A dictatorship of independents?

And so the people have spoken, and to the greatest extent in living memory, they have concluded collectively that the two major parties are equally worthy of governing the country (or equally unworthy, one might also say). With Labor and the Coalition sitting on 72 seats apiece, each 4 seats shy of a majority, the election decision is now a memory, and the most pertinent outstanding decision regarding the governance of the nation has been left to the mercy of Greens member Adam Bandt and a gaggle of independents: the left-leaning but somewhat enigmatic Andrew Wilkie, WA National Tony Crook, and rural independents Bob Katter, Tony Windsor, and Rob Oakeshott.

Can this in any way seriously be described as a good outcome for Australia? That so few members of parliament, unelected by the vast majority of Australians, have been gifted so much power, in practically an act of caprice by Fate? Suddenly, the future of public policy in this nation is completely unclear. The platforms taken by both the ALP and the Coalition to the hustings during the election campaign can be considered junked. Will we have action on climate change? It’s impossible to say. What will the new government’s approach be to the health system? No idea. What about the National Broadband Network? At this particular juncture, it is looking potentially illusory, despite the fact that the NBNCo has had its wheels in motion for sometime now.

One could probably construct a credible argument in favour of a greater voice for rural Australia in the nation’s parliament, but it is difficult to see how the monumental decision between lame ducks that has been dumped on the independents is a good manifestation of such an argument. On the other hand, the lack of proportional representation for the Federal House of Representatives does make me feel as though it is electoral kismet that Greens MP Adam Bandt has been gifted such a disproportionate role in deciding who will govern the nation. Bandt has already played his hand by siding with the ALP – but what choice did he have, really? He could either have decided to band with the ALP – itself potentially a source of great friction within the Greens – or he could pledge allegiance to neither of the major parties. Siding with the Coalition could never really have been a serious option.

I don’t think Australia really wants three years of being held to ransom by a handful of parliamentarians and a government basically bereft of any real mandate for reform. Clearly the best outcome for all of us – besides the numbskulls who voted informal – would be a further federal election.

“Moving forward” to the final countdown

Mercifully for everyone, the dog-eat-dogging and gratuitous slander of Federal Election 2010 is drawing to a close. In a few short hours we will probably have a fairly good grasp of just who is going to be running the country for the next three years. It has been a strange federal campaign; one in which both major parties have proven to be shackled to the budgetary circumstances that they find themselves in. One gets the impression that the driving motivation behind the decision of both major parties to not announce many significant new spending measures is a desire to curry favour with an electorate feeling wary about Australia’s budget deficit and the general economic situation, rather than any deep throbbing vein of fiscal conservatism. As much as this election has reminded us all that Australia is a fairly socially conservative nation, as Tom Switzer points out, it has also reminded us all that the differences between the major parties on economic issues are in realistic terms, quite slight. Whether for reasons of conviction or reasons of political expediency, big government is alive and well in Australia; where the Labor and Liberal parties differ is how they spend the money.

There has been quite a bit of talk in the media regarding whether this has been a “boring” campaign. Like Tim Dunlop, I’m a bit sceptical about this point. This has been a disappointing campaign on a number of levels, but election campaigns are not, strangely enough, meant to entertain us. This is not a reality TV show we are talking about. Democracy is not necessarily meant to be an exciting thrill ride from start to finish; in fact, quite the opposite. Election campaigns frame the orderly decision that every elector in Australia has to make when they cast their ballot, a decision that will decide who will run the country for the next three years. Despite all the flotsam and jetsam that’s cast around by political parties of all stripes during campaigns, the collective decision that Australians make is actually rather important.

If the government changes, the country changes. In my view, it changed for the worse during the Howard years. It wasn’t always smooth sailing, and there were things I would have preferred were done differently, but it changed for the better during the Rudd years. Whether or not the still hypothetical Gillard years really do “move us forward” remains to be seen, but what is certainly clear is that any hypothetical Abbott years would certainly move us backward, or in the very least, halt any further progress for three years. That would be a shame.

He’s a loathsome, offensive brute, and yet we can’t look away

There’s now less than a week left to go in the campaign, and at least as far as I can tell, all parties of note are out of puff. The grandiloquent vision phase of the campaign [momentary or illusory as it was] is behind us, and what lies ahead is merely mad scrambling and pork scratchings. We are living in the curious purgatory that exists between the meaningful cut and thrust of the campaign and the Australian people’s collective decision. Despite my fleeting engagement with the whole shebang, and my geographical detachment (I am typing this from my hotel room in Gloucester), this feels like it has been a really long campaign. It has felt like a campaign about nothing, echoing the bilious taunts of Mark Latham leading into the November 2007 election; funnily enough an election that really did mean something to a lot of people. It’s certainly important to keep Tony Abbott and his intellectually malnourished team out of The Lodge, but it’s a bit of a shame that Labor’s driving urge in this campaign has been reduced to this.

