29 February 2024
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My advice to Senator Lidia Thorpe

Malcolm Mackerras
23 February 2023

Back on 26 October last year I had an article published in Switzer Daily titled “Lidia Thorpe’s latest example of unrepresentative swill”. It repeated my usual criticisms of the Australian Senate’s electoral system and gave a brief history of the political career of Senator Lidia Thorpe of the Greens. Essentially, my article argued that Thorpe had always been a party machine appointee and always would be for as long as she remained a politician. She is the sort of politician who would never be directly chosen by the people.

At the time of writing that article it did not occur to me that she would leave her party, become an independent and sit next to Senator David Pocock from the ACT on the crossbench. Certainly, the sight of a six-year term senator sitting illegitimately next to the three-year term senator elected as an independent was disturbing. It prompted protest letters to the editor of newspapers like this one from Tim Wynn Jones of Homebush NSW in The Sydney Morning Herald recently:

“Politicians who hitchhike a ride into parliament with the backing of political parties and then decide to quit those parties as independents should be ejected from parliament and made to wait until the next election for possible re-admission. The crossbench is not a parking lot for those in waiting and not in communion with their existing parties.”

Given what I have written in recent articles readers may assume that I agree with that. However, I don’t agree, as I explain below. I think these questions should be left to the judgment of the individual politician. The offending politician will be judged by voters in due course and should not be ejected by any law nor kicked out by expulsion from parliament. The people should decide their fate, not other politicians or party machines.

For standing on the moral high ground British politicians provide the model for proper conduct – so I give the details of some British cases where a member of the House of Commons resigned to create a by-election so that he could be able to claim legitimacy as an elected member in the same constituency but for a different party.

My first case is that of Dick Taverne who was the Labour member for Lincoln from 1962 but resigned in 1973 and contested the by-election as the candidate for the new Democratic Labour Party to which he had defected. He won the by-election and was re-elected at the next general election but defeated by the Labour candidate at the election after that, by which time his designation was Social Democratic Party.

My next case occurred in 1982 when the Labour member for Mitcham and Morden, Bruce Douglas-Mann, defected to the Social Democratic Party. He resigned his seat, fought a by-election in June 1982 as an SDP candidate but lost to a Conservative.

In the British summer of 2014 two Conservative MPs, on separate dates, resigned from the Conservative Party to join the United Kingdom Independence Party. They fought by-elections on separate days as UKIP candidates and both won. However, at the subsequent general election in May 2015 Douglas Carswell was re-elected in Clacton but Mark Reckless lost Rochester and Strood to a Conservative.

British politicians exercise common sense in this matter. If a general election is to come soon the public would not expect a by-election. Furthermore, there is one case of recent times when it would have been quite unreasonable to ask a politician to wreck his career which might otherwise be a long one.

At the May 1997 general election (which brought Tony Blair to power in a landslide) the Conservative Party thought it had a “catch” in its candidate for the very safe rural seat of Witney in Oxfordshire. He was Shaun Woodward, a famous broadcaster. In December 1999, exactly half-way through his expected term of five years, he resigned from the party that had given him his seat and joined Labour.

The next general election was held in June 2001. The Conservatives chose as their Witney candidate a certain David Cameron who would go on to become Prime Minister in 2010. Meanwhile, Woodward continued his career by moving north - to the other end of England – and becoming the Labour member for St Helens South. Woodward’s majority at his first election there was only 8,985 votes compared with the previous Labour member’s majority of 23,739 votes, but it was a safe seat, so Woodward recovered the Labour vote in time. In 2007 Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown appointed him Northern Ireland Secretary, a Cabinet post.

Now let me give a recent Australian case. Andrew Gee is the National Party’s member for Calare in central western NSW, a seat he has held since 2016, having previously been the state member for Orange, 2001-16. Late last year he resigned from the Nationals and became an independent. Like Thorpe he took a principled position (contrary to that of his party) on the proposed Voice of First Nations People to the Parliament.

Gee’s resignation from the Nationals (but not his seat in the House of Representatives) produced one call from a party colleague for him to resign his seat and create a by-election. Not a single other politician supported that call. Why? – because everyone knew that Gee need only sit in that seat for two years. By effluxion of time, he will need to contest Calare again in May 2025 at the latest.

Here is my advice to Thorpe. First, go ahead and form your own party which might, perhaps, be called the Blak Sovereignty Party, and sit in the Senate as leader of that party until the dissolution of the present parliament. Second, announce that you will resign your Senate seat on the day of the dissolution of the 47th Parliament with intent to seek re-election in May 2025 as leader of that party which would have a party list of Indigenous candidates only.

It would be quite outrageous for her to ignore my advice. If she tries to do the wrong thing then every commentator should shout at her, condemning her betrayal both of her party and of her principles. Beyond that point she cannot be a senator and earn respect. Until that point, however, I think reasonable people will forgive her – because they understand she cannot resign and call a by-election. In effect May 2025 is the date of that substitute for a by-election.

I believe she will take my advice – and let me give the case of Cory Bernardi as a precedent. In July 2016 he was re-elected as a Liberal senator for South Australia to a six-year term. In February 2017 he resigned from the party, became an independent and later formed his own party, the Australian Conservatives.

In February 2020 Bernardi came to understand the immorality of his position so he resigned his Senate seat and the Liberal Party appointed Andrew McLachlan to that seat. McLachlan was then elected to a six-year term at the May 2022 election.

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