Saturday, August 28, 2010

Politics, Politics

How annoying: after five weeks of the most boring and irritating election in living memory, with nought but spin on offer, as the whole nation evidently agreed, the end result being no result at all, only manifest confusion - now, a week's gone by and we're no further forward, and it could be weeks more...

My friends in Hobart (where I've just been, and where alas I've caught a cold) point out that gaining the Prime Ministership in this hung parliament may well be a poisoned chalice for whichever politician manages to cobble together a loose alliance sufficient to gain power, which could well turn out to be a fatally compromised and weak administration: either Labor will be beholden to a curious gaggle of green left-wingers and rightist populists, or the Coalition will have to become even more of a ramshackle assemblage, since the "three amigos", the country independents who are ex-National Party men all, hate and are hated by their former colleagues.

Consider for a moment the situation in the 150 member House of Representatives, as it now appears certain to be, given the agonizingly slow count of absentee, provisional and postal votes in the crucial seats is all but over:

  • 72 Labor;
  • 1 Green;
  • 1 left-leaning independent (Wilkie, the unexpected winner in Hobart, who came third at the polls but won on preferences);
  • 3 country independents (ex-National Party);
  • 1 Western Australian National (who unexpectly has decided not to sit as part of the Coalition);
  • 72 Coalition (44 Liberal; 21 Liberal National; 6 National; 1 Country Liberal).
That is, 72 Labor, 6 crossbenchers, and 72 Coalition M.P.'s.  But which side sits on the Government side of the Chamber, to Mr Speaker's right, and which on the left, as Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, that remains to be seen - and could change partway through.   And who will be elected as the Speaker?

Voting for Godot (with apologies to Samuel Beckett)

For non-Australian readers, an explanation of "the Coalition" may be in order.  (But first, note that big-el "Liberal" here means "conservative" or more right-wing generally, as opposed to small-el liberal.  Unlike in the U.S., here "liberal" is not considered a derogatory epithet.)

A history lesson, then: after the first ten years of Federation, the non-Labor side of politics (Free Traders and Protectionists) came together into the first Liberal Party (which went through several amalgamations with ex-Labor men, and resultant changes of name, until its final transmogrification into the modern Liberal Party in 1944).  However, farmers and other rural interests set up the Country Party shortly after the First World War, and this gained the balance of power in the Federal Elections of 1922.  After that result, an all-but-permanent Coalition was agreed between the Liberals and the Country Party (which eventually changed its name to the National Party), so that the right-wing, anti-socialist side of politics could outfox those on the left.  

To this end, Australia both Federally and on the State level famously adopted the preferential system of voting, whereby voters number the candidates on their ballots in order of preference from first to last, and the votes going to the less successful conservative candidate could be redistributed to the more successful - thus preventing Labor winning seats with a minority plurality of votes against a split conservative field. Nowadays, by contrast, it is Labor that profits from the second preferences of those who vote first for the Greens.  Disturbingly for Labor, the Greens for the first time have gained more votes than Labor (in the trendy inner-city seat of Melbourne) and so Labor preferences elected a Green M.P.

To complete the picture, in Tasmania the National Party never succeeded; in Western Australia, the Nationals there - first established in 1913 - are more independent-minded and aren't part of the formal Coalition; in the Northern Territory, the conservative side of politics coalesced as the Country Liberal Party; and just two years ago the Nationals and the Liberals amalgamated in Queensland to form the Liberal Nationals.  The Nationals have faded in strength over the decades as rural Australia has diminished in relative numbers, and now hold seats in New South Wales and Victoria only (in South Australia, they are a very small faction, and in fact support Labor).  The Australian Capital Territory, filled with public servants (a term invented in Australia, and at first a euphemism for convicts), is unsurprisingly a centre of Labor and Green sentiment.

The Australian Labor Party, meanwhile, was founded in 1890, and has survived several splits, whether over conscription during the First World War, or alleged communist infiltration in the 1950's - the notorious Split, which in particular divided Catholics against Catholics (as Catholics then were generally working class and overwhelmingly supported Labor).  For two decades, the Catholic hardliners who broke away to form the Democratic Labor Party supported the Coalition in power, but the D.L.P. died away to nothing by the mid-seventies - yet, as Lazarus, it has risen again, and may just win a Senate seat in Victoria once the full vote is counted.

Most recently, the rise of the Greens on the left has begun to whittle away at Labor: as a sign of things to come, the Greens have just won their first lower house seat, and in seven electorates the Greens recorded over 20% of the vote: if their vote continues to increase, overall the left of politics will return more Green and fewer Labor members.  Will there be a phase change, as happened just a hundred years ago with Labor itself, and will Labor die out to be replaced by Greens?  If climate change really be a dire threat (time will tell) then Blind Freddy could predict that the Greens will one day win in their own right...

So, where to from here?

Labor is increasingly leaking support to the new left, the Greens.  Come mid-2011, when the newly-elected Senators take their seats, the Greens will have the balance of power in the Senate, thus giving that chamber a leftist majority.  (Twelve Senators sit for each State, six being elected every three years by proportional representation.)  Should Labor cobble together the majority it needs in the House, however, Julia Gillard will need not only the support of Adam Bandt, the Green (a one-man Trojan horse, taking Labor further to the left with his unwelcome presence), but also somehow ensure the vote of the unpredictable independent M.P. Andrew Wilkie, plus win over the three country independents, rural populists all from conservative, anti-Labor seats - particularly mad Bob Katter.  Strange bedfellows indeed...

On the other hand, can Tony Abbott enlarge the Coalition still further, and calm the hatred between the three country independents and the Nationals whose party they broke away from years ago?  And he will have the aptly-named Mr Crook, the new W.A. National M.P., to negotiate a deal with as well: these four conservative rural populists will all want their pound of flesh, or rather some good old-fashioned pork barrelling for their electorates.

The six cross-benchers have been self-importantly flexing their political muscles all week, and even some Senators have got into the act.  What a madhouse!  And how bad for the nation, since whichever side of politics gains power, the mainstream will be stymied in attempts at rational reform by the necessity of placating whichever independent members deign, for the moment, to guarantee a slim majority in the House.

Whatever the solemn promises made of this Parliament going the full term of three years, I for one will be unsurprised to find whatever deal is done breaking down, and in the midst of mutual mudslinging we'll all be back to the polls by next year.  This is particularly likely given the looming domination of the Senate by the Greens.

In the Constitution, the provision for overcoming deadlocks between the Houses comes down to the possibility of the Governor-General granting a double dissolution, and a full Senate election as well as that of new House of Representatives.  

If Abbott wins the confidence of the House and becomes our Prime Minister within the next few weeks, he will certainly be shrewd enough to pass his legislation through the present Senate with all speed, but also leave a few controversial bills for the new Senate of 2011 to reject - which will be so many double dissolution triggers.  Come July next, and Prime Minister Abbott will fight a full Senate and House of Reps. election, right versus left, Liberal-National Coalition versus Labor-cum-Green.  Such is one real possibility.  But P.M. Gillard might well try the same trick: kill or be killed, old left versus new left.

But whoever gains power, our Julia or our Tony, La Guillotine or the Mad Monk, it will be in the interest of their own parties to win at all costs an absolute majority next time, without the vexation of dealmaking.

We are at a crossroads: will Australian politics remain a basically two-party contest, Labor versus the Coalition, or will our polity fragment into a multi-party system, as has already happened in our ANZAC neighbour, New Zealand?

A week is a long time in politics, indeed.

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