But back to Mark Latham. The latest gem to emerge from Iron Mark, television journaliste extraordinaire, is that voters should leave their ballot papers blank “as a protest” when they vote in this Saturday’s election. This is a shameful contribution to the public debate that lays bare the depths to which 60 Minutes and indeed Channel Nine has sunk during the last year or two. An informal vote is a wasted vote; a vote for ignorance, disengagement and ultimately, recklessness. In order to perform its function as the “least worst” system of government available. a democracy needs to embody the will of the people. In a regulated, ordinated democratic environment like Australia’s, mass delinquency at the ballot box fundamentally undermines this principle.

Everyone – even Mr. Latham – ultimately has a preference. He can spin all the pseudo-anarchist bullshit that he wants to out to all of us, but at the end of the day, he is only lying to himself by arguing that he doesn’t have any preference between the major parties in this country. If he really believes he hates them equally, then he should opt for change and preference the Coalition, and stop being such a fence-sitting coward.

The lot of them will be run over at this rate

Richard Glover is sadly dead on the money with his column in the Spectrum of today’s Sydney Morning Herald. He hits the nail on the head more beautifully and more succinctly then I fear I can manage just at the moment; consider these three cuts:

Week two of the “Me Too” election and Abbott and Gillard are like contestants in a three-legged race, middle legs lashed together, each with an arm desperately gripped around the other’s shoulder, fingers digging in, careering over the political landscape, determined never to be separated.

Same policy on asylum seekers, same squib on the environment, same anxious sidestep on gay rights.

On the magnificence that the belligerent focus on certain marginal seats has delivered us:

Since it’s all about attracting the voters of marginal seats, such as Lindsay, you do wonder why the rest of us even need to be involved. Why not just opinion-poll everyone in Penrith’s High Street and do whatever they reckon is the right thing?

And finally, on where this is headed:

Julia Gillard cites the Welsh socialist Nye Bevan as her political hero. Maybe it’s time she remembered his most famous quote: “We know what happens to people who stay in the middle of the road. They get run over.”

The average Australian punter may not have a grasp of the finer details of public policy, but they have a built-in sixth sense when it comes to political disingenuity, aka bullshit. The baseball bats needn’t have been out for Labor just yet after only three years, but one just gets the sense after all this bickering, dilly-dallying and lowest common denominator marketing, a fair few are now going to be pulled out in the marginals on August 21.

Come on Julia. Give us all a reason to vote for you!

Kevin Ekendahl: supporting bold action

Liberal Candidate for Melbourne Ports, Kevin Ekendahl just sent me a letter. In case you were wondering, these are the bits that are apparently really important:

  • crucial for the future of our nation
  • we are already a weaker nation
  • Increased cost of living pressures
  • Massive debt, Budget deficits, waste and mismanagement
  • unnecessary uncertainty
  • there’s too much talk and not enough action.
  • taking real action and delivering real results
  • Our Action Contract with Australia
  • real action to strengthen the economy
  • Budget back into surplus
  • Australia’s border security, raise education standards
  • improve local health services
  • It’s time to get things done and get Australia back on the right track.

I wonder who decides what phrases in these condescending, paper-wasting template letters should be highlighted in bold because apparently the author believes these are the only bits people are likely to read?

Also, does anyone else thinks that the “Support Real Action” campaign jingle sounds a lot like “support re-election”? A damn fine idea.

Game on for Saturday 21st August

Suddenly, amidst a winter of some considerable political discontent, we have an election date. The circumstances are a bit ironic for me. I tuned into the Sky election coverage of the Australian election from London just under three years ago in November 2007 (a frabjous day!), and it seems that once again, I will be tuning in from the other side of the world to see who will lead Australia for the next three years. Just a week or so ago I registered to vote overseas, and am in the throes of organising personal matters and packing up my life in Melbourne. Just as I was fronting up to the reality that I would need to disengage from political events for a little while at least, Julia Gillard has called in for a cup of morning tea at Yarralumla, and despite the touch of malaise that has been creeping into recent debate, it is going to be hard to tune out.

