Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Independents Seldom Replace Other Independents

This week's news that Cathy McGowan is stepping down from the seat of Indi at the 2019 election after two terms makes this seat an even more interesting contest to keep an eye on.  Following a preselection process, the Voices for Indi group has endorsed nurse, midwife and rural health researcher Helen Haines to be McGowan's successor as the next "Orange Independent" for the seat.

McGowan won Indi in 2013, defeating 12-year Liberal incumbent Sophie Mirabella in a seat the Coalition had held comfortably since 1931.  At the 2016 election the Liberals re-endorsed Mirabella, but McGowan's two-candidate preferred vote blew out from 50.25% to 54.83%.  The Liberals' re-endorsement of a contentious former MP meant that we never got to find out how much of McGowan's success was an anti-Mirabella vote and how much was a vote for a movement independent of the major parties and in reaction to major parties neglecting safe Coalition rural seats.  Clearly the latter factor - once mainly a NSW thing - is growing in Victoria (as witnessed by Suzanna Sheed's wins in Shepparton and Ali Cupper's win in Mildura) but the most closely Voices for Indi backed candidates failed to wrest Ovens Valley and (narrowly) Benambra from the Coalition at the recent state election.

If Haines wins Indi then this will in fact be something new - in House of Representatives election history, there has been no case of an independent replacing another independent in a seat.  I thought that history was worth discussing at state and federal level, but in this case it comes with a big "that's different".  Independents do not normally represent an organised "movement".  For some observers, candidates like McGowan and Haines are not really "independents" but are the independent-branded endorsed candidates of a quasi-party that has chosen not to formally register itself.  Parallels might be drawn with the 1989 Tasmanian "Green Independents" (who pretty quickly formed a party once elected) and also with various past splinter groups of parties that chose to run "independent" candidates who were in fact paid-up members of major parties ("Independent Labor" etc).

There is a view that independents, once elected as such at the ballot box, are typically almost unbeatable, but this doesn't really stand up historically at either state or federal levels. Some independents hold seats with large margins for decades, but there are plenty like Phil Cleary (defeated after one term and an ineligible part-term) or Paul Filing and Allan Rocher (disendorsed Liberal incumbents re-elected as independents in 1996 but heavily defeated in 1998).  At state level, the three Victorian rural-seat independents who backed the Bracks government into power in 1999 were voted out one by one over the next three elections.  Overall, the median career length (swince 1950) for a state or federal independent elected as such, and who doesn't later join a party, is about seven years.  The mean, dragged up by a few multi-decade outliers, is about eight and a half.

Federal Non-Succession Cases

These days party registrations are printed on ballot papers, making it easy to tell who is officially an independent and who isn't.  Also, parties are less tolerant than they were of their own paid-up members running against official endorsed candidates, with expulsion from the party being the normal response.  In the first half of the 20th century, it wasn't uncommon to see "Independent Nationalist" candidates running against official Nationalists (for instance), and even in some cases winning and then later rejoining the official party.

Including "Independent Party X" cases there have been about 37 MPs elected to the House of Reps at some time while at least arguably not being an endorsed candidate of any formalised party.  Of these many have ended their independent careers by losing at the ballot box or by joining or forming a formalised party.  (For this reason I don't consider Bob Katter an "independent", even if he reckons he is one.)  Even when an independent has resigned or died in office, sometimes no independent has recontested the seat.  However I have found the following eight cases where voters chose not to replace an independent with another:  (Note that I am not an expert in the history of all these individuals so more detail on any of them from the history buffs who browse this page is welcome!)

Fremantle 1928: Two-term independent William Watson retired.  Independent Keith Watson (22%), a leading WA secessionist, ran third behind John Curtin.  In 1931 William Watson, as a UAP candidate, recovered the seat on Keith Watson's preferences.  I can find no evidence that the two Watsons were related.

Franklin by-election 1929: William McWilliams represented Franklin on behalf of five different conservative parties between 1903 and 1922.  He returned in 1928 as an independent, overtaking the incumbent Nationalist on preferences from another Nationalist (!!) He died in office shortly after being re-elected in 1929; two independent candidates managed only 10.6% between them in the by-election.

