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Australia Says No, Thanks: the Election of 2010

The balance of power: independent MPs Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott and Bob Katter in Canberra

“The media are very very important in relation to this issue. If you people are sick of the nonsense that you’ve had to put up with, get behind this. Don’t support us, but promote some of the concepts because the people are absolutely sick of it. You people who were out there on those buses, you saw the nonsense that went on. You listened to the drivel every day and then tried to make something of substance out of it for your readers and listeners.”

-Tony Windsor, independent MP, to the National Press Club, Canberra, 25 August 2010

“I’ve bought and sold cattle for a large portion of my life, and I like to think I can drive a deal.”

-Bob Katter, independent MP

Three weeks after deposing Kevin Rudd, as though ticking off another item on her to-do list, Julia Gillard called a federal election (one of only three winter federal elections in Australian history). I can’t summon the heart to give much of an account of the five week campaign which followed, especially since the twist in the story only came once the votes began to be counted. You really had to be here. The campaign was truly godawful, a complete extinguishing of the hope which had seen Kevin07 elected three years before. Both major parties pandered to the same focus groups in the same few marginal electorates. They peddled small bore middle class welfare and indulged trumped-up fear; they blandly appealed to the most disgracefully narrow-minded tendencies in the darkest marginal corners of the Australian electorate, the people who fear their leaf blowers will not be powerful enough to defend their McMansions against Taliban invasion. It was easy to to believe that the entire country had become, as one correspondent to the Sydney Morning Herald wrote, a Boganocracy.

Neither major party proved itself worthy to lead this country. Prime Minister Gillard, about whom so many of us had high hopes, had proved herself a disappointment even before she began sending coded messages to swing voting rednecks:

That hardworking Australians who themselves are doing it tough want to know that refugees allowed to settle here are not singled out for special treatment;

That people like my own parents who have worked hard all their lives can’t abide the idea that others might get an inside track to special privileges;

And that finally, if this were to happen, it would offend the Australian sense of fair play.

Her Liberal Party opponent, Tony Abbott, ran an almost entirely negative campaign, and stayed on message enough to nearly end up PM, an almost inconceivable result given his extremism. He revealed fundamental ignorance on an almost daily basis. He raved on about Australia’s national debt, which is tiny relative to GDP, and jealously guarded the rapidly diminishing patch of territory to the right of the PM.

And then on August 21, the people had their say. They said ‘um, no thanks, we choose neither of you bozos.’

The result, with neither major party able to claim a majority in Parliament, was the best thing which could have happened. Whether the parties will get the message is another matter. Gillard’s Labor Party was slaughtered, losing at least 13 seats, but it was not Tony Abbott who most benefited from their collapse. Most of the 5.5 percent swing against Labor went to the Greens, who ran on a positive, nation-building platform of reduced carbon emissions, increased education funding, national dental care, improved infrastructure and legalized gay marriage. When their leader, Tasmanian Senator Bob Brown, who unlike Abbott or Gillard has accomplished things in his life outside politics, said on election night that the policies which benefit your grandchildren are generally policies which are good for the country, it occurred to me that I was watching the leader of the only genuinely conservative party in Australia. What Brown called a “Greenslide” — winning the balance of power in the Senate as well as a Melbourne seat in the lower house which had been held by Labor since 1906 — has changed the nature of progressive politics in Australia, and has left the once noble Australian Labor Party in no man’s land, even if they do end up forming a minority government with Gillard as PM.

Labor’s self-destruction is extraordinary, unnecessary and pathetic. Most Australians retain fond memories of the Labor governments led by Bob Hawke and Paul Keating in the 80s and early 90s, whose steady hands and courageous economic reforms underpin the nation’s current prosperity. More recently, Kevin Rudd could have led the party to a resounding victory at almost any point during his two and a half years as PM. Even leaving aside the high levels of public support he sustained for two of those years, Australian voters almost always give incumbents a second term in office (if Labor fails to form a minority government, they will be the first government not to be granted a second term since the 1930s).

For a party so filled with career politicians and so obsessed with political maneuverings, Labor has proven singularly inept at the game. Gillard seemed to be a cheerful new face, but she was unable to hide Labor’s internal dysfunction from the electorate. Rudd was not a born and bred Labor man, he came up through the public service, not the party machine. The faceless hacks (this sounds like a cliche, but these people do exist and can be found at NSW Labor HQ in Sussex Street, Sydney) who run the party tolerated him as long as he was popular. Now, revealed by this election campaign as a party interested in power for its own sake and unable or unwilling to offer credible policy in urgent areas like climate change, I’m not sure where they go from here. They have made themselves the party of nothing. Though repeatedly described by The New York Times as center-left, under Gillard Labor went right; she blathered sanctimoniously about “working families,” as though the only people for whom she intended to govern were the possibly illusory bogans, ockers and drongoes in Labor’s outer suburban focus groups. Courting inauthenticity with a vengeance, the party seemed to forget that if a voter is genuinely right or left of center they’ll usually vote for the real thing, Liberal or Green, not an imitation. Given the benefits of incumbency, and the core of rusted-on supporters who cast their vote out of habit, Labor’s primary vote (that is, the percentage of voters who listed Labor as the number one preference on their ballot) of 37.9% meets no one’s definition of a mandate. Judging from the consistently deluded post-mortem comments of Gillard and other Laborites since the election, they still don’t get it.