Even considering the disorganised thrashings of the last few weeks in Labor Party circles, Tony Abbott and the Coalition will head towards this election as clear underdogs. Centrebet has Labor at an almost unbackable $1.22, with the Coalition not looking like a bad bet at $4.10, to be quite frank. This is not an election campaign much like that waged in 2007. This is not going to be an election campaign with a distinct choice, or clear water between the Government and the Opposition on a number of issues. Given recent events, most Australians would harbor some fairly strong negative thoughts about both major parties. It is only natural under the circumstances to be feeling a bit confused and uncertain about who to vote for. On the one hand we have a Labor Government which promised the world, has delivered on some levels and failed notably or reneged on some others, and still has a reasonable proportion of its original to-do list outstanding. On the other hand, we have an Opposition defined almost exclusively by what it does not stand for, as opposed for what it does, lead by a politically divisive figure in Tony Abbott.

In her noon press conference announcing the election date, Julia Gillard was organised, precise in her language, and confident. She looked and acted like a Prime Minister. She was convincing, but her mindless re-iteration of Labor’s election mantra du jour, “moving forward”, felt forced and was truly grating. The new Labor leadership team has made it clear over the past few weeks of their intent to distance themselves from the failings of Kevin Rudd; they really should be wise by now to the fact that people are sick of simplistic election slogans like this one. It should be possible to be direct and straight-forward without reducing your communication with the public to the level of a glorified infomercial.

The Prime Minister declined to make any new policy announcements, only promising that any new measures announced during the election campaign would be offset by savings in other areas. Politically speaking, this is a smart move, and pushes Tony Abbott into a very small space in which to operate. It mimics the “I’m an economic conservative” promises made by Kevin Rudd heading into the election campaign in 2007. Abbott’s natural instinct as a blue-blood is to either conserve the public dollar or to transform it into a private dollar, but to differentiate himself from the government, it might well be that he needs to fight that instinct and put some sizable spending measures on the table.

Tony Abbott’s response was mixed. For starters, it was made in a somewhat off-the-cuff fashion in an anonymous hotel in Brisbane, leaving him looking a bit like a hotel management trainee who stumbled into the wrong function room. He should have known given all the media speculation that an election date announcement was imminent and stayed in Canberra over the weekend. This was a mistake, right off the bat. His delivery was mostly quite assured, if seemingly not well orchestrated, and he actually did make a few good points that will resonate with voters, namely:

  • Why should we trust Julia Gillard if even Kevin Rudd evidently could not trust Julia Gillard?
  • Why should we trust Federal Labor if we have no idea who will fill the key ministerial portfolios in the government until after the election?
  • Why should we treat Julia Gillard and her team as being any different to the team lead by Kevin Rudd, given Gillard’s senior role in the Rudd Government?

These are all fair, thoughtful, and credible points. Unfortunately, the Opposition Leader did not deign to back them up with any positive policy announcements of note, or any real measure of what the Coalition’s agenda would actually look like if elected.

For the moment at least, the Australian people face a real conundrum. We have a decidedly second-order, tactical election on our hands. There are no grand visions, there are no inspirational plans. It seems certain that who people dislike more as a leader will largely dictate who they vote for on Saturday August 21st. Meanwhile, the Greens look set to win the balance of power in the Senate, and will likely pick up 1 (Melbourne) if not more seats in the House of Representatives. What does this mean for federal politics? I am not sure it is going to mean very much at all, at least beyond the symbolic.

It is difficult to see any future Gillard Government or Abbott Government wheeling and dealing very much with the Greens, particularly given that party’s staunch unwillingness to give some ground in order to gain some ground in terms of negotiation. Despite the likelihood of a record vote for the Greens at the election, I am more convinced than ever that the major parties, presiding somewhat slothfully over the middle ground of Australia, are going to be dictating the policy agenda over the coming parliamentary term. The marginalisation of the environmental left that took grip after the failure of Labor to deliver an ETS and the failure of the world to reach a meaningful deal in Copenhagen looks set to continue.

Given the recent performance of both majors, and the over-reliance of the Greens on Bob Brown as a credible mouthpiece, it’s hard to look forward with an enormous amount of optimism about the health of politics in Australia. Federal politics, arguably, has never looked more like state politics than it does at this very moment.

And if that’s not a put-down, I’m not sure what is.

ELSEWHERE: Mark’s views on the opening gambits over at Larvatus Prodeo are well worth a read.

Peter Brent echoes my thoughts on the odds being offered for a Coalition victory over at Mumble.