Helen Haines, the Independent from Indi, on bipartisanship

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Monday October 5, 2020

Helen Haines (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

At the last federal election, Helen Haines achieved a remarkable feat when she won the Australian House of Representatives seat of Indi. It was the first time such a seat went from one independent to another. After a unique couple of weeks in federal parliament, Scott Hamilton and Stuart Kells managed to get her insights.

A country woman, a nurse, and PhD in public health — epidemiology of all things! — Helen Haines is a strong advocate for the regions, a federal ICAC, and tackling climate change through community power.

Early life and entering politics

I spent 30+ years working in rural health, firstly as a nurse and a midwife and then as a health administrator, educator and researcher. I grew up in the country. I’m a thoroughly rural Australian. I grew up on a dairy farm in Southwest Victoria and went into nursing, as many young rural women did in those days.

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Pretty quickly after my initial education and travel, I came back to rural Australia and went up to north-east Victoria — to work in bush nursing and then in a regional hospital as a midwife. I became very interested in the social determinants of health and the root causes of chronic disadvantage in rural societies, and so I undertook a master’s degree in public health — and, funnily enough, majored in epidemiology. For many years, people would say why did you bother doing that? What’s that about? (laughs).

From there I got a very strong interest in research and undertook a PhD in medical science, which took me to Sweden and I did my doctorate there.

I became more interested in rural politics here in 2013 when we upset the nation, upset in a good way, with the election of Cathy McGowan as the first Independent member for Indi. The election that year was a big win for the LNP, and the only sitting member of parliament who lost their seat was Sophie Mirabella, here in Indi.

My family were very engaged in the whole movement in Indi. My husband managed Cathy’s campaign. My son was very engaged in the data analytics of the ‘Nation Builder’ work. Digitising the kitchen table conversations, in a sense. But I never really thought that I would be the next member for Indi. That was not in my life plan.

However, when Cathy determined that she wouldn’t run for a third election, Indi again scratched its head and said, do we want to just call it quits now, or do we want to actually take the next step in really engaging in our democracy in a thorough way? Should we try to find another person who may be willing to run as an independent, and if so, how do we do that?

So, again, this deliberative forum was established. I was one of three people who stepped forward in that process and was ultimately invited by the community to run as an independent, which of course I did and we then made history for a second time by having the first Independent to follow an Independent, which is terrific.

Bipartisanship and multipartisanship

First thing I would say as an Independent is that bipartisanship is the wrong word. It’s really multipartisanship.

Coming from a healthcare background, I know good care is multidisciplinary care. I think the same thing applies to public policy. We are so locked into two parties here in Australia that it has held us back from innovation and creativity. It has certainly held us back in our discussions on climate. I think it holds us back in so many ways and, again, I would say the story of Indi is a great example of when you stop thinking about two parties and think about the best policy and what is the best representation — it moves you out of that old paradigm and you can look at the world very differently.

One obvious place where do we see bipartisanship is in the committee work of the federal parliament. We have people from all colours and stripes working on committees. Of course, there’s argy bargy and a bit of politics — on some committees more than others. But if you were to look at something like the committee that I sit on for regional Australia, then most of the MPs on that committee are there because they actually want to do something good. They have ideas and they want to see advancement in rural, regional and remote communities.

The committee structure should encourage bipartisan ideas. Part of the frustration, as I see it as a new member of parliament, is that there’s a lot of work done in those committees, but how many of the recommendations ever make it on to the ground, changing policy and implementing programs? And then, of those programs, how many are effectively evaluated to know whether they work?

If I was to think about bipartisanship from the perspective of collaboration and moving people along a spectrum, I think Independents are really well placed to do that. We saw that in the minority Gillard government, where there was a lot of negotiation with the crossbench and we saw things happen. The best chance we have for bipartisanship in Australia is to have a bigger crossbench.

If you look at how people on the crossbench behave in the parliament, I think what you see is a sense of trying to analyse each bill for what it’s worth, a sense of bringing a different voice to the bill, often a critique of the policy, either a positive critique or a negative critique, or a decision to vote with a policy but putting forward really well thought through amendments that aren’t political — they are amendments about actually improving public policy.

My thesis in response to your thesis is that having more Independents in the parliament would achieve greater bipartisanship.

Does friendship increase the chances of better outcomes?

That’s a great question. I think political friendships should, but I’m not sure I’ve got any evidence to say they do. Maybe it’s too early for me to say or maybe people don’t talk about them enough. That’s a really important question to ask — when you can have a friendly conversation with another member of parliament, and for me as an Independent then it’s always going to be with someone who’s on the other side.

