Inside Story

Not drowning, waving

Rob Oakeshott still has a lot he wants to get done

Peter Browne 16 December 2011 2793 words

Ambivalent but undaunted: the independent member for Lyne, Rob Oakeshott. Nathan Edwards/Newspix

At the end of a long parliamentary week, fifteen years after he was elected to the NSW parliament, eight and a half years after he resigned from the National Party, three years after his switch to federal politics, and a fortnight after Newspoll detected a dramatic drop in his local support, Rob Oakeshott is choosing his words carefully. We’re in his electorate office in the main street of Port Macquarie and he’s talking about a dinner in support of same-sex marriage he attended earlier in the week. Australian Marriage Equality had won the chance to dine with a group of politicians in a charity auction at this year’s parliamentary Midwinter Ball.

“There are some issues where I have absolutely no problem challenging my electorate for what I consider to be the greater good,” he says. “Whereas for those social, cultural norms, those community norms, which are less… well, they’re still policy but there’s a bit more of a cultural element, which means that history and tradition and what’s going on in every single house actually matters…” He pauses. “I find that harder to get a handle on. On some of those more cultural issues you can go into the roughest pub in this community and you wouldn’t necessarily be able to pick who stood where… Whereas if it’s a straight-up policy question like pricing carbon, then there’s the science question, the economic question, and then,” he laughs, “you talk as fast as you can.”

Marriage equality probably won’t change more than a handful of votes in Oakeshott’s electorate, but the carbon tax is much more potent. Although Lyne isn’t a classic rural constituency – Oakeshott describes it as more like the Sydney coastal suburbs of Manly or Cronulla – polling suggests that opposition to carbon pricing is running at virtually the same level as it is in neighbouring New England, the rural seat held by Tony Windsor. According to Newspoll, opposition stood at 71 per cent in Lyne and 72 per cent in New England in late October; Australia-wide, suggested a Essential poll at around the same time, opposition was a less daunting 53 per cent.

Newspoll’s finding were based on the first detailed survey in the two electorates since last year’s election, so they didn’t show exactly when support for the two MPs fell. With the carbon tax still before parliament at the time, though, the figures appeared to reflect the strong local hostility to the federal government’s most controversial legislation.

But Oakeshott – whose primary support had dropped 21 percentage points since the election – believes the electoral shift dates back almost entirely to his decision to back Labor after the election in August last year. “That was always going to be divisive,” he says, “and if I’d gone the other way there’d be a fair bit of noise coming that way.” He was aware of the danger of the decision for an MP who, by definition, is “harvesting votes” from people of all political persuasions. “As soon as you have to make a political choice such as the one we had to make you are really challenging someone who might be supporting you but has come from the other end of the political spectrum.”

Because he was once a National Party MP in what had long been a Nationals seat, Oakeshott’s critics say that he should have swung his support behind the Coalition after the election. “The argument seems to be that because I left the National Party I should be more like the National Party,” he says, “rather than the counter argument that because I left the National Party it demonstrates I’m not like the National Party.” The critics also say that Lyne is a conservative seat and Oakeshott presented himself as a conservative independent. “Neither, I believe, is true,” he says, “particularly when there was a conservative candidate on offer” – the Nationals’ David Gillespie, who attracted 37 per cent of the two-party-preferred vote last year – “and particularly when I’ve clearly demonstrated that I’ve left a so-called conservative party.”

Oakeshott left the National Party in 2002 because, he said at the time, it had been taken over by people like Bob Jelly, the comically disreputable real estate agent in the ABC series SeaChange. The thirty-two-year-old had been elected state member for Port Macquarie six years earlier. Before entering parliament he’d studied arts and law at the University of Sydney and worked for the Road Transport Forum, the National Party’s Mark Vaile and the federal government’s media monitoring office.

As the sitting National Party candidate in the 1999 state election he attracted 56 per cent of the primary vote. By the time he left the party he had gained a reputation for holding liberal attitudes on some controversial social issues, prompting one unnamed Liberal to tell the Daily Telegraph, “Given that the average age in Port Macquarie is about seventy-two, he’s going to have to do more than talk up the republic and a safe injecting room if he’s going to hold his seat.” His primary vote jumped to 70 per cent the following year.

