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Build it and they will come

With looming retirements and on-the-nose MPs, there’s a good chance the crossbench will be bigger after this year’s federal election

Peter Brent 18 January 2019 1200 words

Widening circle: lower house crossbenchers welcoming the new independent member for Wentworth, Kerryn Phelps (back to camera, at right), in October. Mick Tsikas/AAP Image

How big will the House of Representatives crossbench be after this year’s federal election?

It currently boasts these seven souls, in ascending order of time spent there:

Julia Banks (Chisholm, Victoria) was elected as a Liberal in 2016 and quit the party near the end of last year.

Kerryn Phelps (Wentworth, New South Wales) came to Canberra after a by-election last October.

Rebekha Sharkie (Mayo, South Australia) was elected on the Nick Xenophon ticket in 2016 and re-elected for the renamed Centre Alliance at last July’s by-election.

Cathy McGowan (Indi, Victoria) narrowly defeated sitting Liberal Sophie Mirabella in 2013 and survived comfortably in 2016.

Andrew Wilkie (Denison, Tasmania) squeaked in thanks to Liberal and Greens how-to-vote cards in 2010, despite coming third in primary votes. He has romped home since then.

Adam Bandt (Melbourne, Victoria), a Greens MP, also entered parliament in 2010 and, like Wilkie, had Liberal preference recommendations to thank. He has also survived easily, twice, but in his case despite Liberal how-to-vote cards recommending Labor.

And Bob Katter (Kennedy, Queensland) entered parliament as a Nationals MP in 1993, quit his party in 2001, and has since been re-elected with huge margins — apart from experiencing the fright of his life in 2013 after appearing a bit too cosy with Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd. Since 2011, he’s been there under the banner of Katter’s Australian Party.

The prospects? McGowan isn’t recontesting this year, and we don’t know Banks’s plans. Assuming the rest recontest, their chances can be summarised thus:

Katter, Wilkie (in the renamed division of Clark) and Bandt are almost certain to survive.

Sharkie is rather likely to win re-election, based on her big by-election victory, although we haven’t yet seen her face a general election as sitting MP.

Phelps’s fate is to be advised. At stake for Wentworthians this time will be who forms government (rather than how cross they are about Malcolm Turnbull’s fate). Still, she probably has a slightly better-than-even chance.

Banks, if she runs, in Chisholm or elsewhere, is unlikely to succeed. She might be a star in parts of the political bubble, but she’s not necessarily a well-known product outside.

Looking outside the current parliament, former state and federal MP Rob Oakeshott has an excellent chance in Cowper (New South Wales), not just because of his profile but also because sitting Nationals MP Luke Hartsuyker is pulling up stumps and an across-the-board fall in the Coalition vote is generally expected. Oakeshott did respectably against Hartsuyker in 2016, coming within 5 per cent of victory.

McGowan’s chosen successor in Indi, Helen Haines, probably won’t succeed, if for no other reason than lightning rarely striking twice in the same place. She won’t be helped by the fact that the divisive Sophie Mirabella is absent from the ballot paper, unlike in 2013 (and 2016). In Haines’s favour, though, is the likely low Liberal vote in Victoria. And Voice for Indi, who chose her, showed the naysayers a thing or two back in 2013.

So Haines might get up, and Oakeshott probably will. Can we identify anyone else outside the major parties?

The commentariat’s unrealistic expectations of an independent surge in blue-ribbon Liberal electorates have largely been generated by the Wentworth by-election and (an even bigger stretch) by November’s Victorian election. As Antony Green pointed out this week, though many such seats swung big, it was to Labor rather than independents. (Independents took two rural seats from the Nationals and none from the Liberals.)

But Antony may be on less sure ground with this remark: “Saying independents will do well means first naming the independents who can poll strongly.”

Actually, more often than not insurgents appear, seemingly out of nowhere, closer to the election.

We are now four months out from polling day. Four months before the 2013 election you and I hadn’t heard of Cathy McGowan, although we might have read about this group of locals called Voice for Indi that was looking for a candidate to knock off Mirabella — right, good luck with that! Back in 2010, Andrew Wilkie announced he was contesting Denison barely two months before election day.

Widening our gaze to the minor parties: Clive Palmer was not given a hope in hell in Fairfax until well into the 2013 campaign. The prospect of Jamie Briggs losing Mayo seemed far-fetched in early 2016 (and Sharkie was unknown). Four months before the 2010 election, Labor’s Lindsay Tanner had not yet announced his retirement (though the Greens challenge in Melbourne was already recognised).

As the years and decades roll on, primary votes for the major parties continue declining. Something has to give eventually, gradually; the number of parliamentary “others” has to grow. Once upon a time the House of Representatives crossbench mostly consisted of individuals, like Katter and Banks, who had been elected under a major-party banner. Today those two are in the minority: all the others truly have cracked open the old duopoly.

Labor’s blanket approach of putting One Nation below the Coalition parties on its how-to-vote cards everywhere, and the Coalition’s habit of preferencing the minor party ahead of Labor mean that One Nation’s chances are restricted to seats that Labor would otherwise win.

At the last two federal elections the Greens were similarly handicapped by Liberal cards, but if the Victorian election is anything to go by then the Libs have wearied of preferencing Labor in those seats. If they don’t return to the pre-2013 practice of preferencing the Greens, they will probably run split tickets. Despite a gradual waning of overall Greens support, this increases their chances of taking seats.

So, where might new crossbench members pop up in 2019?

Every newly elected crossbencher over the past decade took either a vacant seat (Wilkie, Bandt, Palmer and Phelps) or defeated an on-the nose sitting MP (McGowan and Sharkie).

Several sitting members have already announced their retirements. Of this list in Wikipedia, Michael Danby’s departure means Macnamara (formerly Melbourne Ports, in Victoria) could go to Labor, Liberal or the Greens. Andrew Broad’s absence from Mallee (Victoria), along with a lingering stench, makes that one to watch for a possible third party (as well as a Liberal). Ann Sudmalis’s future is up in the air in Gilmore (New South Wales), but without a sitting MP that electorate could be ripe for the third-party plucking.

More retirement announcements will be made in the coming months. If Julie Bishop joins the club, her leafy Western Australian electorate of Curtin could be vulnerable.

And Tony Abbott is the most obvious unpopular sitting MP, having burnt his bridges with a decent section of his own party’s supporters in his electorate. So far none of the candidates mentioned seems a good fit (put bluntly, they’re too left-wing), but again it’s early days.

Apart from Cowper, it isn’t possible to name an electorate that will probably send a new independent to Canberra, but the odds across all of them accumulate. Major parties aren’t popular and the votes cast for all candidates must total to 100 per cent. Build it and they will come.

Even allowing for Banks’s and McGowan’s departures, the crossbench will likely grow in 2019. •

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