Maybe it would be answered very differently if it were a Labor person becoming friends with a Liberal person and vice versa. I can always ask the question very readily: What do you think about that? Can you tell me more about why you think it should be so? I can ask that in a non-partisan way to either Liberal or Labor. That’s why, if the government was smart, they would say, for something like the Integrity Bill, it would make a lot of sense for Helen to shepherd a bill through the house because she’s not sitting on either side. It would not be seen as belonging to either Labor or the Liberal National Party or the Greens.

The processes of government and spending funds

The process is something that has really surprised me. I thought that, moving into government, there would be a lot of process, but I often find when I see a bill before the House or I see a large funding pool announced — the process of how that’s governed and checked and evaluated isn’t clear to me. It’s an observation, and I think that’s something, again, that an Independent can speak to — to say, you know, that this bill would be greatly improved if there was a bit of tidy governance around it. And that’s not a particularly partisan thing to say — it’s an observation. The Drought Fund is an example. In an amendment, Cathy called for much stronger governance around the fund and then, in the end, that happened. But that happened in a minority government.

Federal ICAC and the Beechworth principles

One thing I know is that a federal ICAC is really important to everyday Australians, and that even surprises me as someone who’s really invested in it. Throughout the 2019 election campaign, as a new person in politics, not part of the political class, never run for office before — how often in town hall meetings, how often in street walks or general encounters with people — that question of federal integrity was raised and the fundamental loss of trust in government was evident.

Cathy McGowan had introduced an Integrity Commission Bill, which as a private member’s bill didn’t get up — and the government, of course, promised in the 2019 election that they would introduce an integrity bill. We are now 21 months down the track and we have not had that bill tabled in the parliament.

There was a discussion paper put out well over a year ago. We haven’t had an exposure draft and I’ve met with the attorney general a few times about this and the word from the government is that they still intend to do so, but they don’t have a timeline. The Australia Institute recently published their latest survey results on the appetite for such a bill. Yet again, we saw people of all colours and stripes wanting to see such a Federal Integrity Commission.

In February this year, I published a set of principles [aka the Beechworth principles] that I thought were really important — and not just me. I worked with a committee of retired judges — the National Integrity Committee of Judges with AJ Brown from Griffith University and Serena Lily White, and all sorts of people.

I came up with five principles which are similar to other principles that people have put forward, but I wanted to distil them down into something manageable, that you can count on one hand. Something that an everyday person would make sense of. And embed those principles in a story that was meaningful to the people of Indi and, in fact, for the people of Australia who understand the goldrush stories.

I’ve used it as a tool to go about the parliament and speak to senators and members across the aisles around what it is we’ve been looking for as parliamentarians, to make sure we get a bill that we can agree on. What a strong message it would be to the nation if, in fact, that bill was not even divided on — that we all agreed that this is what we need and let’s get it through the parliament — and then we can put it to bed in a sense. We don’t just have to continue to talk about scandals in the House; we can refer such scandals to the appropriate body.

They have been really good to actually understand what it is some MPs are afraid of in having a Federal Integrity Commission. And, you know, what most of the people who don’t really want to have an Integrity Commission are deeply concerned about are public hearings. That’s a key concern, and it’s a legitimate concern if you’re fearful that it will become a star chamber and that we will have vexatious referrals and this will just make things messier and uglier and won’t be helpful at all. So, I’ve had some really good conversations with members about that and asked how we can we guard against that; how can we maintain public confidence by having public hearings but have them in a way that is fair and reasonable and that maintains natural justice.

Climate change and community power

When I first ran for parliament, quite a few people said, ‘Helen, you could never speak about climate change in such a conservative electorate’. I’m pretty confident I can and even if I can’t, I still will.

Once you start taking the personalities away from this, once you start embedding what a warming planet means to the people who will encounter it firsthand — rural and regional Australians — very quickly it makes sense to people. But, beyond that, when you take away the partisan issues and talk about potential, the opportunities, the jobs, the whole new vision for rural and regional Australia, if we really embrace the renewable energy boom that is on us and become a part of that, there’s a whole new opportunity for wealth creation and a whole new way to see ourselves.

That’s a really exciting conversation to have. So whenever you hear me talk about climate, you will rarely hear me talk about it in terms of Paris Agreements or percentages of emissions reductions. You’ll generally hear me talk about climate in terms of what it means on the ground for everyday Australians. What are the opportunities in Australian agriculture? What are the opportunities for young people looking for new jobs? How can we diversify our income in the regions and, particularly, in regions that have been highly dependent on fossil fuels? How can we lower the price of energy through renewables and share in the profits? So that’s where I’ve focused my efforts. Very early in my parliamentary career, I had a motion in the house calling on the government for a climate and agriculture plan.

We’ve got the National Farmers Federation now very much in support of zero net emissions by 2050. And prior to that, groups like Farmers for Climate Action called for this. Agriculture’s on board. I’ve just completed a body of work on community energy. It’s a local power plan. For me as a crossbencher, I’ll continue to highlight the opportunities for the regions, and what the future could look like.

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