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Rodney Smith, Against the Machines: Minor Parties and Independents in New South Wales, 1910-2006.

Rodney Smith, Against the Machines: Minor Parties and Independents in New South Wales, 1910-2006, Federation Press, Leichhardt, 2006. pp. x + 238. $45.00 cloth.

With the odds stacked against you, the need to find a deposit and fund a campaign, the prospect, at best, of exercising only a tenuous influence on government policy (your constituents' expectations notwithstanding), who would want to be an independent or minor party MP? Plenty it would seem. Rodney Smith's informative and thought-provoking study reveals that between 1910 and 2005 some 3,488 individuals (including those representing 180 different minor parties) sought election to the NSW Legislative Assembly (LA). Of these, only 104 were victorious. Success in the Legislative Council (LC) was equally elusive: between 1978 (when direct election for the LC was introduced) and 2003, of the available 138 seats only 23 were won by minor party candidates, with just seven being elected for more than one term.

Nor would the press laud your endeavours. The Sydney Morning Herald in 1911 was firmly persuaded of the benefits of two-party government and railed against 'the evil of three parties in the House', asserting that 'Nothing is more dangerous than that the balance of power should remain in irresponsible hands', a position it has reiterated over the years (pp. 6, 11). Political scientists, such as Henry Mayer, have been equally scathing of 'minor party romanticism', contending that Independents delude themselves that only they can represent and respond to the diversity of views within the community (p. 9).

Written to mark the sesquicentenary (1856-2006) of responsible government in New South Wales, Against the Machines examines the period from 1910, which ushered in the domination of the State's politics by 'two disciplined party machines', until 2006. The latter time constraint has precluded examination of the full impact of onerous registration requirements for minor parties seeking to have the party's name appear on the ballot paper. These requirements governed the 2003 'half' Legislative Council elections but their full effect was not finally felt until the 2007 election, when the remaining LC seats were contested. Suffice to say that parties that had been successful in 1999, such as the Democrats, Reform the Legal System, One Nation, and Unity, failed to win seats in 2003 and lost their representation entirely in 2007. Smith anticipates this outcome and suggests that 'highly visible individuals heading their lists' (Fred Nile, John Tingle, Ian Cohen) considerably advantaged parties whose representation increased (Christian Democrats, Shooters, Greens). Of far greater practical benefit, however, may be the ability to muster a range of community organisations (churches, gun clubs) or an extensive network of party members (Greens). A coherent political program also helps. But whatever the reason for their success, it is now is difficult to see other minor parties, let alone individuals, challenging the purchase that the Greens (4 MLCs), Christian Democrats (2) and Shooters (2) have on the cross bench.

The proportional representation voting system that governs elections to the LC makes it highly likely that neither of the major parties will ever control the upper house. The future focus will be on which of the minor parties is able to increase its representation, either at the expense of its minor opponents or the major parties, and enable it to consistently exercise the balance of power. The events of 24 June 2009 are a possible taste of things to come. The two Shooters Party MLCs, unable to obtain government backing for their bill to permit shooting in national parks, withdrew their customary support for the government. Passage of government legislation, in the absence of Liberal/National Party support, is impossible without the agreement of at least three of the eight minor party members who comprise the cross bench. The Shooters and Christian Democrats, reflecting their inherently conservative dispositions and other more tangible enticements, have usually provided that support. The upshot has been that the Council has been on one of history's most prolonged 'long bells' (ie suspended) with government legislation frustrated.

If minor parties feature in the Legislative Council, the Legislative Assembly is the arena of the Independent. Smith traces the waxing and waning of their fortunes and concludes that it was only from the 1980s that 'enough Independents won seats over a long enough period of time to give them the space to work out how Independent politics differed from that of the parties' and that 'by 2006, the idea of Independent politics was a well developed one' (p. 51).

High on the list of Independents to be thanked for this development is John Hatton who, as early as 1973, began to urge reform of parliamentary procedures. In 1992, with the support of fellow Independents Clover Moore and Peter Macdonald, Hatton was able to capitalise on the minority Greiner Liberal government's precarious hold on power to persuade both the Government and Opposition to sign a 'Memorandum of Understanding,' thereby paving the way for significant reforms. Smith rightly characterises this as 'the period in which Independents played the greatest role since 1910' (p. 157).

For Independents, the dilemma is balancing the expectations of constituents and the specific needs of their electorates with broader issues of political principle and good government. Clearly a strong base and high local profile are almost indispensable for an Independent's electoral success, but does this parochialism justify horse-trading and uncritical support for whichever of the major party is in government? Not everyone subscribes to Fred Nile's conviction that 'the Government has a mandate from God ... therefore we should support the elected government unless they're doing something totally immoral and totally opposed to our policy' (p. 161).

This is an excellent book: comprehensive, detailed and subtle in its analysis of the role of minor parties and Independents. The issues it raises have relevance far beyond the walls of Australia's oldest parliament.


Greens MLC, NSW Parliament
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Author:Hale, Sylvia
Publication:Labour History - A Journal of Labour and Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Nov 1, 2009
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