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Supporters of independent candidate Kylea Tink celebrate her victory over the Liberal incumbent in North Sydney. Getty Images

Could Australia’s new independent and Green MPs be key to better trans-Tasman relations?

Almost two weeks on from the Australian federal election and the Australian Labor Party looks set to govern alone with 77 seats, despite securing only 32% of the primary vote.

The Liberal and National parties were also beset by primary vote losses, while the winners appear to be the multitude of old and new small parties and independents. Between them, these outsiders have scooped up more than 30% of the vote in the House of Representatives.

It’s tempting to draw lessons for New Zealand from the Australian result – not least because the Liberal-National Coalition governed through the pandemic. The policies of Scott Morrison’s government were not unlike New Zealand’s – closing borders, providing additional funding to states and initially supporting lockdowns – and it was punished at the polls.

Also like New Zealand, they were slow to roll out vaccines and distribute rapid antigen test supplies. Australian cities experienced protests against lockdowns and vaccine mandates in the name of freedom. And while the economy remained resilient, Australia is facing rising cost of living, stretched supply chains and predictions of worse to come.

It would be easy to assume, then, that being the incumbent government at the height of a pandemic does not bode well for re-election. But it may also be that this outcome represents an opportunity for New Zealand.

Independent candidate Zoe Daniel celebrates victory in the seat of Kooyong, Melbourne. AAP

The ‘teal’ deal

This Australian election was about much more than COVID-19. It was about Morrison’s leadership – or lack of it, especially after catastrophic bushfires and floods. He appeared to care little about political integrity or about the toxic culture within his party that alienated many female colleagues.

And he relished the opportunity to engage in divisive rhetoric on asylum seekers, China and climate change.

Read more: He's Australia's 31st prime minister. So who is Anthony Albanese?

It was this last issue that spurred the zeal for independent “teal” candidates (perhaps best thought of as blue-green liberals) in the safe “leafy” electorates of Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, while in Queensland the Greens scooped seats off the Liberals and Labor.

This is not surprising, given research suggests an increasing number of Australians want to see progress on emissions reductions and are less likely to respond to a culture war on climate.

But the teal independents did more than highlight a progressive popular mandate for the environment. They also shone a light on the ugliness of pork-barrel politics and populism, and the limitations of centrally controlled major parties at a time when diverse communities want their voices heard.

Independents at the vanguard

That said, the rise of independents has been a slow and simmering trend in Australian politics, both federally and at the state and territory level. The Liberal and National parties have been the target of what appears to be an independent “movement” since the 1980s.

Independents won a number of rural and regional seats in the 1990s and 2000s, fuelled by three key factors: a belief that major parties were taking “safe” seats for granted, compulsory voting, and community-based candidates able to harness a geographical concentration of votes under Australia’s preferential voting system.

Indeed, by the early 2000s, Australia was home to more independent parliamentarians than any comparable Western country. At times they have held the balance of power. At others, they’ve championed causes the major political parties found too risky or uninteresting, including political integrity and human rights.

Read more: The ‘Biloela family’ are going home – but what will Labor do with thousands of other asylum seekers in limbo in Australia?

Perhaps most relevant for New Zealand has been the influence of independents on Australia’s immigration and offshore detention policies.

In 2019, for example, independent Cathy McGowan sided with the Labor opposition and several other independents to pass the Medevac Evacuation Act, which made it possible for critically ill detainees to be treated on the Australian mainland.

The Morrison government claimed the new law was unconstitutional and repealed it after its “miracle” election victory later in 2019, with the support of independent senator Jacqui Lambie. Lambie reportedly traded her vote for the possibility of a more permanent solution based on New Zealand’s resettlement offer, finally taken up by Australia earlier this year.

Now, with the election of Anthony Albanese’s Labor government, there is discussion about a possible softening of the visa cancellation and deportation polices under section 501 of the Immigration Act. Here, the role of independent (and Green) MPs may be crucial to New Zealand’s interests.

A better deal for Australian Kiwis

There is now a strong tradition of independents committing to human rights issues, in the House and the Senate. And while their focus has often been on the plight of refugees and asylum seekers, the goodwill and energy of these cross-benchers might also be applied to improving pathways to citizenship for New Zealanders living permanently in Australia.

The current barriers to citizenship have fuelled the deportation rate, as well as blocked Australian New Zealanders from access to benefits after natural disasters or for medical disabilities.

Read more: Albanese will bring a different style of leadership to the PM's office –– can Australia make the adjustment?

The challenge for Jacinda Ardern will be to encourage Albanese and the new Labor government to loosen the 2016 arrangement made by the previous Coalition government. This offered a pathway to permanent residence and eventually citizenship, but applied only to New Zealanders who had been living in Australia before February 2016 and who met certain criteria.

Revising those conditions could form part of a revamped Closer Economic Relations agreement to mark its 40th anniversary next year. If that doesn’t work, New Zealand could consider lobbying Australia’s progressive independent and Green MPs.

Either way, the Albanese government is presenting itself as more interested in its Pacific neighbours and in those who want to make Australia their permanent home. As such, it represents the best opportunity in nearly a decade for more favourable trans-Tasman relations.

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