Opinion

Tony Windsor
A letter to future independents

So you want to be an independent in the next federal parliament.

You’ve had enough of the two-party game-playing of the Westminster system and believe there should be a better way of doing politics, something different to the traditional headbutting and pointscoring.

You’re sick of the way in which the major parties impose political staffers and time-servers on the electorate.

You’ve watched Cathy McGowan, Helen Haines, Zali Steggall, Rebekha Sharkie, Andrew Wilkie and others doing it differently and want to be part of making the future a better place.

All that is a good start and obviously your motives are something I would completely agree with, but there will be many people out there in the political world who will not want the current model of purchase politics changed to something where community has a greater say.

This article gives you some idea of what you may expect during the campaign and, if successful, what to expect if elected. It is based on the experience of someone who was an independent at both state and federal level for 22 years.

The key ingredient for a successful independent campaign is people. Without the support and enthusiasm of the community there is little hope of winning. The Cathy McGowan “Voices” strategy is one that works on the ground, particularly in the current environment, where people are extremely frustrated with the dishonesty of the government and the complete disregard for major issues such as climate change.

You will of course be deemed to be someone’s political puppet, funded by foreign interests that are intent on stealing the crown jewels from the establishment. You will be well advised to stay above the abuse and slander and stick to the issues. Women are better at this than men, who tend to be drawn into the street fighting.

For a misogynistic government such as the one we currently have, the number of high-calibre women candidates poses an additional problem that the backroom party thugs will have to deal with, particularly given the impact that Brittany Higgins, Grace Tame and the Jenkins review are having on public debate.

If you do become a threat to the status quo you won’t be able to compete financially with the major parties, but you can outcompete them with enthusiastic people on the ground who are prepared to work for the greater good with no interest in political favours.

When I attempted to re-enter politics in 2016, my campaign spent more than $700,000. The Nationals spent about $3.5 million.

An important thing to remember is that you do not have to be defined by what the major parties do or say or the categorisation that the media will attempt to impose on you. Many in the media are lazy and can only view politics through the prism of two parties. They won’t bend their minds to the concept that it can be done differently.

The clearest indication of your chances is the number of people who surround you and who are willing to work for a successful outcome. For instance, the independent candidate for the seat of Hume, Penny Ackery, standing against climate sceptic Angus Taylor, has a supporters base of more than 2000 people. That’s a good foundation on which she will keep building until election day.

The recent campaign launches of Zoe Daniel, Allegra Spender, Kylea Tink and many others dotted across the country indicate broad community interest and support – a good start but not yet a finish. The major focus of the support groups has to be about expanding that group to such an extent that the rolling ball is too strong for the status quo to hold back.

As an independent candidate you will be taunted by the political class and their media mates to explain yourself on every issue that may or may not present itself on the political stage. Again, remember that you don’t have to explain your personal views on every issue. The objective of an independent is to represent the views of your community not your own bandwagon. You are attempting to get elected to the house of representatives. It is your job to represent those people. It’s in the name, although many of the people sitting there miss that.

Of course, you can have your own views. A common bond between a number of candidates standing against conservative sitting MPs is on the need for some form of federal integrity commission and a more meaningful climate change policy position, which is a distinct contrast with the conservatives’ intransigence on both issues. That bond will build on the good work done by Haines, Steggall and company on these two key issues.

You will be constantly told that independents can’t do anything if they don’t hold the balance of power. This is not true. An independent has far more freedom than a party member to use the parliamentary procedures to raise issues, use the media to elaborate arguments, form a relationship with the senate to further scrutinise and amend legislation, as well as engage with the outside world rather than be bound by party dogma.

Most importantly, an independent has the capacity to represent each and every individual within the electorate, without having that constituent’s views washed and rinsed by the party machines. It is the job of a parliamentarian to represent all not some.

You will be asked “Where are your preferences going?” and “In the event of a hung parliament who will you support?”

To the first question, the answer is simple. Preferences are the domain of the voter, not the candidate. I always asked for the No. 1 vote and then recommended that the voter filled every square in order of their choice to ensure a valid vote. Those who say how-to-vote cards need to show all the boxes filled in or run the risk of informal votes may be interested to know that New England had one of the lowest informal votes in Australia when voting for an independent.

I would suggest that telling the voter how they should allocate “their” preferences is an insult to their intelligence.

The second question is also simple enough: an independent doesn’t have to “support” any party. In the event of a hung parliament there is no requirement that an independent has to back Labor or Liberal. Our constitution does not mention the word party; it speaks about representatives coming together in the parliament to administer the running of the nation. Don’t be hounded into backing one side or the other.

When someone suggests independents are useless on the big issues, you may remind them that in 2006 the Howard government decided it would sell its shareholding in Snowy Hydro. At the time, Snowy Hydro was owned by New South Wales and the Victorian and Commonwealth governments. Legislation to initiate the sale passed all three parliaments with the support of opposition parties.

Snowy Hydro was withdrawn from sale because the independents in Canberra – particularly the independent for Calare, Peter Andren – ignited a community campaign to reverse the sale decision. Government MPs Alby Schultz and Kay Hull played significant roles breaking with the government to represent their constituents’ views. Fast forward to today and the federal government brags about its renewable energy status on the back of owning Snowy Hydro 2.0.

When I was growing up I thought South Africa would always practise apartheid policies, Russia would always be communist and Germany would always be divided by a wall. All of those things were changed by the advocacy and determination of the people, led by independent community voices. Those voices created the necessary pressure on the political system to make the changes. The same can happen at a local, state and federal level.

Now that you are elected, it all becomes very simple. Do as you said you would do. Represent your people, talk to your people, meet with your people, survey your people. Ascertain their views and vote accordingly. You will be the conscience of your electorate; every vote will be a conscience vote.

There will be plenty of willing helpers to garner advice from, as well as the resources of the parliament to assist in researching various issues as they arise. As I’ve written before in The Saturday Paper: use the library.

You will form close working relationships with fellow crossbenchers and MPs across the political spectrum and you will be judged on the degree of integrity shown in the performance of your duty to your people. It is such a great honour to represent others; don’t miss the moment.

The statement that will resonate during the upcoming election period are the words of Zoe Daniel: If not us, who? If not now, when?

I would add my favourite phrase to those words: The world is run by those who turn up.

In these times of increasing dishonesty in our system and in a world crying out for help, it’s time for all of us to give voice to the “Voices” and elect people who actually care.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 11, 2021 as "A letter to future independents".

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Tony Windsor is the former independent member for the federal seat of New England. He has held balance of power positions in both the NSW and federal parliaments.

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