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Memorable moments we will miss

4 Dec 2012 THE AGE - DANIEL FLITTON IS SENIOR CORRESPONDENT.



Our hung Parliament broke the traditional stranglehold on power.

AS THE political equivalent of a child star, Sarah Hanson-Young has in a few short years captured a national audience as an outspoken and passionate champion of refugees. Pity then, come next election, there is a good chance the spirited Green from South Australia, the youngest ever elected to the Senate, will no longer sit in Parliament.

Hanson-Young must scratch out enough votes against popular independent Nick Xenophon and hope any protest against Labor goes her way, not to the Coalition.

She is hardly alone in a fight for political survival. Scan the Labor backbench and any number of faces are unlikely to appear in the Class of 2013 photo and perhaps quite a few frontbenchers too, Queenslanders Craig Emerson and Wayne Swan chief at threat of losing their seats. Independent Rob Oakeshott looks set for a holiday, Tony Windsor looks a better chance to hang on. Whatever happens, Craig Thomson is surely history.

These are some of the influential characters who have played a role in the drama of minority government, purveyors of influence variously loved or loathed, but nonetheless now household names. Andrew Wilkie and Peter Slipper also deserve special mention - each winning a profile far greater than would have ordinarily been expected - because in a hung Parliament, every vote counts.

After the next election, all this will change. The power of individual MPs is likely to be diminished in a return to the predictable tedium - some say "stability" - of two-party politics. Decisions by Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott always matter most, but with one side of politics likely to prevail handsomely, the input of other actors into policy could be remembered fondly.

This is not to praise the scandals or the acute displays of personal animosity witnessed in the past couple of years, although they often make for entertaining media stories. But for all the whingeing about the low standard of contemporary politics, the people's vote in 2010 produced a Parliament that broke the traditional stranglehold on power - a change that may be missed when it has gone.

Take last week, for example, and the way Gillard was outmanoeuvred on the vote to accord Palestinians a greater voice in the United Nations. This was a landmark moment in the Labor Party, with sections of the New South Wales Right shifting away from steadfast support of Israel.

Gillard wanted Australia to oppose a Palestinian "state" winning a seat, even if just as a non-member observer in the UN. Despite initially staring down her cabinet colleagues, Gillard had to abandon her stance or face a humiliating defeat in the caucus.

Labor heavies helped orchestrate the revolt, no doubt, but the opportunity was all the more potent because the government cannot afford to lose a single MP in Parliament. Windsor, Oakeshott, Wilkie and the Greens Adam Bandt might have delivered Gillard the Prime Minister's job, but she has also had to watch that none of her Labor colleagues desert.

Backbenchers are often a tremulous lot, loathe to cross the party machines that can determine their fate. But the present dynamic in Parliament has led to some outspoken moments that are good for democracy.

The Labor caucus demanded action last year over footage showing the cruel slaughter of Australian cattle in Indonesia and later protested a super-trawler raiding Australian fish stocks. That the executive botched the responses, moving to ban cattle exports without warning Jakarta and breaking faith with the trawler company, was not the fault of the backbench. Indeed, MPs have the responsibility to speak up.

Some Coalition MPs have also felt empowered. West Australian Tony Crook sat as a crossbencher, claiming the freedom from party strictures better allowed him to represent his constituency. It certainly won him a lot of personal attention from the leadership and he has since agreed to rejoin the joint party room.

Two Liberals, Russell Broadbent and Judi Moylan, have also made their voice heard on the floor of the house, crossing the floor last week to oppose Labor and the Coalition teaming up to make the Australian mainland disappear from the migration zone.

Broadbent delivered an impassioned speech:

"I stand tonight in a place of discomfort and controversy in a debate that is complicated, divisive and polarising. In this moment I could choose to be at peace with my party . . . or at peace with my heart for this nation. I choose my heart."

The pair's opposition was ultimately futile and the legislation carried. But the dissent illustrated the community's struggle to reconcile human compassion and the desire for border control - representative democracy, in other words.

The next Parliament will generate its own power dynamic, new characters competing with the old. But before the election, the backbench should reflect on what all romantics remember: you never know what you have until you lose it.