When I was a kid, my local State MP was Ted Mack, who was so independent that he even lived in Neutral St, North Sydney. He was Mayor of North Sydney too, and during his time, spearheaded major building projects in places I regularly visited, like Stanton Library and North Sydney Oval, where I used to watch rugby league before the Super League war destroyed the Bears. I looked on with schoolboy awe as our whole suburb was transformed under the watch of this architect-turned-politician. He was a white-haired, groovy-vintage-car-driving political superhero, able to renovate municipal buildings in a single bound.
I admired his unimpeachable morality when he resigned from both State and Federal Parliament days before qualifying for a huge super payout. And because he wasn’t a member of any party, I felt he represented us better than anyone who was beholden to a party machine. The proof was all around me, in a beautiful, well-resourced suburb, freshly daubed in pretty Federation colours by our trained architect-turned-politician. Even our bus stops were given cute, wholly unnecessary terracotta roofs.
I used to wonder why everyone couldn’t have an independent local member. If they could only see how great things were in North Sydney, surely they’d want a Ted Mack of their own?
Rob Oakeshott has reminded me of my youthful belief in independents in recent weeks. His 17-minute soliloquy was dripping with contempt for all those who had pledged their loyalty to some form of political organisation, and his idealistic, impractical call for a government of national unity featuring the strongest players from both sides reflected his dislike for the paradigm of the “red team or the blue team” – although we now know that back when he was a State MP, he wasn’t averse to joining the ministry of the red team.
But as fervently as Bob Katter, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott advocate a world where all politicians are as worthily community-oriented as they are, that simply wouldn’t work. The reality is that an independent MP is a luxury that very few electorates can afford to indulge, and that unless they find themselves in a rare balance of power situation, their role in parliament is marginal at best. They have minimal leverage to get things done for their local area, and they aren’t even making up the numbers the way a party-aligned backbencher does.
For one thing, I now understand that most of what Ted Mack achieved in North Sydney was due to him being a mayor, not an MP. What’s more, he was lucky enough to run a council which contained a sizeable CBD – I remember it was the third largest in Australia at the time. That gave him a massive rates budget to spend on renovations. And while I’m sure he cut various deals in Macquarie St, and he was able to cut down on planning red-tape because of his MP role, I doubt he would have been as effective without controlling the council too.
Being able to merely focus on the needs of your own community the way Mack did is a luxury that few MPs have, especially in the federal arena, where much of the business doesn’t relate to any specific local area. Its current MP, Joe Hockey, spends most of his time as Shadow Treasurer, which necessarily means spending less time on the affairs of North Sydney – but is still vital work.
As Prime Minister, obviously Julia Gillard will spend relatively little time thinking about how best to represent her electors in Lalor. But she’ll be acting in the national interest, at least most of the time, and representing all of us. Somebody’s got to do it. And it won’t be an independent. Which is why they’ll have plenty of time to have feelgood meetings in their electorates, and probably increase their majority as a result.
It’s entirely fitting, then, that Oakeshott’s salary would have gone up by $100,000 if he’d taken on that regional development ministry, because he would have had to make a far larger contribution to public life.
Parliament is also about more than merely representing local interests – there are inevitable questions of political philosophy.
When Bob Katter tried to argue that his paradigm was simply one of North Queensland, he was being disingenuous. There is no way that an independent MP can avoid participating in that contest unless they constantly abstain from votes (or simply don’t show up). You can’t answer questions like whether a parental leave scheme should be means-tested or not, or whether student unionism should be voluntary, by looking to the interests of the people of your electorate. And even if you do, your own beliefs about what’s best for all of society will determine your answer.
Furthermore, effective governing needs a Cabinet that can work together to make decisions, and trust one another at least up to a certain point, and that’s where political parties work well. Any organisation requires teamwork to be effective, and it’s not a bad thing that politicians are generally required to be loyal to their colleagues.
So while neither’s in great shape at present, and Labor badly needs the pending inquiry to figure out what it believes in, we do need our red and blue teams. And those who have the luxury of an independent member who can afford to spend a day reading a story about a dog called Smudge to kids in his electorate are essentially sponging off the hard work done by those of us whose MPs spend most of their time on national issues.
I’ll be delighted if Rob Oakeshott becomes speaker, because it will allow him to make a contribution to the entire nation, and help to actually deliver the parliamentary reform he likes to talk about. It’ll require him to ask his voters to understand that he’s got bigger fish to fry than merely the interests of Port Macquarie. And that’s what Federal politics should ultimately be about.