Independents helped put us in this mess

The hung Parliament has reduced national politics to horse-trading.

MAKE no mistake, I am no supporter of the Labor Party, but it is not alone in bearing responsibility for the situation in which Australia finds itself. Labor governs only with the support of independents and the Greens. Labor did not ask for that nightmare; voters gave it to them.

Mind you, Australia is not in this mess just because we have a minority government. Let's face it, Labor was hopeless when it had a majority under Kevin Rudd. But minority government has dragged the country further down.

It is a quirk of our system that every now and then voters in a few seats elect independents. That can be a good thing. It can force the major party that would have won the seat into a much needed self-examination. Unhappily, however, when an election is really close, it can mean those few independents end up holding the balance of power - not because they are clever or sensible or reasonable or for any reason other than sheer luck.

Having spent some time in the Senate when either Brian Harradine and Mal Colston, or the Australian Democrats, held the balance of power, I can assure you it can feel like a properly elected government is being held to ransom. Having to negotiate in the lower house as well, because you don't have a majority there either, must be hell. The Prime Minister could be forgiven for having a tattoo that says, ''Be careful what you wish for.''

Masses of legislation go through the Parliament without becoming national issues. Where the major parties differ is on the big, contentious stuff. That's where the focus of debate centres, and that is what grabs media attention. A government may have a long list of bills passed, but if it can't get the big-vision pieces through, it is seen as impotent.

Every opposition has the task of highlighting a government's weakness or incompetence. But an opportunistic opposition may well seize on any big, contentious bill and oppose it simply to cause the government grief.

It is a matter of record that the Howard/Peacock opposition in the Hawke years supported big reforms because they were in the national interest. Unfortunately the Labor opposition in the Howard years opportunistically opposed every major reform - work-for-the-dole, welfare-to-work and the goods and services tax, to mention a few.

When those who hold the balance of power, by an accident of voting outcomes, come to deciding on these big issues, they are not considering them in an objective way. Hell, they have got two competing sides wanting their vote. They know what is at stake for the government and they milk it for all it's worth.

A few people end up being able to hold a major party to ransom. That's how the Gillard government has ended up trying to implement a few policies it doesn't really want.

The old saying, ''If self interest is in the race, back that horse'', still applies. National politics may may not be a race, but it has been reduced to little more than horse-trading.

Minority government means the big issues are decided by people who would never be elected to hold that power by the majority of Australians.

I have never really warmed to independents or minor parties. There's an element of fearmongering in the heart of every independent. And they love to be the hero. They can't be that unless there is an enemy or a danger. So they are hard-wired into pandering to every paranoia that might exist about the major parties.

It is particularly unattractive if an independent has used a major party to build their profile. Jumping ship from a major party is one thing. Standing against the team that gave you a chance and a start in politics is quite another.

Such independents are not quick to highlight that our two-party system has delivered strong and stable government over many decades. No, no. Such independents say they are there to save us from all that.

But they haven't.

One of the reasons independent MP Tony Windsor cited for opting to go with Labor over the Coalition after last year's election was that he thought Australia would have more stable government under Gillard. He thought Tony Abbott might take us back to the polls too soon. Did he mean he didn't want us to go back to the polls, or did he really mean that he didn't want to go back so quickly?

Yes, we hate having to trudge off and vote. But we might be finding that we like minority government a lot less. Of course stability is important, but good government is worth the effort.

The Prime Minister says the government's proposed carbon tax will be a great achievement. Yet this achievement is something that just before the election she said she would not do. She is in this invidious position because of the Greens and independents.

Nothing will convince the electorate that her heart is in the carbon tax policy. And nothing will convince voters that it is good government.

The opinion polls are terrible for the government, consumer confidence is down, retail sales are down. But the really bad news for the government is that the electorate is sick of the mess. An election now might give Labor a thrashing - but if voters have to stomach two more years of this, annihilation might be the appropriate description.

Amanda Vanstone was a minister in the Howard government.

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