It was reported yesterday that independent MP Cathy McGowan will retire from her seat of Indi at this year’s federal election.
She will be hoping to be succeeded by rural health researcher Helen Haines, who has been endorsed by Voices for Indi, the community group who supported McGowan in winning Indi off the Liberal Party’s Sophie Mirabella in 2013.
There is very little history of independent MPs successfully handing over their seat to a fellow independent, with so much of the appeal of an independent being locked up in that individual. But there are some reasons to think this could be an exception.
Fellow psephologist Kevin Bonham did not find a single case where a retiring independent was succeeded by a fellow independent at a federal election.
If she wins she will make federal election history – in the nine previous cases where one or more independents ran to replace an independent who had retired or died in office, no independents won. #Indi https://t.co/iFHFP7qUHf
— Kevin Bonham (@kevinbonham) January 12, 2019
Strong independents did contest Calare after Peter Andren’s retirement and death in 2007, and after Tony Windsor’s retirement in 2013, but neither candidate came particularly close to winning.
It is worth noting, however, that there have not been that many federal independent MPs who had been originally elected as an independent, prior to recent examples like McGowan, Wilkie, Phelps, Oakeshott and Windsor.
There are some more examples at a state level, with most of these examples coming from New South Wales.
Dawn Fardell won the 2004 Dubbo by-election after the death of fellow independent Tony McGrane, who had represented the seat since 1999. Fardell was defeated in 2011.
Rob Oakeshott, who had first been elected as a Nationals MP, was re-elected as an independent state MP in 2003 and 2007 before resigning in 2008 to run for the federal by-election in Lyne. His endorsed successor Peter Besseling did win the 2008 Port Macquarie by-election by a much narrower margin before losing in 2011.
Tony Windsor had less success installing a successor at the 2001 Tamworth by-election after his election to the federal seat of New England. Independent candidate James Treloar lost to the Nationals, but another independent Peter Draper did win the seat at the 2003 election.
There are other examples of seats where multiple independents have represented the same seat, but interrupted by a major party. Russell Savage held Mildura from 1996 until his defeat in 2006. That seat was won at last year’s Victorian state election by another independent, Ali Cupper.
There has been some more success in some urban NSW electorates where an independent has built up more of an electoral machine around them (which could be described as a local political party). The Manly independents had extended success in the 1990s and early 2000s, controlling the local council for some time and holding the state seat for four terms. Peter Macdonald held the seat for two terms before handing over to David Barr. This seat was never considered safe, with the margin of victory never bigger than 1.3%.
Clover Moore has been able to achieve success both at the council and state level, and was able to hand over her state seat of Sydney to fellow independent Alex Greenwich at the 2012 by-election, aided by local outrage at state legislation which banned her from holding both the state seat and the lord mayoralty.
There are some reasons to think this could be a good time for McGowan to try to hand her seat over to a fellow independent.
The Voices for Indi group has been relatively successful and organised, and included over 200 people in the preselection process to choose McGowan’s successor, which suggests a local electoral machine which should be able to smooth out the transition. The main rivals for Indi are the Liberal and National parties, who are not in a particularly strong position at the moment.
It will be a big challenge to hand over the seat from McGowan to Haines, but considering the national political context this might be the best time to try.