Now that the Federal Parliament has begun sitting, expectations will rise for all our representatives, but especially for new independent Senator David Pocock. He is in a different position from our four ACT Labor representatives whose reputations will rise or fall with the Albanese Government.
The ACT community may not realise quite how unique Pocock’s position is.
The sports-loving section of the Australian community knows Pocock as a Brumbies and Wallabies rugby star.
Another segment of the community knows him for his personal commitments to inclusion and environmental action.
The more politically savvy segment of the wider community knows him now as the ’13th vote’, the extra vote which can give the government and the 12 Greens senators a Senate majority to pass government legislation.
What the community may not know is that within the Senate, Pocock is a rare independent senator from the centre-left of politics. Until now, independent and minor party senators have generally been from the right or the centre. Famous examples from the past include Senator Brian Harradine from Tasmania, the Australian Democrats, One Nation, and Senator Nick Xenophon and the Centre Alliance.
In the Senate today he shares the crossbench with two One Nation senators, one from the United Australia Party, and two Jacqui Lambie Network senators. The government will negotiate with all crossbench senators, but realistically its best chance of support lies either with Pocock or the centrist Jacqui Lambie Network.
Pocock, like all MPs, will initially be judged on his diligence in attending to his responsibilities in listening to and serving his constituents at an individual level. There is every reason to believe he will do this well.
Beyond that, he will be judged in three areas.
The first will be the wise use of his 13th vote in Australia-wide policy areas, such as his stated advocacy for gender equality, climate action and integrity mechanisms. If he is not convinced by the government’s legislation, the government will look to Jacqui Lambie for support. Pocock must play his cards well, not lose his distinct identity or be taken for granted by the government.
The second will be his success in advocating effectively for ACT-specific areas such as territory rights, beginning with the right for the ACT to take responsibility as a territory for Voluntary Assisted Dying legislation. He will also be wise if he advocates strongly to increase ACT Senate representation from two to four senators, a policy particularly identified with the other main independent Senate candidate, Professor Kim Rubenstein.
Thirdly, like other modern independents in both houses of parliament, he will be judged by how his approach to being a senator sets him apart from major party representatives.
There is plenty of talk in this new 47th parliament about ‘doing things differently’, and Pocock, who has made a strong start, has a chance to stand out. The community involvement exhibited during his campaign must be developed further now he is in office.
Models of community involvement include the “Voices” movement pioneered by Cathy McGowan in Indi, which is now Australia-wide. Other independents, including the new Teal independents in the House of Representatives, will also offer alternative models in terms of presentation. How close he comes to these other independents will emerge over time.
The next three years will go quickly for David Pocock. Being an independent is a hard gig, bringing its distinctive stresses and strains. All the ACT community, friends, foes, and the vast majority who are open-minded, will be watching him closely.
John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University.