Getting What They Deserved

I’d say I’m not surprised that we ended up with a hung parliament given the disgraceful campaign we just had, but I’d be lying; the truth was I was expecting more would be swayed by Abbott’s message and we would end up with a coalition of dithering in power, but instead we’ve been given a result that could be the start of a shift in Australian politics.

That of course is the emergence of the Greens as a solid force. With 11% of the primary vote, most of it stolen from Labor no doubt, the Greens have shown themselves to be adept at getting a clear message out: this is our policy, and this is why you should vote for us. Sticking to principles is something that the electorate has clearly endorsed here.

Third parties in the Senate have come and gone before – the Democrats after all had 9 senators just a decade ago, and three elections later disappeared off the map. What gives some hope here however is that the Greens have managed to take a seat in the House of Reps, something the Dems never managed to do.

You could argue that the Greens are but a fifth column for Labor, but clearly what happened in this election was that Labor thought they could get away with shifting rightwards to the centre and could rely on Greens preferences from the left they’ve abandoned to get them over the line. In a few key electorates, this hasn’t happened.

Melbourne, obviously, was the big one, and without a conclusive primary vote Labor was screwed. Two of the seats still potentially up in the air, Denison in Tasmania and Lindsay in Western Sydney, don’t have Greens preferences flowing to Labor and the net result may be a loss of these seats, or a severe cutback of the margin. Labor have been dumped by part of their ideological core because of their lack of principles in attempting to retain power.

The point to be made here is that the previous status quo in Australian politics was unusual by global standards – two major parties (never mind the Nats, who haven’t had an independent voice in years) alone dominating the executive branch of government is rare, with fluid coalitions far more the order of the day and perhaps even could be considered more democratic.

However, that is not to say government determined by a small number of independents is automatically a good thing. The temptation for pork barrelling is great, both for the parties to buy them off and for the independents to demonstrate a return for the electorate, but I think in this case we’re lucky in that the key people are men of principle and intelligence.

Windsor, Katter and Oakeshott appeared simultaneously on the 7.30 Report last night, and performed admirably. Windsor showed gravitas and experience, Katter passion for the people he represents and an independent mind, and Oakeshott an idealism for improved parliamentary process combined with a pragmatism for getting the job done. All three emphasised stable government and the need to avoid a quick re-run of the election (some suggest because there’s only so much campaign funds available to these independents).

Labor’s situation is such that it can afford to breathe a little easier in all this. The Greens MP has indicated that he would prefer to work with them, which gives them one more seat by proxy. If the result in Hasluck falls Labour’s way, that leaves Labor as the only credible side able to form government. Denison may yet fall to Wilkie, and his politics are unknowable – a former Liberal party member, a whistleblower on the Iraq war against Howard, a former Greens member and now standing as an independent. You’d suggest he’s shifted left-wards, but it’s by no means guaranteed.

The independents in the country have made a point about the NBN being favoured, which has me hopeful, as much of Abbott’s economic case is dependent on dropping that to pay for other policies. I personally hope Labor gets over the line on the back of this alone, but the compromises that occur on the way will be fascinating to watch for.

the daily column

Election 2010

It says a lot for this election that I’ve waited until Election Day to say anything about it that goes beyond 140 characters. It has really been that kind of election campaign – a dearth of substance from all sides in an effort to come to power by attacking the other side. It’s not a contest I want to engage in.

Gillard (how could I not have written about this before?!) came to power under circumstances best described as controversial – though far from unprecedented. You don’t have to explain to NSW voters that the leader can be replaced at the drop of a hat. The Liberals have gotten good running out of this.

That said, I understand the reasoning and the political machinery behind this. Rudd was unpopular and with the mining tax was fast making new enemies.  The Labor political machine, spooked once before by Howard’s pincer with Latham over the Tasmanian forestry unions, certainly didn’t want a fight with the mining unions on their hands, especially after they saw what could work with the unions in the 2007 campaign. In a way, the replacing of an underperforming leader is a policy that would be well supported in the market, had the government been a corporation. As it is, the electorate is mostly stunned at the notion, and the “Faceless men” bogey is back.

With an election called so soon, there was no real chance for Gillard to have established herself as incumbent PM, and so we have a farce of a campaign where both parties are pretending to be oppositions. Each side is playing a low-risk, high-attack campaign which puts the leaders front and centre in a presidential-style election that bears no relation to the actual voting method. Most telling for me was a colleague filling out a postal vote asking where Gillard was on either the House of Reps or the Senate ballot – that’s not how the voting system works, but for many they can’t see this until they get a how-to-vote card in hand.

