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.

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.