Wimmera 1946: An arguable case - Alexander Wilson's party status is the subject of much discussion and he is sometimes seen as a state-based Country MP rather than a true independent.  When Wilson, who played a key role in bringing down the Fadden government, retired after three terms, a gaggle of independents (some more so than others) ran for the seat but the 2CP battle finished up as Country vs Country.

Batman 1969: Labor MP Sam Benson, a supporter of the Vietnam War, was expelled from the ALP, apparently over his Grouper associations.  He responded by retaining his seat from third on primaries in 1966.  Benson retired in 1969 and the sole independent candidate polled 5.7%.

North Sydney 1996: Two-term independent Ted Mack had barely retained his seat in 1993 and retired in 1996, having stated a view that MPs should serve only two terms.  The sole independent candidate to replace him ran last with 3.7%.

Calare 2007: Popular 11-year incumbent Peter Andren retired at the election as he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  Andren, who had hoped to switch to the Senate, died during the campaign. Independent Gavin Priestley, an Andren supporter who had been endorsed by Andren's partner during the campaign, ran third on primaries with 23.1% as the Nationals recovered the seat.

New England 2013: Tony Windsor retired after 12 years, having supported the Gillard Labor government in his final term.  Independent Rob Taber, seen as pro-Windsor,  ran a very distant second to Barnaby Joyce, but is still the only federal independent to make the final two while attempting to replace another independent.

Lyne 2013: The voters of Lyne had even less interest in replacing Rob Oakeshott with another indie in similar circumstances.  The lone independent ran third on 7.6%.

Generally these cases provide no precedent for the co-ordinated attempt to replace an independent with a closely linked independent, as is being seen in Indi.

There have also been about 34 MPs who became independents during a term without being elected as such.  The vast majority of these were defeated at the next election.  I've considered these as not counting, because they don't demonstrate support of their electorate for an MP being independent.  A common scenario is a disendorsed MP sitting as an independent for several months and then losing.

State-Level Succession Cases

At state level there have been some cases of lower house independents successfully taking over from other independents.  (In Tasmania's upper house this happens routinely, because most members are independents.)  In the state lower houses with single-member-per-seat systems, I have found seven post-1950 examples (and there are several before that), but they are still a minority, as there have been at least 17 and perhaps as many as 20 cases in this time where independents have failed to replace other independents.  These are the cases of successful independent-to-independent transitions I have found:

North Shore (NSW) 1988: Ted Mack quit to run for federal parliament.  Independent Robyn Read, who had been involved in getting Mack into politics in the first place, won the seat with a small swing to her compared to Mack's state election result, but was defeated by the Liberals at the next general election.

Manly (NSW) 1999: Two-term independent Peter Macdonald retired and was replaced by David Barr, who served two terms before being defeated by Mike Baird.  What is interesting about Manly is the closeness of the 2CP results in all the independent wins: 50.7, 50.4, 51.3, 51.3.  Both independents seem to have had a similar support network with the "Residents and Friends of Manly" (at one stage registered as a party at council level) cited as serving a similar role to Voices for Indi.

Maryborough (Qld) 2003: One Nation MP John Kingston had quit the party and been re-elected as an independent.  He resigned for heath reasons and was succeeded by Chris Foley at a by-election.  The Nationals didn't even run against Foley in 2004 and managed only 10% against him in 2007, but the LNP's Anne Maddern finally dislodged Foley with a huge swing at her second attempt in 2012.

Dubbo (NSW) 2004: Independent Tony McGrane won Dubbo in 1999 by 14 votes.  He retained it in 2003 with a 55-45 margin but died in office.  Dawn Fardell won the seat very easily at the by-election, but was nearly beaten in 2007 and defeated by Troy Grant (Nationals) in 2011.

Port Macquarie (NSW) 2008: National-turned-Independent Rob Oakeshott quit to run for federal parliament.  Peter Besseling, an Oakeshott staffer and endorsed by him won the by-election (though not nearly as comfortably as Oakeshott had been winning). Besseling was ousted in 2011, probably as a result of damage to the regional independent brand caused by Oakeshott and Windsor backing Julia Gillard.

Mount Gambier (SA) 2010: 13-year incumbent Rory McEwen (a long term Cabinet minister in the Rann government despite being an independent) retired. His seat was very narrowly picked up by Don Pegler, who lasted one term before being beaten by the Liberals' Troy Bell (himself now an independent, so the seat has been won by three different indies at its last four elections). Pegler, a local mayor, had unsuccessfully sought Liberal preselection.

