Well, the challenge is on. After an anxious 17 day post-election wait, Australians finally know for sure who will be running the country for the next three years – or possibly less. The ALP, led by Julia Gillard, will form a minority government – while needing the support of either the opposition, or at least 4 of the 5 Independent and Greens MPs to pass legislation through the lower house. From July next year she’ll also have to gain the support of either the Coalition or the Greens to get legislation past the Senate as well.
Is this the election outcome the majority of Australians wanted? The jury is still out, but the answer in my opinion is no. Voters decisively removed the mandate they’d given to Kevin Rudd’s government in 2007 – which suggests they are unhappy with the ALP’s performance. However they didn’t give the Coalition a majority so a Tony Abbott led government was not an overwhelmingly popular choice either. They wanted change, but they weren’t quite sure what they wanted to change to. The proof will be in the pudding, really – if this government is successful, we can say the people made exactly the right decision; if it collapses before its time, there will be many voters and indeed some Independent MPs wondering whether they made the right choice. But only time will tell.
Without focussing on the reasons the ALP lost its majority, or the reasons the coalition didn’t gain one, I thought it appropriate to start moving forward (to borrow a phrase) and look at what this means for the future of our parliament.
While we’ve been waiting for a decision from the Independents on which party they’d support to govern the country, many political commentators have been loudly proclaiming the virtues of a minority government, citing examples where it has been successful in the past at state level. However there has been a notable lack of mention of the times it has failed – for example the last Federal minority government which was led by Menzies after the 1940 election, and fell apart in 1941 when 2 Independents switched sides. The Labor-Green accord in Tasmania from 1989, which lasted just over a year (though elections were not held until 2 years later) is another example where a fragile alliance couldn’t withstand the rigors of a full term of government. This event generated such animosity between the Tasmanian Greens and Labor Party that ill feelings still exist to this day. Having just come back from the UK I feel that the Conservative-Liberal Democrat alliance there is relatively fragile; it’s also generated extreme division amongst both parties, with a real risk that they (particularly the Lib-Dems) will suffer electorally for it. This runs a very real risk of distracting executive government from doing the job they were elected to do in representing the people.
Ultimately, minority government is a major risk for both sides, but more so for the parties involved in the so-called rainbow coalition. As Rob Oakeshott said in his press conference yesterday – ‘It’ll be ugly – but it’ll be beautiful in it’s ugliness’ – I would suggest that there will definitely be ugliness, but the beauty, maybe, not so much. Let’s see how it goes.
What our elected representatives have facing them now is a great challenge in making this work. The prize, ultimately, is the respect of the Australian people and the opportunity to govern as a party in their own right.
Julia Gillard has been handed an opportunity to prove that all her talk about consensus building is not just hot air. Her first weeks in government didn’t do much to prove her ability to drive an agenda and influence policy – she caved to the miners and vastly weakened the mining tax (including reducing the headline rate, which was previously a non-negotiable item). She also chose to cop out on climate policy by offering a Kevin Rudd-ish ‘citizens assembly’ to debate the issue without any real commitment to genuine policy. In the new parliament she will have to negotiate and make deals with a broad range of ideologies, including the far left Greens (who Rudd notably chose not to negotiate with on the ETS) and Independents who range from centre-left to centrist to the far right. It could be like herding cats.
Gillard must avoid falling into two major traps. The first is to ensure that she doesn’t go all Rudd-like and start playing the ‘my way or the highway’ game. If this happens her government will be politically impotent and the people of Australia will deliver a ballot box castration at the first available opportunity. She must use the expertise available to her from the Independents to shape policy and deliver outcomes for the majority of Australians, not pandering to the country dwelling farmers, the latte sipping urbanites, the Western Sydney working class OR the beard stroking professor types. ALL these groups and more need to be considered when making policy decisions. Since the alliance, she has announced one notable change of direction – a committee to debate a proposed carbon tax or ETS – which will only be open to people who are committed to that aim. To me, that is not consensus building, or negotiating, it is a groupthink circle jerk of bloodymindedness. Australia is deeply divided on this issue and until Gillard is willing to acknowledge the very real concerns that Australians have about contentious issues like these, she runs the risk of falling into the same trap Rudd did.
