure in a Senate seat bequeathed to him by his NSW Right faction, never having to face the electorate in any meaningful way, has the Queen’s commission to be a Commonwealth Minister.

I’ll take the maverick any day.

My sentiments are much more in tune with those of The Sydney Morning Herald’s Lenore Taylor, who writes here that at last everyone might have a say:

After three years of a government where even the full cabinet wasn't let in on policy debates, the prospect of ideas being debated with independents in the lower house and with the Greens in the Senate is tantalising.

Instead of everyone - even ministers - finding out about major reforms after the arguments have been had and the brochures printed, non-kitchen cabinet members might actually get some say.

Instead of the executive imposing an idea upon the government and Parliament, it might have to make a case, think about alternative views - accept some of them even.

Saying a policy had tested well in focus groups, or had been promised to a special interest group, or was sure to win over a particular demographic at the next election, might not pass muster as a convincing reason to implement it any more.

After an election campaign in which both major parties ran largely negative campaigns, with bits and pieces of policy rather than any coherent vision, it could even mean politics went back to being a contest of ideas, rather than a battle of multimillion-dollar budgets for scary attack advertisements by men with deep voices.

Who knows, it might even bring on reform of the parliament so that it is lively and informative and engages in actual debate, rather than being bone-numbingly boring most of the time.

 Let us hope so.

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