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Cross the party line and you are out

By Scott Prasser - posted Monday, 19 June 2006


Cate Molloy, the Labor state member of the marginal seat of Noosa, has committed that cardinal sin that the Labor Party does not tolerate - she has publicly bucked the party's policy stand, in this case on the Mary River dam issue taking place outside her own electorate.

Consequently, Molloy has lost her Labor endorsement for the seat she has held since 2001. A new Labor Party candidate will be selected. Molloy faces probable expulsion from the ALP if she goes ahead and introduces a Private Member's Bill against the dam.

The Labor Party was built on unity at all costs; if you cross the party line, you are out, forever.

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Meanwhile, Molloy has indicated she will run for Noosa as an Independent.

Some see her actions as personal grandstanding and concerned only with her own survival. Running as an Independent on a strong local environmental issue would give her the best chance to hold on to a seat previously held by the Coalition parties, and which some expected her to lose at the next election. Others suggest that Molloy is motivated by genuine concerns about the environment.

Running as an Independent is a courageous action. Few who leave a major political party retain their seats as Independents. Queensland only has five Independent members in State Parliament out of 89. Voters largely stick to established political parties.

To win a seat as an Independent, historically several general criteria must be met.

First, the issue at stake needs to be of great relevance to the local electorate. The proposed dam may be important to those in its immediate area, but it is also outside her Noosa electorate. Despite its emotiveness, in reality the dam may rank second or third after other issues such as the economy, investment, health and education, and thus be too peripheral for Noosa voters, despite the area's declared green beliefs.

Second, the member concerned must have a consistent track record on the issue. Only the people of Noosa who best know Molloy as their local member can make that call.

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Third, success for an Independent is more probable if the seat is regional. Regional members have a higher profile than their metropolitan counterparts. It is no accident that all of Queensland's present Independent parliamentarians, and most elsewhere, are in regional areas. Given Noosa's location and sense of identity, Molloy has a real opportunity here. Success may also depend on whether the Noosa electorate sees her as one of their own being preyed upon by party bosses in Brisbane.

Fourth, there is the issue of timing. The longer the election is from the immediate events that caused Molloy's estrangement from the Beattie Government, the less chance she will have of winning. People forget quickly. In a general election local issues and members are lost in the campaign melee. Molloy's best chance would be at a by-election. However, even if she resigns now to provoke a by-election, the Government controls that process. So, Molloy will need innovative strategies to keep the dam issue and herself before the electorate until the state election. That's a big task, especially if the issue is resolved amicably before any election.

Fifth, aspiring Independents, cut off from party support, have to raise considerable resources and attract support from a large number of people to campaign successfully. While branches of the local Labor Party machine may initially be sympathetic for their local member, such support may be hard to sustain. The "cause", especially the Labor Party cause, has always been bigger than any one individual.

For the Beattie Government, the fracas concerning Molloy is a minor distraction. The main game, as clearly shown by the recent Labor conference's strong endorsement of Beattie's actions, including the dam proposal, is to win the next election. This means ensuring there is enough water to satisfy the drying Brisbane electorates now experiencing level 3 water restrictions. Brisbane is only five months away from the next set of limits. Brisbane is where the votes are and building dams wins votes.

Molloy could attract enough votes to spoil any chance of Labor holding the seat. However, given the trends against the Beattie Government, Noosa may already have long been written off by Labor Party strategists. In this light, Noosa as a Labor seat, and Molloy, as the member, have probably been seen at party HQ as expendable.

It requires exceptional circumstances and an exceptional person to be able to make the transition from representing a major political party to winning a seat as an Independent. Time will tell whether Molloy's determination and the dam issue will be enough for her to beat the Labor Party machine and continue to represent Noosa.

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First published in The Courier-Mail on June 14, 2006.



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About the Author

Scott Prasser is Professor of Public Policy and was Executive Director of the Public Policy Institute at the Australian Catholic University. Scott has worked previously in senior policy and research roles in federal and state governments and in several universities in Victoria, NSW and Queensland. Recently, Scott co-edited with Associate Professor Nicholas Aroney and J.R. Nethercote the book Restraining Elective Dictatorship: The Upper House Solution? He has just written with Helen Tracey a report entitled Beyond Gonski: Reviewing the Evidence on Quality Schooling.

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