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2065 words

Independents’ days

21 September 2010

Liam Weeks writes from Ireland, where as many as 40 per cent of governments have relied on the support of independents in parliament


Above: The Irish Taoiseach, Brian Cowen (left), who relies on the support of independents to stay in government. Julien Behal/PA Wire

Above: The Irish Taoiseach, Brian Cowen (left), who relies on the support of independents to stay in government. Julien Behal/PA Wire

“YOU KNOW what I want. What do you want?,” the leader of the country’s largest party asked a newly elected independent MP after the main contenders for government had both failed to win a majority. Determined to make the most of a strong bargaining position, the new MP presented each of the alternative prime ministers with a shopping list of demands. Several days of negotiations produced a thirty-page agreement, following which the prime minister–elect remarked, “As Al Capone said, I like doing business with you.” When details of the agreement were read into the parliamentary record, opposition MPs were shocked: it was little more than a long list of pork-barrel projects for the independent’s constituency. As one backbench MP enquired, “What about the rest of the country?”

Readers would be forgiven for thinking that this is a summary of recent events in Australian politics. But it describes the politicking that took place following the 1982 election in Ireland. Both Charlie Haughey, the leader of the opposition Fianna Fáil, and Garret FitzGerald, the outgoing Taoiseach (or prime minister) of the Fine Gael–Labour government, courted the support of Tony Gregory, a socialist independent from Dublin’s inner city. While FitzGerald offered up to £30 million in patronage to Gregory, Haughey’s open-door policy resulted in an arrangement worth up to an estimated £500 million; it became known in Irish political folklore as the “Gregory Deal.”

Australia probably has more independent parliamentarians – mainly in state parliaments – than any other liberal democracy, and it is unusual for independents to wield the level of influence that has been witnessed in Australia in the past few weeks. Unusual, but not unique. In one other western democracy, Ireland, independents have frequently played a role in the formation of national governments, with as many as 40 per cent of administrations having relied on the support of independents within parliament.

All but three of Ireland’s twelve Taoisigh have at one point looked to independents to save their hide in parliament. In 1927, for instance, the minority government of Cumann na nGaedheal (precursor to Fine Gael) faced a vote of no confidence from Fianna Fáil, which had entered parliament for the first time since the beginning of the civil war five years earlier. A swift count of declared positions indicated that the government would fall by one vote. And yet, when it came time to vote, the National League’s John Jinks was mysteriously missing. The result was a tied vote in the lower house of parliament, the Dáil, with the Speaker’s casting vote saving the government. Jinks’s absence was rumoured to be at least partly the work of an independent TD (as MPs are known in Ireland), Jasper Travers Wolfe. Jinks had been taken on a tour of Dublin’s finest hostelries and, worse for wear, was last seen boarding a train to Sligo. And so was born the expression, “Twas Jasper, and not Jinks, saved the Irish nation.”

During the 1940s and 1950s three consecutive Irish governments depended on independents, partly because their numbers meant they could no longer be ignored as a political force. As many as one in ten TDs was an independent, with some of them working together in an informal group a bit like the one made up of Tony Windsor, Bob Katter and Rob Oakeshott in the Australian parliament. Unlike Oakeshott, however, when one of these independents was offered a seat at the cabinet table he didn’t decline the opportunity. Appointed agriculture minister in 1948, James Dillon remains the only elected independent member of an Irish government.

Although the numbers of independents elected to the Dáil went into rapid decline in the 1960s, this did not lessen their attraction for minority governments. The Fianna Fáil government of 1961–65 relied on the support of Joe “the man you know” Sheridan, one-time farmer and auctioneer. Despite his origins in the Fine Gael gene pool (he had failed on three occasions to get elected as a party candidate in the 1950s), Sheridan was content to vote with the party’s bitter civil war rivals in government. As is the case with both Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor in Australia, previous party affiliation is not always a predictor of future independent behaviour.

Since the Gregory Deal of the 1980s, four more administrations (all led by Fianna Fáil) have negotiated the support of independents. These include Charlie Haughey’s second minority government of 1987–89, again reliant on Tony Gregory (and two other independents), Bertie Ahern’s governments of 1997–2002 and 2007–08, and the current administration led by Brian Cowen. While Ahern’s second government of 2002–07 had a surplus majority in coalition with the Progressive Democrats, his party maintained cordial relations with three independents in case it felt the desire to ditch its minor partner. In fact, cordial is probably a slight understatement. The government chief whip met weekly with the same independent TDs who had supported Fianna Fáil in its previous minority administration, and they were given an inside role in the policy-making process of which many government backbenchers were envious. Taking this period into account, there has been a close relationship between independents and successive governments continuously since 1997.

