23 January 2015
Independents betraying their constituencies – times beyond counting would people have heard this sort of characterisation attributed to Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor, for three years beyond September 2010. Hitherto most people, except within their constituencies and perhaps neighbouring ones, wouldn’t have heard of these two men, both Independent MPs from regional New South Wales. They hit the headlines in late August 2010, when Australians failed to elect a majority government for the first time in decades, leaving these two men among several MPs with the power to decide on who’d govern the country.
Probably few people thought that Oakeshott and Windsor, both one-time members of the National Party, would support the Labor Party in a hung parliament. Besides being ex-Nationals, both represented areas where voters were more likely to prefer the Nationals to Labor. But more than a fortnight after the election, which was so late in August that the counting of votes stretched into September, the two ex-Nationals ultimately decided to give Labor the necessary support to form government. And the vitriol, especially from conservative commentators brooding over Labor’s narrow escape from defeat, began at once and went on for three years, until both Oakeshott and Windsor retired from politics in 2013.
You might think that the actions in 2010 of Oakeshott and Windsor, in arguably going against the wishes of their constituencies and allowing Labor to govern, were unprecedented in Australian political history. But you’d be wrong.
Over a decade earlier, during the 1990s, Independents in the State Parliament of Queensland did the same thing as Oakeshott and Windsor, albeit on separate occasions. The first of these Independents was Liz Cunningham of Gladstone, normally a Labor-leaning region. She entered Parliament in 1995, at an election which the Goss Labor Government almost lost, against expectations. Wayne Goss had been very popular as Queensland Premier since 1989, but a surprise against Labor left Goss with a one-seat majority. The following year, when Labor lost one of its seats in a by-election and was left deadlocked with the Coalition on forty-four seats apiece, the new balance-of-power MP Cunningham arguably went against the wishes of her constituents and gave her support to the Coalition, thereby tipping Goss and Labor out of office.
Surely, in many people’s minds, Gladstone voters would revolt against Cunningham for her “betrayal” and throw her out at the next election, which ultimately came in 1998. But they voted her back in. And even at the election after that, in 2001, when Queensland voters swung back to Labor everywhere, Cunningham won Gladstone again. Four elections on, she’s continued to hold her seat. If she’d betrayed her constituents at first, clearly they’ve long forgiven her.
Now Cunningham is retiring at the next Queensland election, after nearly twenty years in Parliament. I suspect that Gladstone voters will miss her.
As a footnote, in 1998 another Independent MP, Peter Wellington, did something similar to Cunningham. Having won a seat on the Sunshine Coast from the Nationals in an election which produced a hung parliament, Wellington chose to give Labor support to take office. Despite this betrayal, he’s held his State seat ever since. Perhaps voters can forgive MPs for betraying them if they like what they see otherwise.