The Coalition has led with a simple slogan that Abbott trots out over and over, but fades from my memory almost as soon as it’s out of mind. Stop the boats, end the waste, pay back the debt, something something. Their policies are defined by what they will do to oppose Labor’s current actions, be it on the boats, broadband, or hospitals. The only policy that goes beyond is for paid parental leave, where Abbott comes in with a policy that is simultaneously left and right wing: maternity leave at full salary-matched pay. A tax on big business to pay for a social entitlement is left; paying people at their full salary, instead of an equal payment across the board (Labor’s policy), fundamentally right-wing. Breathtaking.

Labor on the other hand offers…. not much, really. Gone is the ETS in any reasonable time, gone is any pretence to a fair and balanced refugee policy. The policies being sold are the ones which already are in motion – the NBN, the Health Network, and further pushes on the education front. The attack has been focused on the straw-man of Work Choices returning, which I find unbelievable given the Liberals knew the extent of the rejection at the 2007 poll. Labor have been no more inspiring than the Liberals, offering the status quo as an argument while trying to campaign without their legacy due to their fresh dumping of Rudd.

Gillard stumbled hard after the election campaign started over the manner of Rudd’s replacement, and then faced derision over the Real Julia punt. Abbott has managed to skate through without any headline bumbles as he simply avoids anything where he could screw up. That the man campaigning to be future PM did not show at the release of two significant policies, broadband and, well, the entire financial plan shows the sheer opportunism. Here is a man and a party that cannot say that it has a full grasp of the policy it is relying on the attack their opponent’s key policies.

The media is no less to blame. The headline presidential show of Gillard and Abbott running around the country (in Abbott’s case, quite literally) attracted the media, while real policy debates at the National Press Club went ignored by all but the most serious. Perhaps the apex of this shallow focus was the attention given to Mark Latham acting as Channel 9 journalist – the focus was on the media process, not on the election process. I remember being told as a kid that if you respond to the bully, he will act up more – so why did Latham get any attention at all? I didn’t see a single contribution, positive or negative, from him.

There has been no meaningful economic debate at the highest level, the focus entirely being on the meaningless size of the budget. There’s been no debate on foreign policy beyond the meaningless focus on the boats. There’s been nothing on arts, science, defence, infrastructure, agriculture, or industry, all serious policy areas and key ministries. The debate on gay marriage has been shut out entirely.

The blame for shallowness of the debate and the election can in some part be put at the feet of our election system. The rule of the marginals, you could say – it would be in Australia’s best interest for every seat to be a marginal, the government at all times at risk of being shoved out. Right now though, the marginals are focused on the fringes of cities, suburbia filled with families. The nature of swinging voters in these seats is to simply ask, “what’s in it for me?” and wait to be rewarded. I now live in a marginal seat, and all the advertising locally has been focused on that exact question.

I don’t want to see Australia’s destiny ruled by the marginal seats. Self-interest has been the order of the day for far too long: what is good for the family in outer Sydney or Brisbane or Melbourne isn’t necessarily good for the nation. Population growth is not so onerous yet that we need to make a significant cutback and label the population ministry “sustainable”. Governments can borrow money in the order of billions and not struggle to pay it back over a reasonable time frame – the analogy I prefer is that we need to make a renovation, so we’ll borrow some money from the proverbial bank to build it now, and repay it later with a bit of interest. If you simply save and save and save, you’re going to be stuck in your shabby little house from the 80s for years.

The other analogy should come from business: capital investment. We’re investing this money now because it will pay off in the future. I’ve heard Gillard mention that term exactly once. Abbott would have you believe that Australia needs no public capital investment, and that the private sector will provide. It certainly hasn’t provided so far, so why should it now?

I’m pretty sure I’m going to vote the Greens as my first preference. They’re not perfect – many of their policies take a good idea and extend it to the left. Were they to play a significant role in government, these would need to be moderated by a sense of reality. Nonetheless, their policy platform sits far closer to my ideal than Labor or Liberal. A national broadband network without the stupid filter; investment in education through an increase in the mining tax; compassionate treatment of refugees; and of course, most of all, an ETS that makes some real difference – punish the polluters in order to make them change their ways.

Everyone pretty much knows a vote for the Greens is ultimately a vote for Labor, and that’s disappointing. Labor does deserve to be punished for its presumption of its support base. The Liberals however don’t deserve to be rewarded for blind opposition. I suspect if Turnbull had still been the opposition leader and we were still having the same election we have today, I would have wavered, but Abbott? Are you kidding me?

Here’s hoping for PM Gillard to be returned tomorrow, or we shall learn how truly self-centred Australians really are.