When Vaile vacated the overlapping federal seat of Lyne in the middle of 2008, Oakeshott announced he would run. Despite a strong counter-offensive from the Nationals, including claims that he was a secret Labor supporter, he won three-quarters of the two-candidate-preferred vote, making the seat one of the safest in Australia. His vote was lower at the last election, but still translated into a margin many MPs could only dream of.

Then came the chance to help choose the government. Oakeshott and Windsor’s decision anchored their electoral prospects to the fortunes of the prime minister and her government. In Victoria, when three rural independents made the politically risky decision of backing Steve Bracks over Jeff Kennett in 1999, the popularity of Bracks’s government helped ensure they were re-elected in 2002. If federal Labor makes a comeback – and recent polls have recorded a tentative upturn – then it’s likely that support for the two men will edge up too. Independents have won elections in the past with around 30 per cent of the primary vote, so neither MP should be written off just yet.

The fact that Oakeshott and Windsor’s loss of support has been much greater than Labor’s shows how exposed independent MPs can be when they not only hold electorally contentious views but also find themselves in a position to decide whether those views will translate into law. Most MPs can hide behind their party, and a core of party supporters will stick with them through rocky periods regardless, but independent MPs have nowhere to hide.

Not that Oakeshott seems overwhelmed. As he talks about the terms of the agreement with the government and the issues he’s pursuing in parliament, he is engaged and enthusiastic, and he’s clearly put a lot of work into forming his views on issues like climate change and tax reform. At the same time, he’s obviously conscious of the fact that some of this government’s most contentious initiatives – the carbon tax, the National Broadband Network, the mining tax – could take years to yield benefits.

At the heart of the agreement he and Tony Windsor struck with Labor are parliamentary reforms: tighter rules for question time in the House of Representatives, a more independent Speaker, a six-month deadline for government to respond to parliamentary committee reports, and an acknowledgement of Country at the beginning of each day’s sitting. In each case there has been at least some action. Ministers’ replies to questions from government backbenchers are now shorter, the Speaker has been keeping a tighter rein on question time (the ex-Speaker that is; the resignation of Harry Jenkins came later), and independents and small-party MPs have more opportunities to bring issues before the House. The fine balance of numbers in the House has brought an increase in private member’s bills, though only one of the twenty-eight private bills initiated during the first year of the parliament – legislation to protect journalists from revealing their sources – has been passed.

Of the changes, Oakeshott singles out the work of the new Selection Committee, which looks at each bill due for debate and sends those that are controversial or in need of further consultation to the relevant House committee. These committees typically spend a little over a month considering the legislation and formulating a response. If anything, he says, the process seems to be speeding up the passage of bills “because it flushes out controversy.” As the Parliamentary Library recently concluded, the new procedure “appears to have operated effectively and with strong bipartisan support.”

In recognition of the much greater workload they face, the independents have each been given two extra staff for the duration of the agreement. “You’re treated by a lot of people as a minister,” says Oakeshott. “I see it on their email lists – they send things to ministers and to the crossbenchers. There was a day a couple of weeks ago where we had over 10,000 emails in one day and you just can’t… You do your best, but lots of people get cranky because you just can’t get back to them.”

Despite the sharp deterioration in relations between the opposition and the government and key crossbenchers after the minority government was formed, the business of parliament has run fairly smoothly. The opposition has refused to “pair” on only four well-publicised occasions, and the government has yet to suffer a defeat on any of its own bills in the House.

The relationship with the prime minister has gone surprisingly smoothly. “I think everything’s a roller-coaster in any relationship, but even though polling doesn’t show it and community sentiment doesn’t show it, the prime minister’s got some very impressive skills. There wouldn’t be too many individuals who could handle this situation, and she’s handling it.” Windsor and Oakeshott meet her each week when parliament is sitting, and talk every fortnight between sessions.

As Labor leadership speculation intensified this year, Oakeshott was asked several times whether he believes he made an agreement with Julia Gillard or with the Labor Party in September last year. “I didn’t even think about it as an issue at the time,” he says, “which is why I’ve had to clarify publicly what was very much in my head after seventeen days [of negotiations after the election]. Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard were left as chief and sole negotiators. Both sides just backed off and said to them, you guys negotiate on our behalf, and so contractually I feel like I’ve done a handshake with the prime minister even though the document might say Australian Labor Party. If I had the foresight to see it as an issue at the time I would have got that changed.” When I ask what would happen in the case of a leadership change, he makes clear it’s the leader rather than the party with whom he’d want to discuss an agreement.

