One of Australia’s independents pulls support–partially

Independent MP Andrew Wilkie has withdrawn support from the Labor minority government in Australia over failure of the government to advance poker-machine reform. However, as noted in the Sydney Morning Herald, this development is not fatal to the government.

When, after the 2010 election, Wilkie, Rob Oakeshott, Tony Windsor and the Greens agreed to support Labor, they gave just two guarantees: confidence and supply.

On the first, they would support a no-confidence motion against the government only in a case of serious misconduct or corruption. And, while they would guarantee supply, they reserved the right to vote against individual budget measures and other policies.

In announcing he was withdrawing support, Wilkie reaffirmed that this did not imply he would join the now-certain no-confidence motion to be brought by the opposition.


Wilkie’s threat to bring down the government if it did not meet his demands lost potency in November when Harry Jenkins was nudged from the speaker’s chair and replaced by the Liberal turncoat Peter Slipper. This gave Labor a two-vote buffer on the floor.

Wilkie would lose all influence if he voted to bring down the government, anyway. The tail can’t wag the dog if the dog is dead. And the Wilkie Wag [TM] now looks to be a weaker influence on the Labor party than that of the poker clubs’ lobby.

26 thoughts on “One of Australia’s independents pulls support–partially

  1. More recently, West Australian National Party MHR Tony Crook has officially joined the Coalition’s parliamentary caucus:

    To clear up confusion: the Nationals in other States and Territories either don’t hold any federal seats, or are in a tight coalition with the Liberals. (In Qld and the Northern Territory the two form a single party – LNP, CLP – at subnational level but their MPs in the federal Parliament sit as either Libs or Nats). In SA, the Nats have no federal MHRs or Senators, and their sole State MHA actually helped Labor form govt. And in WA, the Nats are also not in long-standing coalition with the Libs (although they did decide to support Libs over Labor after the last WA State election). So: the two conservative parties start off as a single fused entity in Darwin and Brisbane – but then become more and more separate, both legally and politically, as one sweeps clockwise around this wide brown land.

    The CW is that, because Crook’s profection (? is there such a word?) gives the Coalition more MHRs than Labor, Tony Abbott now has (greater than ever) “bragging rights” as against the legitimacy of Julia Gillard’s Labor govt.

    It seems to be rare for an independent/ crossbench MP to “profect” (hey, I like this word) to Govt or Opposition in mid-term, but one Australian precedent does exist, and it’s rather ominous for federal Labor – especially a month after a Newman wins a landslide victory in a localised election

  2. Considerably more ominous, a long-awaited report into pre-parliamentary conduct by Labor MHR Craig Thomson is making the numbers in the House even tighter. If Thomson is prosecuted it is hard to see the Gillard government surviving.

  3. One wonders why they don’t change the number of members in the House to help prevent such deadlock, as they did in Sweden in the 70’s (when they decreased the size of Parliament from 350 to 349 seats after an election which produced 175 seats for both left and right).

  4. Hi JD,

    That would take a constitutional amendment, ie, a referendum in which 60% of voters would vote “No” because they are angry about the carbon tax or restrictions on poker machines or same-sex marriage or any issue on a very long list at which “Number of MHRs” stands at around #237 or #238, just above “Restoration of the Hapsburgs” for the typical Aussie.

    The Aust Const requires that the number of MHRs be as nearly as practicable twice the number of Senators. The Const suggests, as default “until Parliament otherwise provides”, a quotient and rounding-off system (quotient being population divided by 2 x Senators, all and only remainders over 0.5 being rounded up), subject to a minimum 5 MHRs for each original (founding) State. This is for States’ Senators and MHRs only – Territory representation is added on afterwards.

    Depending how population is distributed among States (and on whether the ACT and NT are just above or just below 2.5 and 1.5 times the quotient respectively), this has produced a House ranging from 147 to 151 MHRs since the Senate was expanded from 10 to 12 per State in 1983-84. It’s colloquially called the “let the chips fall where they may” method by Australian anoraks. It does have the political advantage that, eg, an extra seat for Qld is not necessarily and inevitably the cause of a seat taken away from NSW, unlike the US HR with its fixed number of 435 Reps where Utah sues because Oregon (?) got “Utah’s” rightful last seat.

    Although the Const does allow Parliament theoretical leeway to substitute a different formula, probably the only one the High Court would allow would be one (whether highest averages or largest remainders) that guaranteed exactly 144 State MHRs when there are 72 State Senators – no more, no fewer. In 1977 the HC struck down an amendment the Menzies govt had introduced in the 1960s, to save some National Party electorates with declining populations; it had said that any remainder would be rounded up, even if under 0.5 quotient. The House thus grew to 127 seats in 1977, but was cut back to 125 when the HC ruled this produced too many seats so the House gratuitously exceeded 2 x Senate.

