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Australia’s political trouble children

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It’s been a year of minor party migraines and cross-bench cursing for Australia’s major political players. And in that time:

• Victorian politics has descended into storm of chaos centred around one independent
• Palmer United Party sits poised to become an obstructive force in the senate
• A former South Australian Liberal leader has left the party to take up a ministry with the state’s Labor government
• In the Northern Territory, three MPs defected to the Palmer United Party

But it’s not a new phenomenon. The New Daily takes a look back at the splitters and cross-benchers behind some of the greatest political headaches of Australia’s major parties.

David Crosling, AAP.
Independent MP for Frankston Geoff Shaw.

Geoff Shaw

Controversial Victorian MP Geoff Shaw triggered a political crisis by declaring on Tuesday that he no longer had confidence in the Liberal Government.

Mr Shaw resigned from the Liberal Party in March 2013, assuming a balance of power in the Victorian Parliament. Premier Denis Napthine has control of the upper house, but is reliant on Mr Shaw’s vote in the lower house.

The conundrum is that the Parliament is split almost in half, with 44 of 88 seats attached to the Liberals.

One of these seats is held by Speaker Christine Fyffe, who can only use her casting vote if the vote is tied.

The Labor opposition says it wants to expel Mr Shaw from Parliament for misuse of his parliamentary vehicle, which would trigger a by-election for his seat.

If his seat is won by a Liberal, Dr Napthine will cling to power. If the seat is won by a Labor candidate, the lower house would be split 50-50 and the saga would drag on until the election later this year.

Related stories:

Napthine should resign: Cain
• Opposition to move on Shaw

Former South Australian Liberal leader, now Labor minister Martin Hamilton-Smith.
Former Liberal leader, now Labor minister Martin Hamilton-Smith.

Martin Hamilton-Smith

On May 28, South Australian Liberal backbencher Martin Hamilton-Smith dropped a bombshell, announcing he was quitting the Opposition.

His destination – a Cabinet position with the Labor Government.

Labelled an “act of political treachery” by the Opposition, the move was doubly surprising given Mr Hamilton-Smith previously been the leader of the SA Liberal Party.

Mr Hamilton-Smith is now the Minister for Investment and Trade, Defence Industries and Veterans’ Affairs.

Thanks to his defection, and the support of Independent Geoff Brock, Premier Jay Weatherill’s very shaky grip on power has tightened.

Prior to this, it appeared the SA Labor Government, which did not receive a majority of seats at the state election in March, would not be able to govern in its own right.

Related stories: 

Libs slam defector
Hamilton-Smith graffiti attack

 The NT Three

Northern Territory Independent MP Alison Anderson (right) rallies with Yuendumu protestors outside the Parlimentary Legislative Assembly, in March 2011.
Northern Territory Independent MP Alison Anderson (right) rallies with Yuendumu protestors outside the Parlimentary Legislative Assembly, in March 2011.

In April, three Indigenous politicians in the Northern Territory legislative assembly defected from the Country Liberal Party (CLP) government to the Palmer United Party (PUP).

Their desertion was prompted by a spat between former Liberal Minister, NT PUP leader Alison Anderson and Chief Minister Adam Giles.

Ms Anderson is no stranger to jumping ship. She was originally elected to the NT Parliament as a Labor candidate and then quit to join the Country Liberals.

Ms Anderson had served as a minister in the CLP Government, but was demoted to the backbench after the 2013 federal election.

After being accused of leading an internal revolt, Chief Minister Giles suspended her from the government in April – an action Ms Anderson described as “racist”.

Her fellow indigenous politicians Larisa Lee and Francis Xavier Kurrupuwuy joined her briefly on the cross-bench.

This left the NT government facing a by-election in a Country Liberal seat, with a precarious majority.

The Country Liberals narrowly retook the seat of Blain, thus keeping their tenuous hold on power, but only just.

The party suffered a 16 per cent swing against it in the wake of the incident.

After the by-election, the trio defected to the Palmer United Party, where they remain a thorn in the side of Chief Minister Giles.

Peter Slipper

Peter Slipper enters the ACT Magistrates court in Canberra.
Peter Slipper dodges reporters in Canberra.

Former MP Peter Slipper’s short time as Speaker in Federal Parliament was marred by controversy from start to finish.

He served as Speaker for just 11 months after leaving the Liberal Party and becoming an independent.

The former Liberal Member for Fisher abandoned his party to become Speaker, under an agreement with the Labor Party that shored up their numbers in the House of Reps during a difficult period of minority government.

He became an independent on the same day as becoming Speaker after Tony Abbott threatened to expel him from the Liberal Party.

The Labor Government was criticised for supporting Mr Slipper’s speakership when he found himself at the centre of controversy over parliamentary expenses, and later, claims of sexual harassment by a former staffer, which were later discredited by the courts.

From Opposition, Liberal Leader Tony Abbott brought a no-confidence motion against Mr Slipper, which was defeated by one vote, however Mr Slipper resigned as Speaker later the same day.

Related story:

• Slipper to face trial

The Three Amigos

Independent MP's Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott and Bob Katter at Parliament House, Canberra, in 2010.
Independent MP’s Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott and Bob Katter at Parliament House, Canberra, in 2010.

In the knife-edge 2010 election, the final decision of who would form government – Julia Gillard (Labor) or Tony Abbott (coalition) – came down to just three independent politicians.

With a hung parliament, Australia waited in limbo for a fortnight as Bob Katter, Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor decided which party to back.

The major parties, which both won 72 seats at the election, attempted to win the support of the men in a series of meetings.

The Coalition and Labor parties promised unprecedented regional development packages in an attempt to win over rural Independents Mr Katter and Mr Windsor.

Labor narrowly won government, garnering the support of Mr Oakeshott and Mr Windsor to form a minority government, after previously receiving the backing of Tasmanian independent Andrew Wilkie and Greens MP Adam Bandt.

Independent North Queensland MP Bob Catter supported the coalition, as did West Australian Nationals MP Tony Crook.

Former Prime Minister William Morris Hughes.
Former Prime Minister William Morris Hughes.

The Little Digger

Australia’s seventh prime minister William “Billy” Hughes was perhaps the most high profile splitter in Australia’s political history.

The “Little Digger” represented seven different parties during his time in parliament.

He was expelled from the Labor Party while Prime Minister during World War One because of his support for conscription.


After governing in a coalition between his own National Labor Party and a collection of other MPs, Mr Hughes established the Nationalist Party and formed a new ministry.

His government was re-elected in 1917.

In 1918 he briefly resigned as PM, keeping a promise to step down if a conscription referendum failed, but was quickly sworn back in when no alternative leader stepped forward.

The arrival of the Country Party on the political scene eventually brought about the end of Mr Hughes’ political dominance.

Country Party leader Earl Page refused to serve under Mr Hughes in a coalition arrangement, bringing about the PM’s resignation.

Mr Hughes continued to serve as an MP until he died in office, aged 90, in 1952.

He represented the Australian, United Australia and Liberal parties in the final three decades of his political career.