Dealings with the opposition have been tense. Oakeshott stopped meeting regularly with Tony Abbott in February after Coalition attacks in the electorate intensified in the run-up to the NSW state election. (Oakeshott and Abbott met in Port Macquarie in September “to catch up and break a bit of ice,” according to Abbott.) “It’s politically awkward,” says Oakeshott. “Policy-wise, as soon as there’s an issue that they want to know what I think about, or vice versa, it’s quite a civil, adult conversation. But the politics… I mean, they’re trying to use this parliament to wipe me off the face of the earth.”

In private it can be different. On an issue like the Murray-Darling, with Queensland Nationals taking a quite different view from South Australian Liberals, for instance, Oakeshott has had useful private conversations with Coalition MPs – and been encouraged to take up the interests of their constituents regardless of official opposition policy. “There’s a bit of a nod and a wink when they’re saying, Oakeshott and Windsor, you’re the cause of it all. That’s just the crazy nature of Australian politics.”

More than any other issue, the hostility crystallised around the carbon tax, which captured many of the themes of the opposition’s attacks on the government – the “broken promise,” the alleged lack of legitimacy, the deal with the independents, the role of the Greens. But Oakeshott sees enormous advantages, in both policy and political terms, in the process by which the government created the carbon pricing legislation, and contrasts it with the way it approached the mining tax. “The way they managed to deal with carbon in this parliament,” he says, “was to work out the obvious challenge – that they’ve got to get a majority in both houses – and to do some conflict resolution. And the best way to do that is to engage as early as possible with the relevant stakeholders, which is what they did with a unique cabinet process, the multi-party climate change committee, and from that came success.”

The minerals resource rent tax process was a different story. “The government negotiated a heads of agreement between a new prime minister and three mining companies, the three biggest mining companies,” he says. “On the back of that they then set up a resource tax implementation group, which is basically the mining community and government, and they only came to the key parliamentary stakeholders on the last Friday in October to introduce it into parliament on the following Wednesday. So they shouldn’t have been surprised at the Greens talking about moving amendments and wanting to change things, Bob Katter talking about things, Tony Windsor making plenty of noise…”

It seems likely that the government handled the mining legislation in this way as part of an attempt to sharpen its differences with the Greens in particular, but also with the independents. “I don’t know,” says Oakeshott, “and that’s part of the reason for raising it as an issue. Is this a government that’s serious about getting results? If they are, they’ve butchered the process on this one, in my view. They are putting themselves in a take-it-or-leave-it position and looking strong and anti-Green and go your hardest…”

Oakeshott’s views on this issue are part of a campaign for broader tax reform that resulted in the government’s tax forum this year. “I’m a bit of a purist on the Henry Report and tax reform,” he says. He’d like to see the government adopt Ken Henry’s recommendation that state-based mining royalties be abolished at the same time as the new tax is introduced. He’s also keen to see the government use the groundswell about issues like coal seam gas and wider concerns about food, water and soil as an opportunity to begin developing a more integrated system of natural resource management.

Although he acknowledges that a wholesale adoption of Henry’s tax recommendations was always unlikely, Oakeshott is concerned that taking the proposals one at a time invites interest groups to shoot them down or force the government to modify them out of recognition. “I’m trying to get this comprehensive tax reform back on the agenda because I do think if you deal with it as a job lot it’s a less risky path and I think there’s a greater chance of achieving some of that ambition.” A state tax working group and a business tax working group came out of the forum, along with some “corridor chatter about some very real outcomes in tax reform as well,” including a ten-year tax reform road map to be released before next year’s budget.

Facing his fifteenth anniversary as an MP, Oakeshott seems ambivalent but undaunted. “It is an absolute privilege to see the very best, but there’s also the very worst of human nature,” he says. “There are not too many jobs that allow you to see that. The attraction is the very best, but there’s a shock in the very worst, and that still pulls me up – particularly in the last twelve months. Some of the stuff I’ve either seen or been subject to really surprises me about how humans deal with each other. Some of the media stuff, you just think, oh God, this is shameless, it really is shameless and for no gain… But I have confidence that our systems of government in Australia are good and do deliver. There are a few warts on them but we live in a good country at a good time.” •