Sunday, August 22, 2010

The people have spoken, working out what they said will take some time

Australia just had a federal election. As PM Julia Gillard said in her speech on the night, quoting Bill Clinton, the people have spoken, it will take some time to work out what they said.

The likely result is a hung parliament. We have not had one of those federally in Australia since 1941. It is vaguely possible we might have a majority Coalition Government. It is vaguely possible we might have a ALP Government with a majority based on the support of the new Green member for Melbourne. It is much more likely that neither side will have a majority, in which case the three ex-National Party Independents in the Parliament (all re-elected with substantial swings to them) will become Very Important Members.

Winners in the election: Tony Abbott, Bob Brown and (it seems likely) the Independents.
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Tony Abbott came from winning Liberal Leadership by one vote when the Opposition was fractured, the incumbent PM was riding high in the polls and a nasty result for the Coalition at the next election looked likely. Eight months later, he has seen off an incumbent PM and deprived a first-term Government of its majority--something that has not happened in Australian Federal politics since Scullin in 1931. (And Scullin had a Great Depression and an acting Treasurer who defected to lead the Opposition: for those who like historical parallels, Scullin had won election campaigning against industrial relations reform, with the sitting PM losing his seat just Kevin Rudd did in 2007 against John Howard and WorkChoices.) Tony Abbott might still end up PM as a result of the election.

The Greens have clearly done well with about 11% of the House of Representatives vote. A lot of their 3.7%pt swing was grumpy ALP voters, but it is still a good result for them. A notable success was winning the seat of Melbourne, giving them their first House of Representatives seat won in a general election. Bob Brown will likely control the balance of power in the Senate.

Julia Gillard starting the election with a 17-seat majority and ending up possibly with less seats than the Coalition would normally tag her a loser, but she campaigned well in extremely difficult circumstances. She was easily the best thing going for the ALP.

I was at my business partner's place, watching the various election coverages on the "big screen". The Nine network coverage was the most lively and entertaining. A highlight was an ALP politician (Nicola Roxon, my local member) being much fairer about the performance of Tony Abbott and the Coalition than a journalist, Christine Wallace, who tried to seriously argue that Abbott had failed because he had not won Government (which no Opposition has done against a first-term Government since 1931) but what really mattered was the Green vote. 11% with a 3.7%pt swing is a good result, but not a remarkable one for a third Party in an election campaign that did not excite folk. The ALP did rather better when it was the third Party, as did the Country Party, the DLP and the Democrats in their turn. The notion that the Greens are some great moral bellwether--that the 11% who voted for the Greens count SO much more than the 43% who voted for the Coalition, for example--is just tedious inner-city arrogance but well in line with the first principle of modern progressivism: the more absolute one's commitment to equality, the higher one's status.

So, the result is, we do not know the final outcome of the election, and will not until the pre-polls and postals are counted. The campaign was pretty boring and did not excite folk (I cannot remember being so indifferent about which side won a federal election: this would appear to a common outlook), but the outcome is proving much more exciting.

One of the gay couple who owns a local cafe, Seddon Deadly Sins, said of the result:
At least the Parliament is now well hung.
Which brings up the issue of the Independents.

The three rural Independents, all of whom have been re-elected with substantial swings to them--Tony Windsor, Bob Katter and Rob Oakeshott--are all former members of the National Party and are all experienced MPs. They do not represent natural Labor electorates, which may make supporting a Labor Government difficult. On the other hand, they are all ex-Nats, which brings its own baggage. But they are serious, experienced politicians and Parliamentarians. It is hardly some disaster if a Government has to rest on their support. Indeed, it may be good for the political process and the health of the Parliament.

That all the incumbent Independents in Federal Parliament represent rural seats is hardly a surprise. Rural seats have local media (including local radio and TV) that a local MP can use effectively to gain and keep a local profile. This is generally not true in urban Australia.

Except inner urban Australia where, if you are a Green candidate, you do have local media. It is called the ABC and, in Melbourne, The Age, in Sydney The Sydney Morning Herald. Apart from a few "country change" niches, the mainland Green vote is overwhelmingly an inner city phenomena. (Making the Greens--particularly given their effective alliance with the ALP--a sort of reverse National Party.) Hence the Greens doing best among all the States and Territories in the ACT. Hence also winning the seat of Melbourne (inner city Melbourne) and being a chance in Grayndler (inner city Sydney).

Their next best performance is in Tasmania. Which may (stress may) have elected a former Green as Independent MP for Denison, though that very much depends on how the preferences flow. The Constitution guarantees every State at least five seats in the House of Representatives, so Tasmanian seats have significantly fewer voters than mainland seats. Tasmania also has some very particular dynamics and issues, so is not exactly an exemplar for the rest of the country.

The inner city may be terribly impressed with the success of the Greens, but it is a set of rural MPs who are likely to have the big sway on the floor of the House if neither side can get a majority. And given Green policy is so much about destroying jobs and degrading property rights in rural and provincial Oz (they really are a reverse National Party), the outcomes might be a lot less to inner city satisfaction than folk expect. Whichever side gets the nod.

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