Tuesday, 10 September 2013

The Abbott Government's challenge: the common good and unrepresentative swill

Australia has a new Government and a new Prime Minister, elected decisively with what looks to be around a thirty seat majority over Labor (plus three minor party representatives).

Accordingly, we should offer our prayers for our new leaders and Government.

Some of the international reporting of this is, latched onto by Catholic news aggregation sites, are claiming Mr Abbott's win as a victory for conviction politics.  It would be nice if that were true, but in reality the story is a lot more complex.

A vote against Labor rather than for the Coalition?

The final outcome for Labor was dire.   They received their lowest primary vote for decades, and lost some of their best talent even before the election with the resignations of several senior Ministers when the party dumped Ms Gillard.

They deserved this defeat, both because of their utter failure to sell their successes; Mr Rudd's failure to follow through on major perceived policy challenges for the country when he was PM; Labor's repeated missteps in Government; and the awful disunity that continues to plague the party.

Alas, to the consternation of many Labor supporters, the results were not quite dire enough, for Mr Rudd has managed to scrape back into the Parliament himself on preferences and seems determined not to resign his seat despite the widespread acknowledgement of the damage his campaign of destabilisation did under Gillard, and the dire effects of his chaotic style combined with rank amateurism and policy development on the run during the campaign.

Yet the curious thing about the outcome is that the Coalition won not with a huge swing to them in the primary vote, but rather off the back of third party preferences.  Indeed, the Coalition primary vote actually went down in Queensland, WA and the ACT.

Nationally, the Labor vote was down 4.1%.  But the Coalition primary vote was up only 1.7%.  The Green vote went down substantially (by 3.4%) - but the primary vote for other parties was up 5.7%.

A mandate?

Some of the Coalition gains, it is true, reflect much greater than average swings in places like Tasmania.

But on the face of it, many people registered a protest vote and then pumped for the perceived least worst party  - viz the Coalition - with their preferences.

That suggests Mr Abbott has a challenge on his hands to convince the electorate that his is a good Government.

Indeed, the real task is surely to rebuild trust in Government of any kind, a trust that has been undermined in part by his own attacks not so much on the policies, but on the very legitimacy of the previous Government: there has been an inevitable spillover from this line of attack and it will take a long time to repair the damage.

That task won't be helped by grab bag of 'micro' parties who do look like controlling the Senate and could block key elements of Mr Abbott's agenda.

Indeed, there is a very real prospect of another election sooner rather than later if Mr Abbott's comments before the election are to be believed.  Last night on the ABC's 7.30 three of the Senator's made it clear that whatever the result in the lower house, they see themselves as having a mandate to challenge the Government of the day.  Senator Madigan (DLP) said:

"Well, look, Leigh, the Government is made up in the Lower House. The Senate is a house of review. I hope truly that the Senate will return to being a true house of review that reviews legislation in the best interests of all Australians. And being elected to Parliament, to the Senate, is a privilege, it's not a licence to bludgeon. But it is a licence to put forward people's concerns and to express sections of our society that get ignored."

Buying influence

So who are these minor parties?

On the positive side, the Green vote was substantially down.  The bad news was that they managed to retain their lower house seat, and Senator Hanson-Young seems set to be re-elected.  But they no longer hold the balance of power in either house.

Fortunately the extreme libertarianism of the Wikileaks Party didn't get any traction, but the equally libertarian 'Liberal Democrats' do look set to win a seat.

And eccentric multi-millionaire (or billionaire depending on who you believe) Clive Palmer seems to have demonstrated that money does indeed talk in Australia today - having been tossed out of the Coalition for his excessive demands, he now looks set to enter Parliament himself, accompanied by a couple of Senators.

The oddest outcomes though is surely the likely election of a Senator for the 'Motoring Enthusiasts party' for Victoria, despite being ranked thirteenth in terms of primary votes in that State, and the 'Australian Sports Party' for WA, off the back of a mere 1,908 primary votes!

The problem was the bizarre web of preference deals.  Here in the ACT, with around 30 candidates, filling out all of one's preferences 'under the line' was feasible; most people I know in other States gave up all good intentions and voted above the line (accepting the party they voted for's distribution of preferences) when faced with the size (and small type!) of the ballot paper.

I'm all in favour of third parties that actually do reflect the views of some part of the electorate.

But never has former PM Paul Keating's famous description of the Senate as unrepresentative swill looked more apposite.

Let's hope that this proves a spur to the introduction of optional preferential voting, so you can stop numbering after you run out of people you actually want to vote for, and other changes to ensure that the common good really is reflected in the outcome.

Look forward to interesting times.


Maureen said...

Queensland is still reeling from Campbell Newman's cuts; thus the reluctance to dump good Labor members I suppose.
In my own family, a daughter-in-law and a daughter both lost nursing jobs. All well now, but it was rather awful at the time.

A Canberra Observer said...

It was a very tight race for who would come 27th on my ballot paper. Very hard to pick a winner from what looks liek a dead heat of 20 horses in the race.

R J said...

My guess is that if Turnbull - whom, incidentally, I loathe for the ersatz nature of his Catholicism - had led the Coalition still, it would have been a 50-seat majority, not a 30-seat one. Turnbull could have appealed to Green sentiment and what remains of republican sentiment; Abbott, quite obviously, cannot. And let us not forget that Turnbull was deposed in 2009 as opposition leader by a grand total of one vote.