    The HC’s issue was the total number of seats, rather than the allocation formula. A “One seat per whole quotient or part thereof” formula would have been fine had it been used to allocate exactly 120 MHRs among the six States (eg, allocating 114 seats by d’Hondt and then giving each State one extra).

    Ideally, I would use the “chips fall” method but specify that, if the total is an even number less than [say] 300, one extra seat is allocated to the State/ Territory with the highest St-Lague average, to make it odd.

    For the fun that Australian parliaments can get into with the “Speaker/ Chair votes only to break a tie” rule (as opposed to a more sensible “Speaker/ Chair votes only when his/her vote would change the result” rule, as in PNG), see Marquet’s case in WA:

  5. @JD

    The territory senators do not count in calculating the number of state MHRs. The constitution merely says that the parliament can provide for the representation of territories,so the figure is 2*72 rather 2*76.


    Given an odd number amendment would be seized on by the Opposition as a chance to inflict another electoral defeat, and be seen by the electorate as a chance to comment on the desirability of minority governments, I would give the Habsburgs a much better chance.

    Sanctus Electus Imperator Romanus Nationis Australiensis sounds so much cooler than governor-general anyway.

  6. Alan: that seems to me like a strange interpretation… “The House of Representatives shall be composed of members directly chosen by the people of the Commonwealth, and the number of such members shall be, as nearly as practicable, twice the number of senators. The number of members chosen in the several States shall be in proportion to the respective members of their people, and shall, until the Parliament otherwise provides, be determined, whenever necessary, in the following manner”. Aren’t territory senators still senators?

  7. @JD

    As far as I am concerned the entire nexus between number of senators and number of MHRs is strange. I can only refer you to Mackellar v Commonwealth.

    The nexus was said to be designed to preserve the authority of the Senate in relation to the House. I guess that was in rare joint sittings after a double dissolution when the relative numbers would matter. The US, which does not have a nexus but still apportions the electoral college by numbers of senators and representatives is possibly what they were thinking of.

    I believe the Bush/Gore election would have had quite different results if the House were smaller or larger in relation to the Senate.

  8. JD, the High Court has had various cases on the question of how Territory MHRs and especially Senators fit in. When the Whitlam Govt legislated for ACT and NT to have 2 Senators each, starting 1975, two States challenged their right to vote on legislation. Yes, sec 122 does allow Parliament to legislate for Territory representatives on such terms as it thinks fit – but sec 7 says the Senate shall be composed of Senators for each State. Qld and WA would have conceded, at most, a right to give the Territorians non-voting commissioners like DC and Puerto Rico.

    However the HC held that sec 7 was just the starting point and did not derogate from Parliament’s power under sec 122. It did suggest that if the Cwlth ever tried to give the ACT/ NT, say, 50 Senators each, then the Court might draw a line, but 2 each didn’t dilute sec 7 too far. Since they are elected by PR, their votes cancel out on party lines, Chilean-style.

    And back on even numbers… as noted, the Cwlth has little or no const power to legislate for an even number of MHRs. (It can change the uniform number of Senators per original State, subject to a minimum of 6, but the size of the House flows automatically from that: the next possible increase, from 12 to 13 Senators per State, would generate 160 or so MHRs.)

    However, at State level, Parliaments have much greater leeway to set the number of seats (even in Victoria, where it’s now entrenched, it was initially set by ordinary Act). Odd vs even seems to greatly vary among States. For the last 50 years, Tasmania has had odd numbers for both Houses (35, 25 and 19, 15); Victoria, OTOH, has always had evens (72, 88 and 36, 44, 40). SA and WA had odds for lower (55, 57 and 39, 47) but evens for upper (34, 36 and 20, 22). NSW fluctuated between odds and evens for its lower house (91, 109, 99, 93 and IIRC the occasional 94 or 96 but it varies frequently) as has Qld (72, 82, 89).

    NSW’s is the only Upper House I know of that has fluctuated between odd and even in the postwar period (60, 45, now 42 – with 43 and 44 during the transition from indirect to direct election).

    I can understand that, with a large-ish chamber (80-100 seats) elected by SMDs, a tie will seem unlikely; but I do find it odd (NPI) that four States now have smallish (22-42 seats) upper houses, elected by PR, where ties seem inevitable. The Senate has always had an even number, but the rule of State equality was entrenched 48 years before PR was legislated and in any case, with six States (and no others likely to be added, whether by se[cession] or manifest destiny), and even total is hard to avoid.

  9. Ahem, because half the state senators retire at each election you cannot have an odd number of senators for a state. The next permissible increase is therefore to 14 senators per state which would take the number of MHRs to 14*6*2.

    Please don’t ask about the NT becoming a state)

  10. Alan, my reading is that you could. The Const only requires the Senators to be divded as equally as practicable into two halves. So it is possible for the Senate to go Brazilian (well, not literally 2, 1, 2, 1, but 7. 6, 7, 6 would be allowable). Given the wide leeway the HC has given Parliament over most electoral matters, I’d bet on that being upheld.

