When voters elect an independent...

26 August 2010

Dr Richard Stanton.
Dr Richard Stanton.

Government is likely to be formed by the Labor Party with the support of two independents but this does not mean the independents necessarily lose their independence.

Tony Windsor (Ind, New England) and Rob Oakeshott (Ind, Lyne) have declared publicly their support for the ALP education policy with specific reference to trade training centres and computers in schools.

Mr Oakeshott, in July, stood in the House to speak on the issue. He was praised by Mr Windsor who had himself spoken earlier, in June, on the same issue.

It is not difficult to work out where the independents will go.

But if we pay attention to what the mainstream media suggest, then the independents are at once a bunch of sell-outs and unstable cowboys set on destroying democracy. National and metropolitan media would have us believe that the independents will form government with one side, then switch allegiances during the parliament.

They may well do, but that's not unusual - many members of governments and oppositions cross the floor to vote on issues involving "conscience".

The mainstream media would do well to take a few moments to research the websites and recent speeches of Messrs Windsor, Oakeshott and Katter so they can provide rational assessments.

Rather than make assumptions and opaque interpretations about the impending election result - for example, that the closeness of the contest is the electorate pleading for reform of the system - they may be better positioned to provide clear analysis.

Additionally, investigation of the independents' websites would dispel the myths put by many in the mainstream media including the ABC's Fran Kelly that by forming government they will alienate the constituency; and The Australian's Janet Albrechtsen that a hung parliament is inherently unstable.
Kelly implies that the independents focus closely on local issues without paying attention to the bigger picture. As their websites demonstrate, this is not the case.

While Mr Katter's may not be the most erudite site in the world, and a little out of date, his sentiments regarding globalisation are clear.

Mr Oakeshott provides information about his relationship with Greens and Labor MPs and his work on foreign affairs, defence and trade committees.

Mr Windsor provides information that indicates he is more locally focused than the others but he is keen to show that local issues translate across the whole state of New South Wales.

What is important is that the independents are seen by their constituents as stable "delegates" rather than "representatives".

This means they take their constituency issues to parliament and argue for them, rather than operating on their own or on behalf of their party.

When voters elect an independent, they do so in the belief that they will get someone who will act on their behalf.

In seats where an independent is elected, individuals, community groups and local media have direct access to their MPs - a prospect citizens in most party-elected seats can only dream about. In fact local media - town newspapers, local and community radio and regional television - provide citizens with far more valuable information and far less drama than the nationals and metros.

Before an election they provide space and time for all local candidates and after the event they continue to investigate and scrutinise the actions of the elected member.

Most local media reporters and broadcasters would be laughed out of town if they attempted to take a theatrical position such as speculating that the close vote is an appeal for electoral reform.

It may be that compulsory preferential voting is not the best system in the world, nor is the Hare-Clarke system, nor the system of proportional representation, but this election result was not, as Julia Gillard argues and the mainstream media repeats, a referendum on the electoral system.

It was, however, an election in which citizens formed opinions about candidates and voted according to how they believed those candidates would behave.

At least this was the case in the electorates in which independents have been elected and in which they are now building relationships and framing their positions on forming government.

In this the independents must work across two levels, making the framing and relationship building far more complex than they appear on the surface.

They must balance the wishes of their electorates - the citizens, community groups and local media - with the desires of the nation.

The relationship building will be less complex than the mainstream media suggest - there will be no show bag of goodies, or beads and blankets, as Mr Windsor says. But there will be a commitment required from the ALP to think more about the rural and regional realities beyond the cost of a national broadband network.

In the early 1990s the Labor government did a deal with Optus for mobile services to switch from analogue to digital by 2000 because it was prepared to offer coverage to 90 percent of the market.

The problem, pointed out by the independent MP for Calare, Peter Andren, was that 90 percent of the market occupied only 15 percent of the geographic area of the nation.

If the next government is serious about telecommunications in "the bush" they might consider switching back to the analogue network.

Dr Richard Stanton is from the Department of Media and Communications in the Faculty of Arts.

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