The result, a hung parliament, reflects clear and widespread rejection of the two major parties and their leaders. As of this writing, with a couple of seats undetermined, neither Labor nor the Liberals will have a majority in the 150 member Parliament. Unlike the Cameron minority Government in the UK, which involves an alliance between two established parties, the next Australian government will be determined by negotiations between the major parties and a group of five MPs, four independents and a Green. They are, from left to right:

Adam Bandt, the first Green to win a lower house seat in a general election. Given that his party won 11.5% percent of the national vote and only commands 0.67% of the vote in the lower house, he represents a constituency which has become mainstream. He stands for compassionate treatment of asylum seekers, a price on carbon emissions and the legalization of same sex marriage.

Andrew Wilkie, a former intelligence officer who in 2003 publicly blew the whistle on the Howard Government’s false claims about Iraqi WMDs. After his public vilification at the hands of that government, and a couple of unsuccessful runs for Parliament as a Green, he opened a rug shop in Hobart. As of this writing he is almost certain to be elected as the independent member for Denison, a seat centered on Tasmania’s metropolis. He has expressed a willingness to work with either party and wants a debate on Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan, parliamentary reform and restrictions on poker machines, the scourge of Aussie pub culture.

Rob Oakeshott, a former Nationals party member (the country partners of the Liberals) turned independent. He describes himself as a social progressive and an economic conservative, favors an emissions trading scheme, parliamentary reform and a national broadband network. During the Howard Government, when asylum seekers were being driven mad by the draconian policy of mandatory indefinite detention, he hosted a distraught refugee in his own home.

Tony Windsor, also a National turned independent. He wants improved infrastructure, including fast broadband for rural areas. He introduced a private member’s bill into Parliament which would have reduced carbon emissions by more than Labor’s abandoned Emissions Trading Scheme.

Bob Katter, a third former National and staunch protectionist who wears a gargantuan Akubra hat, is keen on ethanol subsidies, wants to ban the importation of bananas and turn rivers inland. He opposes a price on carbon, but I get the impression he wouldn’t say no to a few wind farm and solar panel factory jobs in his own electorate.

An interesting group, and would you believe they actually give straight answers to questions? Bandt, Oakeshott, Windsor and Katter spoke at the National Press Club in Canberra the week after the election and after listening to them I wondered whether the major parties shouldn’t resign and let this gang run the country for a few years. It was refreshing to be allowed the courtesy of straight talk (and I don’t mean the John McCain version), of being given the information to decide whether one agrees or disagrees with the speaker. All but Katter support a price on carbon emissions, and the highly impressive, passionate and idealistic Oakeshott was able, off the cuff, in less than a minute, to argue the case for action on global warming with a clarity and force which failed Rudd and which Gillard would never even attempt.

These five have turned despair into hope. Along with the major parties, the news media seem threatened by the new paradigm. In political journalism it is pervasive despair and endless conflict, and not stable consensus, which sells papers. The media and the two major parties have a vested interest in Australia’s extraordinarily confrontational political system, in which government and opposition, “the red team and the blue team,” to use Oakeshott’s phrase, yelp at each other across the aisle, and all real decisions are made in the party room, not on the floor of Parliament.

The three country independents have made some great suggestions for improving the worst aspects of Australia’s version of the Westminster system. Oakeshott’s proposal for a unity government, with ministers drawn from both parties, was predictably shot down as pie in the sky, but why should it be? At the moment, Australia’s system of government treats voters like children. The worst problem, and the one the independents intend to fix, is the demise of the local member. The vast majority of electorates are safe seats for one of the major parties. There are no primaries; major party candidates are chosen behind closed doors. Once anointed, and after the formality of an election, an MP becomes a party guy or gal. Government policies are devised in cabinet, behind more closed doors, and the members of the party in power are expected to support those policies without question (in the US, Mitch McConnell seems to have turned Senate Republicans into a de facto parliamentary opposition, the “Party of No”). To cross the aisle and vote against your party is an extremely rare thing, almost as rare as a so-called “conscience vote” in which members are given permission by their party to vote as they see fit. The children, the voters, are expected to believe that the entire party, its members representing whatever diverse constituencies, magically agrees, and that the opposition conveniently disagrees. A prime example is the Labor Party’s moment of no return, its craven abandonment of its own Emissions Trading Scheme, described in my previous article. What put voters off, whether they were greenies like myself or the most recalcitrant skeptic, was the idea that the centre-left party could so suddenly abandon its core policy without the slightest discord. Rudd’s “greatest moral challenge of our time” had been miraculously transformed, without public input, into a political annoyance trivial enough to be determined by, as Gillard proposed, a ludicrous “citizen’s assembly” of 150 typical Australians.

The result of the election, even before there is an official result, is an unexpected moment of hope, however fragile. Neither Gillard nor Abbott can claim a majority, neither can claim a mandate for their vacuous policies, however hard they try to spin the numbers. Instead, the prospect of genuine reform, of a country governed by a Parliament of 150 thinking adult minds, rather than two parties and their operatives, lies in the hands of an unlikely band of five. Even though the numbers are in their favor, inertia remains stacked against them. At least for the moment it seems possible to hope that things will never be the same.

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