  11. I’d add that a 1977 amendment gave the right to vote in Constitutional referenda to residents of those Territories that had House of Reps seats under federal statute. (Their votes count towards the nationwide majority but not on the “majority of States” hurdle. At least the Swiss, from whom we copied this double-majority referendum model, count the half-Cantons as 0.5 of a State each for this purpose…). One would think this would put the constitutionalities of voting Territory MHRs and Senators beyond further doubt, but given the HC’s interpretation of other provisions such as s 80 (trial by jury for indictable federal offences), I wouldn’t bank on them finding a Dworkinian principle submerged like an iceberg between ss 128 (as amended 1977), 122 and 7…

  12. Tom, I wouldn’t. If the sates are electing different numbers of senators at the one elections I can see no chance at all of that being seen as maintaining equal representation of the states.

    Moreover it would result in unequal representation of the electors, by a large factor. Say NSW elected 3 in 2007 and 4 in 20120. Of course there is an overlap between the electors of 2002 and the electors of 2010 but it is not absolute. More significantly, 2010 was a great year for the Coalition and 2007 was not. Why then should the quadrisenatorial 2010 Coalition electors get an extra 25% votying power over the trisenatorial 2007 Labor electors?

    That effect will be worse because one electoral cohort will elect an even and one an odd number of senators. We will not even consider the unfortunate elector who votes trisenatorially in a down year and then moved interstate to face voting trisenatorially in yet another down year at the next election.

    Both times that the parliament increased the number of senators they went to an even number. Certainly in 1984 when I followed the debate quite closely no-one ever mentioned 11 as a possible or constitutional number.

    I can see no chance of the parliament ever passing this proposal or the High Court upholding it.

  13. “Not passed”, probably yes. “Struck down”, no. If the Const says “as nearly equal as practicable” per class, that implies a 6-7 to 5-6 split is permissible. Unlike the US precedent where the number of Senators per State (2) is less than the number of classes. If the Aust Const had said “two equal classes”, I’d agree with Alan that this implies an even number only per State. As for equality of voting power arguments, the HC has proven very unsympathetic to this.

  14. Rather, I suggest that the words ‘as nearly equal in number as practicable’ are designed to cover the possibility of vacancies when the senate is divided into the 2 classes. The same words ‘as nearly as practicable’ are used in Section 24 to create the nexus itself and those words have been applied very strictly by the High Court in dealing with nexus issues.

    I would also expect to see some constitutional provision for how to determine the place if each state in the odd/even roster. There is none.

    Assigning NSW, South Australia and Tasmania to the same class would produce a very good year for Labor in every second election and a very bad year for Labor in the other election. While it is easy to envisage ways to rig the roster for one side or the other it is quite hard to come up with a roster that is even-handed.

  15. I still disagree, but we should probably take this discussion off list. I assume Americans are less interested in internal Australian politics than vice versa.

    (Eg, I can’t imagine Julia Gillard’s campaign organisation producing an advertisement starring a hypothetical welfare recipient with the randomly-chosen name of “Barack”, oblivious to its unintended hilarity across the pond).

  16. Back on thread… at @1 I wrote “or are in a tight coalition with the Liberals”. “tight alliance” might be more accurate since it covers both a coalition (Vict, NSW, federally) a single conservative party (ACT, Tasmania… hmmm, the two PR-STV lower houses – interesting), and a merged conservative party whose federal representatives self-sort into Liberals or Nationals (NT, Qld).

  17. Also, very interesting piece here at Peter Brent’s “Mumble” blog suggesting that three-cornered contests don’t necessarily reduce the Coalition’s 2PP total – at least with compulsory preferences. Some equally interesting feedback in the comments (amidst the usual triumphalist chaff).

    Eg, the idea that, in districts where the ALP runs third, Labor supporters might do a Rush Limbaugh-style “Operation Havoc” and swing between preferencing National and Liberal at alternating elections, is plausible: I’ve heard anecdotes that Labor in Qld (one of the few parts of Aust where the ALP does run third in places) used it as a strategy so the conservative local MP would never stay in long enough to become a Minister.

    Likewise, the point that the ALP might play on uncertainty about the post-election conservative Cabinet or frontbench (“yes, you will have a Coalition MP, but no one knows if they’ll be a Lib or a Nat!!!!!”) would, sad to say, probably fly. At least US style primaries give the Hillary or Lugar supporters a few months to drown their sorrows and bury the hatchet before uniting against the common enemy at the general election. At least with STV (Hare-Clark or alphabetical, not the closed-list Senate version) the difference in personnel would not necessarily change the balance between the Coalition parties.

