Et tu, Julia?

It’s a bit funny how quickly personal fortunes can turn around; just a month or two ago, the putsch was on, and we were all watching Kevin Michael Rudd give his final, painful press conference as Prime Minister. At that point in time, it did not seem likely that we would see Rudd return to the forefront of political debate in this country. Although he was at pains to re-iterate his commitment to continue on the backbenches as the Member for Griffith, before very long the media rumour mill was running overtime with suggestions on what international diplomatic roles might potentially float across the former Prime Minister’s desk.

Now the Rudd Government is history, the campaign is history, the federal election itself is history, and we have a Gillard Labor Government at the helm, assisted by the Greens and independents Andrew Wilkie, Tony Windsor, and Rob Oakeshott. If that wasn’t strange enough, the former Prime Minister has returned as a frontline member of Cabinet as Foreign Minister; one pictures him staggering zombie-like into the room with that Milky Bar grin, daggers jutting haphazardly from his back. We’re a long way from Kansas now. One supposes, given the unpredictability of recent events, that it would not be completely inconceivable for Kevin Rudd to emerge as Prime Minister again in some crazy election campaign in the future.

There is little doubt that Rudd is the best person for the job in Foreign Affairs and that under normal conditions, he would be a big plus for the government. Stephen Smith has run a tight ship but has not really shone either during his time in the role, particularly given that he was always operating in Rudd’s shadow. Suggestions from the Opposition and indeed from Professor Hugh White that the former Prime Minister damaged Australia’s relationships with some of its partners during his time in office are exaggerated. As it stands however, given the circumstances, there are clearly going to be some outstanding personal issues that Federal Labor will need to confront in Cabinet in order to govern effectively. An already byzantine situation, given the reliance of Labor on the Greens and the independents for power, will hardly be simplified by the fact that one of the most senior positions in the government is held by someone who was so recently betrayed by the new Prime Minister.

Matters are so delicately poised that a by-election in practically any seat but the most safest of seats could result in a change of government. I’m not too sure about the stability bit, but this election has certainly delivered political intrigue to the nation – in spades.

The three amigos and the glasshouse government

At long last, the three amigos [cue ambient, vaguely Mexican acoustic guitar arpeggio] have made their decision on the fate of Australia’s federal government, and Gillard Labor has been granted a reprieve.

The Three Caballeros

Having junked the idea of “sticking together” in order to consolidate their power, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott have decided to support a Labor minority government, with Bob Katter pursuing the somewhat safer course of siding with the Coalition. Under the circumstances, this is probably the best outcome that could have been negotiated from a Labor point of view. It’s likely best for Bob Katter and his hat to be getting up to mischief outside the tent rather than inside.

There has been a lot of discussion in the media and in the blogosphere on whether having a minority government of the ilk that we have is, on balance, a good thing. A couple of days ago, Kim over at Larvatus Prodeo expressed her strong disagreement with the notion that the independents deciding who would form government was somehow undemocratic. In the papers of the “morning after”, George Megalogenis describes parliament as “a house more divided than ever before”, and Greg Craven has a thoughtful, if perhaps pessimistic piece in the SMH wondering just how long the “surreal” arrangements forged in the last twenty-four hours will last.

I think its quite possible to be optimistic about some of the good things that the Gillard minority government looks capable of delivering, whilst being critical of the realistic legitimacy of the outcome and the outlook for the stability of governance in Australia. To start with the positive points: the prospect that Australia will see some real, consensual reform to parliamentary structure and procedures is certainly a welcome one, and well overdue. Furthermore, at least for those of us of the centre-left, the possibility that an ALP/Greens alliance will bring some worthwhile policy dividends (e.g. particularly on climate change, human rights issues, and transport) is tantalising. There will be a clear imperative for Federal Labor to pursue a more progressive policy agenda, now that they are reliant on the Greens and Andrew Wilkie for support in the lower house and indeed to pass legislation through the Senate.

But is this really a reflection of what Australia wants? Let’s be clear – the way the numbers fell, with both major parties falling short of a majority and the Greens and a number of independents controlling the balance of power, was pot luck. A number of marginal seats could very easily have flipped to the other major party had circumstances been slightly different, resulting in a majority government. If voters knew that a hamstrung government condemned to twitch to the tune of a motley gang of independents was on the cards, many may well have voted differently. Realistically speaking, the majority of electors voted for a Labor Government or a Coalition Government, not something else. That we have neither today (at least in the normal sense) is not a function of the “all-seeing wisdom of the Australian people”, but really just a quirky twist of electoral fate. Indeed, assuming that there is at least some swing towards either the ALP or the Coalition at the next election, it seems highly unlikely that the current, delicately balanced situation in the House of Representatives will persist beyond the next three years. That is, of course, if it lasts even that long.

Let’s consider for just a moment the political reality that Julia Gillard’s incoming minority administration has to deal with. Firstly, it must negotiate in an effective manner with both Andrew Wilkie and the Greens, a party renowned for taking quite a hard line on issues on which it feels it morally attached to. I’m not being critical necessarily of the Greens (in some respects this approach is quite laudable), but one would fundamentally expect that in order to retain their and Wilkie’s support, Labor is going to have to tackle a number of issues in a manner that is hardwired to discourage or disgust large chunks of middle Australia – the same middle Australia that rejected Labor in swathes in Queensland and seats in the outer suburbs of Sydney at the polls two weeks ago. The same swinging, relatively non-partisan middle Australia that in recent electoral history, has decided who forms governments and who does not, by siding with either Labor or the Coalition.

Secondly, Labor must appease independents Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott. Clearly there are some policy areas on which the two rural independents may be amenable (e.g. climate change, the NBN), but there are a number of other areas in which they will clearly not be, particularly when one considers the need of Labor to satiate the Greens. Finally, Labor needs to do all of this whilst fending off a Coalition with a free run at the middle ground and a veritable of smorgasboard of weeping sores at which to pick; an array of inconsistencies between the various policy positions and beliefs of the various parties and independents who together make up the minority government.

Perhaps I am wrong, and things will go swimmingly for Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her really quite diverse team. But this looks to me like a very difficult situation in which to drive reform, and a very fragile working arrangement. It is a situation arrived at as much by dice-playing and the ego of a few bit players as it is democracy in the popular sense of the word.