The 2022 federal election may prove to be a watershed moment in Australian politics; one that political historians will look back on like they do at the formation of the Australian Democrats in the early 1980s and the beginnings of independent Greens groups in the later 1980s.
These previous developments were equally exciting and vibrant, attracting public interest and bringing a mix of the disenchanted and the newly aspirational into public life.
They were like a blood transfusion for a sick patient.
This time the development is the widespread emergence of credible independent candidates.
Something different is happening. There is excitement in the air.
There have always been independent candidates, of course, and in recent times there have been notable successes, like Cathy McGowan in 2013 in Indi. We have become used to a small but influential cross bench in the Senate and the House of Representatives. But there has been nothing like the deluge which is now emerging for 2022.
The independent candidates keep coming.
Some appear to be very well-qualified, but are unknown outside their local electorates, while other entrants, like Kim Rubenstein in the ACT, Zoe Daniel in Goldstein and Jo Dyer in Boothby, already have national reputations in professional and public life.
Both the Democrats, for a time, and the Greens made a dent in the style of Australian politics, without transforming it. The new politics attached itself to the old politics without replacing it.
The major parties have continued to dominate, though at elections the Democrats were a threat to the Liberals and the Greens continue to be a threat to Labor.
The independent movement may turn out to be similar. If it is as long-lasting as the Democrats and the Greens, it will have done well. It doesn't look like a flash in the pan, but in terms of its large scale in 2022 it might still turn out to be. Success came slowly to both the Greens and the Democrats and that may be the case with independents, too. They already have a foothold.
Looked at in historical perspective there are several constant threads to the push against the major parties over the past 50 years that many in the independent movement have taken up. These include women in politics, integrity and the environment. Each is unfinished business.
Men have played a major role in both the Democrats and the Greens (Don Chipp and Bob Brown come to mind), but the prominence of women leaders, like Janine Haines, Cheryl Kernot, Meg Lees, Natasha Stott Despoja and Christine Milne has always been a feature.
From Chipp onwards, integrity in politics - including tougher controls on lobbying and political donations - has been a major feature.
The environment as a political issue came to greatest prominence through the Greens, but was already a major feature of Democrats' policies. Eventually the Democrats and the Greens confronted each other over which party owned the issue and the Greens won.
Internally there was a constant tension in the new parties between aspiring to take over by replacing a major party and, in Democrats' founder Chipp's memorable phrase: "Keeping the bastards honest."
There were also tensions between "Doing Politics Differently", the sub-title of McGowan's memoir, Cathy goes to Canberra, and being successful at the existing model of politics.
The same is true if you look closely at the prospective independents today. Some aim for the cross bench, while others may have bigger aspirations.
Like the Democrats and the Greens, the independent movement is best seen as like the canary in the coal mine. It signifies once again that the current two-party politics is deadening for the nation. It must change if Australia is to do politics better. That is the message of the independents.
Like the earlier movements, they have been greeted with scorn and nastiness by the major parties. This time it is the Liberals who are most under threat, but both major parties feel the heat of criticism from independents.
As we get closer to the election, the attempts to undermine the independents will grow. The campaign will be dirty.
The independents are responding to three main weaknesses in the current system.
The first is the political party system. The major parties have maintained their hold on politics, but they are dying internally. The factional system common to both betrays their inner disease. Numbers of members have fallen dramatically, and careerists have taken over. Despite the existence of good people within their ranks they have ceased to be widely attractive to the community. How is it that the excellent candidates now coming forward as independents have not seen the major parties as the avenue for their contribution to public life? It shows that the major parties have failed.
The second is political campaigning. The lifeblood of modern political campaigning is money, sometimes dirty money which comes from dubious sources and with strings attached. Equally, modern campaigning is too often negative and about bringing down the competition rather than being positive. The independent movement is already subjected to this sort of campaigning. It must resist the temptation to reply in kind between now and polling day. That will be a big test for many independents.
Finally, there is parliament, which has failed to bring the nation public integrity and climate action. The weakness of the current system is mindless two-party competition for competition's sake. The dominant ethos is that there is nothing good about the other side. The independent movement, as the current independents in the House of Representatives and Senate do, offer rational thought and moderation in tackling the nation's woes.
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