    I do remain puzzled at the vehemence with which so many rural conservatives hold the following two beliefs at the same time:

    (a) That the Nationals persistently get betrayed, abandoned and left un[der]-represented by the smooth-talking, economic-deregulationist, socially-libertarian Liberals, who are little better than the hated ALP; and

    (b) That there must be only one single conservative candidate in each electorate. Disunity is death![!!!!]

  18. Antony Green today

    “The NSW Legislative Assembly currently consists of 93 members. Changing the number of members has been a recurring game for NSW politics. The Askin government increased the number of members before both the 1971 and 1973 elections. The Wran government increased the Assembly to 109 seats ahead of the 1988 election, and it was subsequently reduced to 99 seats by the Greiner government before the 1991 election, and to 93 seats by the Carr government in 1999….”

  19. The profection of independents to the Liberal National Coalition continues…

    “The Nationals are poised to launch an all-out assault on Tony Windsor by conscripting popular independent state MP Richard Torbay as their candidate in the federal independent’s northern NSW seat of New England.

    It is expected Mr Torbay will announce this morning that he is joining the Nationals to contest preselection for New England, in a joint appearance alongside Nationals leader Warren Truss in Armidale.

    Mr Windsor easily won New England with almost 62 per cent of the primary vote but has seen his standing in the traditionally conservative region compromised by his support for the minority Gillard Labor government.

    He is considered an outside chance at best against Mr Torbay, a former mayor of Armidale who has held the state seat of Northern Tablelands, which overlaps New England, since 1999.

    Mr Truss and Nationals state boss Ben Franklin have been wooing Mr Torbay for months, with the only sticking point being the MP’s insistence he should be allowed to speak with an independent voice, and occasionally exercise an independent vote, on issues directly involving his constituents….”

    – Imre Salusinszky, “Nationals enlist Richard Torbay to tackle Tony Windsor in New England”, The Australian (15 June 2012),

    The Tories are hoovering up the crossbenches downunder. Come back, Peter Slipper, all will have been forgiven! Room for you in Abbott’s big tent!

  20. I do not think Torbay’s chances are nearly s food as this journalist does. New England is very localist. The population is concentrated at the Tamworth end for he electorate, where Windsor is based. Torbay is from Armidale, Tamworth’s smaller traditional rival and the overlaps with New England is not quite as strong as the article suggests.

    Torbay received 63% of the primary vote in the NSW seat of Northern Tablelands but that was running as an independent in an area where the Nationals have been weak for some years. The locals tell me that even in Armidale, a university town, (that is unusual in Australia) he has nothing like Windsor’s reputation or standing.

  21. Torbay began as an Independent who served as Speaker. He is now a party-endorsed candidate who will be a backbencher or quite probably a Minister. Here in the antipodes, we do things the other way around from Westminster…

  22. “… On the limited evidence available, the Liberals are considerably more effective at disciplining preferences than are the Nationals. Put more bluntly, more than one in five Nationals voters prefer Labor to the Liberals….”

    – Paul Rodan, “Is the enemy of my friend always my enemy? Do all Labor voters prefer the Greens to the Liberals? Do National Party voters opt for the Liberals if their own party isn’t running? What little evidence we have suggests the answer isn’t straightforward,” Inside Story (7 March 2013),

  23. Is Katter’s Party going for the anti-Coalition traditional Nats voters, or are they trying more for socially conservative ALP voters?

    They seem like they could cause some serious hijinks.

  24. I think Katter is more focused on rural and regional issues than anything else, for which he is a passionate and sincere advocate. That is not true of all members of his party, some of whom have been disendorsed in the last few weeks for negative comments about gays and Muslims. Katter himself has a history of homophobic statements, having once said he’d walk backwards from Mt Isa to Bourke (about 800 kilometres) if there were any homosexuals in the Federal Division of Kennedy, but seems to have altered his views on that recently.

    The Katteristas seem to me more focused on the problems of globalisation in rural and regional areas than anything else.

    Katter is also a passionate advocate of proportional representation and regularly denounces the major party duopoly as ‘Coles and Woolies politics’ after the supermarket oligopoly in Australia. He’s also the only Australian politician who regularly quotes people like Montesquieu and Hume in his speeches.

    I don’t intend to vote for the Katteristas but I think they are a fascinating movement with genuine grievances that have large appeal in the bush.

  25. > “Katter is also a passionate advocate of proportional representation”

    Interesting. I didn’t know that.

    Curious how – for all the rhetoric about single-member electorates mean candidates elected on their merits, no faceless zombie MPs hiding on party tickets, voters choosing the best individuals to represent local interests, etc, etc, etc – those parliamentarians who actually manage to win election (and re-election) in single-member districts without the party label to give them a big push – ie, Independents like John Hatton, Ted Mack, Martyn Evans, Peter Andren, and now (it seems) Katter – often turn out to favour proportional representation.

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