With independents able to exploit their kingmaker status within the Dáil, what have been the consequences for the functioning of government? Majority administrations formed since the second world war have had an average lifespan of three years and ten months. Governments reliant on independents have lasted a year less on average, at two years and nine months. While most minority administrations in Ireland have survived at least three years, there was a turbulent spell in the 1980s when three general elections were held in the space of eighteen months. These governments were particularly unstable not just because of their minority status but also because they failed to rein in the independents on whose support their survival depended. The seven-month-old Fine Gael–Labour coalition fell in 1982 – over a proposal to tax children’s shoes – after it attempted to call the bluff of a socialist independent, Jim Kemmy. In a tragicomic scene, the Taoiseach even resorted to bargaining with Kemmy on the floor of the house as the very vote was being called. After the subsequent election the Gregory Deal propped up a minority Fianna Fáil government that failed to see out the year.

More recent independent-backed governments seem to have learned from the mistakes of their predecessors. While earlier administrations generally had no formal arrangements in place to guarantee continued support from independents, the last two Fianna Fáil leaders, Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen, have taken cautious steps aimed at avoiding early elections. The process has been quite similar to what unfolded in Australia after last month’s election. The potential prime minister has met with each of the independents with whom he is interested in negotiating a deal and has signed an agreement. This usually involves increased government expenditure in the independent’s constituency in return for pledges to support the government indefinitely. Ahern, described by a previous Fianna Fáil leader as the most cunning of them all, was crafty enough to bring in more than the requisite number of independents so that no single one of them could exercise a leverage similar to that of Tony Gregory in 1982.

In 1997, Ahern formed a minority government reliant on three independents: Harry Blaney, Mildred Fox and Jackie Healy-Rae. He later brought in a fourth, Tom Gildea. Known as the Gang of Four, these TDs met with the chief whip, Seamus Brennan, once a week to discuss the government’s policy plans. Where the independents were particularly vociferous in their opposition to a proposal, Ahern was willing to have it dropped. Such was the fate of a plan to ban the dual mandate – the holding of multiple political offices by a single individual. A referendum on abortion was also called in 2002 at the behest of two of the independents. Despite its minority status, this government survived the full parliamentary term, making it the longest-serving peacetime administration in Irish electoral history at that time.

Ahern was re-elected Taoiseach for a third consecutive term in 2007, this time forming a majority coalition with the Progressive Democrats and the Greens. Although he didn’t need the support of independents, he looked to Jackie Healy-Rae, Finian McGrath, Beverly Flynn and Michael Lowry for their votes in parliament. The astuteness of this move was proved in later years when the government’s majority was slowly whittled away by deaths and defections. When Ahern resigned in favour of Brian Cowen in 2008, the arrangements with Healy-Rae, Lowry and McGrath remained in place, although McGrath withdrew later that year in protest at cutbacks in health services. (Flynn rejoined Fianna Fáil in 2008, having been expelled from the party four years earlier.)

What has this dependence on independents meant for the policy-making process in Ireland? While some Australian commentators might imagine that such reliance would bring about stasis at best, or conflict at worst, this need not be the case. Certainly, the minority status of Irish governments in the early 1980s affected their ability to enact the fiscal rectitude that was required at a time of economic uncertainty. In part this was because of their dependence on ideologically driven independents who were not prepared to bargain on key principles. But the restrictions they experienced also owed something to a laissez-faire attitude on the part of the government parties, who did not like to cede any influence to independents and preferred to risk calling their bluff (in the belief that no independent would like an early election or risk being responsible for the fall of the government).

When the economy was booming, the last thing independents wanted was an election – this would bring an end to the bounty of pork being delivered to their constituencies. In more recessionary times, such as at present, independents have actually proved more reliable in parliament than some of the government’s own backbenchers. (Four of the latter have resigned the Fianna Fáil whip in the current Dáil.) Taoiseach Brian Cowen has been able to pump tens of billions into the banking sector to prevent it from collapse, cut public-sector wages and raise taxation, all the while safe in the knowledge that he has the backing of particular independents. Where the support of independents can be negotiated, governments can be free to prosper and implement their policies. Indeed, it is far easier to do this than to bring another party into the coalition fold, which could act as a troublesome veto player at the cabinet table.

From an economic viewpoint, the major influence of independents has not been on macroeconomic policy but on regional and redistributive policy. While independents have allowed governments to tackle the big economic questions, it is on such smaller matters – a new bridge or hospital or institute of education – that they are prepared to trip up governments. In doing so they have tended to promote an individualistic and localistic attitude to policy, with both electors and the elected viewing the political game in terms of what they can extract for their own constituency. Such was the success of the 1997–2002 Gang of Four independents in securing largesse for their constituencies, for example, that a raft of independents was elected in 2002 – thirteen in a parliament of 166, the largest number since 1948. The implication was clear: voters want a Gregory-type deal for their own area.

Should the current Gillard administration survive long enough for Rob Oakeshott, Tony Windsor and Andrew Wilkie to reap benefits for their localities, it will be very interesting to see the impact this has at the next federal election. Will voters in other constituencies be drawn to independents and what impact will this have on redistributive policy? The outcome will reveal a lot about the nature of the Australian body politic – whether it views independents as a credible alternative political force or merely as a conduit to more pork. •

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Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott explaining their decision to a sceptical Canberra press gallery last week. Torsten Blackwood/AFP Photo

Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott explaining their decision to a sceptical Canberra press gallery last week. Torsten Blackwood/AFP Photo