Sydney (NSW) 2012: 24-year incumbent Clover Moore resigned as a result of laws preventing her holding the seat while being Lord Mayor of Sydney.  Moore endorsed Alex Greenwich, who easily won the seat in a by-election and has since retained it once.

A common support network was a factor in several of these victories, so they might be seen as precursors for what Voices for Indi are attempting.  However, endorsement of the former member or their supporters is no guarantee of success at state level.  An example of this was the Fisher by-election in South Australia.  Another example was Gladstone in Queensland, which Liz Cunningham held (not always easily) for 20 years but which Labor won with a 26% swing against her endorsed replacement.

What about indies beating other indies?

Again, in Tasmania's Legislative Council this happens frequently (including two on the same day in 2003, though one of the victims was "Independent Labor").  However, in the single-member lower houses I cannot find a post-1950 case of an independent winning a seat by unseating an incumbent independent.  My thanks to poster Geoff who has added this note to a previous thread:

Hi Kevin, off-topic but some contributions to the hunt for an independent defeating an independent outside Tas LegCo you've been doing on Twitter (don't have an account myself). All from NSW, and all at least somewhat questionable:

*1907 Durham - the party system was obviously still figuring itself out at this point, but MP Walter Bennett, a "Former Progressive", lost to "Independent Liberal" William Brown; Brown is an official Liberal by the next election, and there wasn't an official candidate here.

*1907 St Leonards - incumbent Liberal MP Thomas Cresswell lost preselection and ran as an independent against the new Liberal candidate; they both lost to another independent, Edward Clark.

*1917 Namoi - "Independent Labor" MP George Black, who was expelled for supporting the Holman government, lost to "Independent Nationalist" Walter Wearne; there was no Nationalist candidate, and Wearne joined the proto-Country-Party Progressives before the next election.

*1944 Oxley - First-term Independent MP George Mitchell loses to "Independent Country" candidate Les Jordan, but he was all but officially a CP candidate and joined the party immediately after the election (there was no official CP candidate).

What does it all mean?

The lack of cases of federal independents replacing other federal independents doesn't appear to mean a lot.  It has been rare for federal independents to abandon their seats, as opposed to losing them or becoming party MPs.  Where federal independents have quit their seats or died in office, in most cases the independents attempting to replace them have been obscure and have not been co-ordinated with the original independent's support network.

State examples show that having a support network in common can help independents to replace other independents.  But it might not be an accident that this hasn't yet been seen at federal level.  State electorates are often smaller and easier to co-ordinate community campaigns in.  So it will be very interesting to see whether the same thing will be effective in Indi.  It is probably fortunate for Voices for Indi that they are attempting it now,at what is likely to be a bad election for the Coalition.  However, the Liberal Party may well throw everything at the seat simply on the grounds that it is one of the few gains they might make.

Indi is not the only electorate where the question of independent succession could come up.  Andrew Wilkie has won Clark (formerly Denison) by large margins at his past two attempts and is currently expected to recontest.  Should he keep winning, the question of retirement and possible independent succession will eventually arise there too.


  1. A minor point: In 1942, Jack Beale at 25 was elected as an Independent for the NSW State electorate of South Coast. He succeeded his late father, Rupert who had been elected as an Independent in 1941. Having been elected thrice as an Independent, Beale joined the Liberal Party in 1948 and later served as a Minister in Askin's Government (1965-73). Ironically, upon Beale's retirement in 1973 he was succeeded by the Independent,John Hatton. So South Coast is a unique case of the last century where three successive MP's were first elected as Independents. Shane Easson

    1. Thanks very much for that one. I meant my state-level succession examples to be limited to post-1950 cases (not because the earlier ones are less interesting but because it is much harder to get data on the strike rate before that for some states.) I've edited it to add that stipulation, which I must have accidentally removed somehow.

  2. Interesting, Kevin, but as you say the lack of federal examples doesn't mean a lot. Voices for Indi could almost count as a single-electorate party, of a kind that I don't think we've ever seen before (pls correct me if that's wrong) - so I don't think you can compare the possible McGowan-Haines succession with other indie-indie successions, or attempts, at all. With absolutely no local knowledge or data, I predict Haines to win!