12 November 2017
Federal politics lost someone special around this time a decade ago, in November 2007.
That month stands out as the time of a Federal election which saw John Howard lose office after almost twelve years as Prime Minister. Despite this undignified exit from politics, Howard is still revered within the Liberal Party to this day. His time as PM was longer than any other except Sir Robert Menzies, and apart from these two, no other Australian PM has been in office for ten years or longer.
But early in the same month as Howard’s election defeat, cancer claimed the life of the much-respected Federal MP Peter Andren. Although Andren had already announced his retirement from politics ahead of the election which was called for that month, his death, just months after he’d revealed that he was battling cancer, would’ve been a shock.
In political systems where two or sometimes three parties usually dominate, it’s not often that you come across quality politicians outside the dominant parties. There have been plenty of Independents in politics over time, but sometimes they just come and go. In Andren, however, you’d find something of a rare breed.
Formerly a well-known television newsreader in central New South Wales, Andren entered Federal Parliament after winning the seat of Calare in 1996. The seat takes in regional centres including Lithgow and Bathurst and Orange. In those days, the Labor Party held the seat, having won it from the Nationals in 1983, but with the sitting Labor member, David Simmons, having announced his retirement, it was vacant. Both the Liberals and the Nationals ran candidates against Labor, making for a three-cornered contest. But from out of nowhere came Andren, running as an Independent. In the end, despite winning less than a third of all votes in the seat, Andren actually topped the vote count, finishing ahead of all three major parties’ candidates, and went on to win the seat on preferences. In fact, Andren’s win came at the same time as Howard was leading the Liberal-National Coalition to its first election win since 1980. This meant that Howard’s time as PM began at the same time as Andren’s time in Federal Parliament – and it just happened that the 2007 election saw the end of both Howard and Andren.
After the 1996 result, Andren went on to increase his vote, and his majority, at elections to follow in 1998 and 2001 and 2004. In fact, he won a majority of primary votes in 2001, meaning that he had more votes than every other candidate in his seat put together, and didn’t need anybody’s preferences to hold his seat – Independent MPs rarely achieve this kind of result. He managed to make his seat virtually the safest in Federal Parliament.
What made the 2001 result more interesting for Andren was what’d happened in the months leading up to it. He’d been just another voice in the House of Representatives, where Howard had a comfortable majority, despite lacking it in the Senate, when the issue of immigration suddenly became a hot political topic. When Howard acted to prevent the arrival in Australian waters of a freighter carrying would-be immigrants who’d tried to sail in on a leaky boat, a furious debate began across the country. Labor was torn over whether to let the immigrants in or keep them out, and ultimately ended up largely supporting Howard on the issue. Andren, however, spoke against Howard’s actions, believing that the immigrants should be allowed in. Given that public sentiment was largely in Howard’s favour, and that rural voters would’ve been perceived as bigger supporters of Howard than city-based voters, Andren might’ve been seen as signing his political death warrant, in taking a stand seemingly at odds with public sentiment.
But Andren took a stand on principle, stated his reasons for his stand, and made them known to voters in his rural seat. In the end, this seemed to do him more good than harm. His constituents might’ve disagreed with him on this issue, but they probably knew that his stands on other issues were in line with their views, and they knew that he’d have acted as he’d seen fit. Unlike major party politicians, he was seen as beholden to nobody. He was seen as a person of principle.
As a result, when Australian voters went to the polls in November 2001, support for Andren rose enough to win him a majority of votes in his seat – before preferences were counted. He was immensely popular, and voters clearly trusted him, even if they might well have disagreed with him.
One can only wonder what Andren would do in today’s political environment, where hung parliaments and minority governments, or something near them, have become almost normal, at least at a national level. Three years after Andren’s death, Federal Parliament ended up deadlocked for the first time since the 1940s. And an election last year almost deadlocked it again. Andren might well have more respect today than he did back when he was in Parliament.
Voters these days seem to look more closely at Independents and minor parties than they used to. How they’d look at that lost Independent from 2007 is something interesting to consider. Rarely would you see someone of his ilk in politics nowadays.