The politics of a cliffhanger. The independents may have the final say in deciding who takes government in the event of an inconclusive result in the 2022 election. They’ll have to make up their minds, or the Queen’s man will be the kingmaker, writes Mark Sawyer.
For a bunch of non-politicians who want to take the spin out of politics, the climate independents have been adept at dodging one straight question. Who would they support to form a government in the event no party wins a majority?
On different episodes of the ABC’s QandA, aspiring MP Allegra Spender smothered the question, and sitting MP Zali Steggall took it to the realm of backing a Liberal government under the leadership of someone other than Scott Morrison.
Independents have determined the government before, of course. As war raged in 1941, two of them crossed the floor of the House of Representatives and handed power to Labor’s John Curtin.
Oakeshott, Windsor and the long wait
In 2010, independents Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor kept the nation waiting 17 days before announcing their support of Julia Gillard’s Labor government.
State politics are replete with such arrangements, especially in South Australia. In NSW in 1991, independents reached an agreement with Nick Greiner after his Coalition government lost its majority.
But Steggall’s statement was a bombshell, nonetheless. It means that Morrison could, assuming he wins the election, be the first prime minister in 100 years to relinquish office to keep his party in power. After the 1922 election, the new Country Party vetoed PM Billy Hughes as a condition for supporting his conservative ministry. That scenario could repeat, certainly if Morrison wins the most seats.
Indicating fellow panellist Barnaby Joyce, Steggall said he was part of the problem too. The Nationals had a stranglehold on policy and was a roadblock to the policy goals of strong emissions reduction by 2030 and net zero by 2050.
Joyce of course leads the National Party, in other words, the former Country Party.
Let’s leave aside the fact that Spender and Steggall, if both win, would represent the two most affluent electorates in Australia, while scorning the party that represents many of the poorest seats.
It’s the number, the number 76
Here is a scenario that journalists could use to pin down those elusive non-political aspiring politicians.
It’s the Sunday after the election. As Gillard said in 2010, the people have spoken, but it’s going to take a little while to determine exactly what they’ve said. Neither of the majors can rule in their own right. Both have polled in the high 30s. The Greens have lost a little ground to both Labor and the independents. Labor is in a holding pattern. The Coalition has been whacked by the independents.
Government goes to the party that can claim the votes of 76 of the 151 seats in the House of Representatives. Labor is tipped to hold 70, the Coalition 68 and the cross-benchers 13.
Having won pledges from Adam Bandt and Andrew Wilkie for support on supply and confidence motions, Labor is only four seats short of being able to rule. Along with Bob Katter, who is backing the Coalition, there are nine climate independents who have secured former Coalition seats. South Australian independent Rebekha Sharkie joins them.
“Strength in unity”: Zoe Daniel
‘’There will be no backroom deals,’’ declares Zoe Daniel, who has unseated Tim Wilson in Goldstein. ‘’It would be easy for individuals to come under intense pressure from one of the major parties. We are not a party, but there is strength in unity, so we will negotiate as a team.’’
The independents appoint their senior member Helen Haines as their representative. As a courtesy, the sitting PM gets first dibs at making his pitch for their support.
Haines tells Morrison they will only support the Coalition if he and Joyce are replaced. Morrison says to (Pentecostal) hell with that. You represent former Liberal electorates who would never support a Labor government, not in a million years. So support us, or make a deal with Albanese. Otherwise I, Scott Morrison, will have to advise the Governor-General to call a new election. Haines bids him a polite farewell. ‘’Bully,’’ she mutters under her breath.
So Haines sits down with Albanese. One on one. This is serious. She says, ‘’integrity commission’’ and he says ‘’Yep.’’ No more new coal mines. ‘’I’ll take it to caucus.’’ Close coal mines: ‘’Not yet; we have huge export contracts.’’ Haines reports to her colleagues. An hour later she tells Albanese:
‘’OK, in that case we will support you as PM but with no guarantees on supply and confidence motions. If there’s a scandal, we reserve the right to vote you down.’’
But Albanese says no can-do. ‘’If you can’t guarantee support on confidence motions, I can’t guarantee to the Governor-General that I can command the confidence of the House. I therefore can’t accept his commission as PM.’’ Haines leaves the meeting. ‘’Bully,’’ she mutters under her breath.
The question for any aspiring climate independent: who will get your backing in that situation? Or will you allow a new election to happen?
On QandA on March 30, an audience member asked Zali Steggall who she would back after the election, ‘’if you have the role of king maker’’ and must choose between the Coalition or Labor. ‘’You say king maker?’’ she said. ‘’It may be queen maker.’’
In fact Steggall and her colleagues may be handing the choice to the Queen’s man. In other words, , an unelected official, the Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia. Ultimately, neither Morrison nor Albanese are compelled to take the chalice if they feel governing in a minority is not worth the hassle. Independents will have to choose, or Australians will be sent back to the polls.
It’s time for the independents to stop obfuscating, stop the word games, stop the insinuations. Time to state who, when push comes to shove, will be their choice to lead the government of Australia. Make a decision and stick with it for at least, say 18 months.
Political game-playing is not just the actions of the other side.
One great unknown is whether there will even be a Josh Frydenberg? Is he even there, or has he been replaced by one of those independents? The crystal ball is cloudy on that one.