The other risk which Gillard needs to be mindful of is taking government policy too far to the left. Gillard’s history would suggest that her personal politics lean towards a socialist agenda. Now that the ALP have a formal alliance with the left-wing Greens, who will hold the balance of power in the Senate next year, this is a temptation that must be avoided at all costs. I contend that a large majority of Australians are quite economically conservative. I’d also contend that a smaller majority of Australians are socially conservative too, despite the increasingly shrill voice of progressives in the community – many of us don’t particularly like change and many of the trendy issues of today only affect fringe groups. Let’s see a commitment to dealing with the bigger issues that affect the whole country before devoting time to these. Have a conscience vote on gay marriage, sure, and get it out of the way, but let’s not spend months focussing on issues that only affect 10% of the country. If it gets defeated, don’t complain, acknowledge that the country is not ready yet and move on to the stuff that matters to the majority – I’m talking proper health reform not cost shifting; less welfare for people who don’t need it, more spending on infrastructure (and I’m talking things we actually NEED, not duplicating existing school halls), and get us out of debt as the risk of a double dip recession isn’t going away.
If Gillard can meet these two challenges successfully, winning a majority at the next election, whether it comes early or not, should be assured.
On the opposition benches, Tony Abbott has a similar, yet different, set of challenges to face. Firstly, he needs to change his tactics slightly. He ran a very successful small target election campaign which focussed on the ALP’s failings as a government, preceded by a successful strategy of opposing much of Labor’s legislation. Now, in this ‘new paradigm’ parliament, he cannot expect to win votes by doing this. It is imperative that he works within the new parameters and attempts to be constructive, provide improvements to the government’s agenda, and oppose legislation tactically rather than ideologically. If the Australian people see him opposing everything for the sake of opposing, the next election will be a whitewash and Abbott’s leadership will be over.
The second, and perhaps more challenging thing for Abbott is that while being a part of this co-operative parliament, he must continue to present the coalition as an alternative government that is significantly different and significantly better than the ALP. It is an extremely fine line to walk, while appearing to support genuine reform and positive outcomes, to also know what policies to attack and when to oppose – and then how to justify that opposition to the Australian people in a way that lets everyone know he has the entire country’s best interests at heart, rather than political points scoring.
I believe Malcolm Turnbull was attempting to work in this cooperative fashion last year on the ETS; where he failed was in differentiating the Coalition from the government. Voters could not see the point in voting for an opposition which appeared to agree with the government on significant areas of such a contentious policy. He also showed a significant failure of judgement in knowing when to attack during the OzCar affair. Still, I’ve heard many commenters suggesting they may have voted Liberal if Turnbull was still leader – my response to that is that if Turnbull was still leader of the Liberal Party, an ETS would be in place and Kevin Rudd would still be Prime Minister in a majority Labor government, waffling about detailed programmatic specificity and baffling us with bullshit. Tony Abbott needs to learn from Turnbull’s mistakes and walk the tightrope between political pragmatism and ferocious opposition – it won’t be easy. But it will earn him a higher level of trust from the Australian people.
If Abbott can do all the above, he can position himself as an alternative Prime Minister and lead the Coalition to an election winning position – particularly if the rainbow coalition can’t govern effectively and doesn’t go the full term.
And a final challenge to all our politicians, particularly the two leaders, which they need to deliver on: don’t talk down to us. While the reasons for Kevin Rudd’s falling poll numbers (ultimately costing him the Prime Ministership) were legion – in the top handful would be that Australians tuned out. The reason they failed to tune out is that the ‘working families’ and ‘let me tell you’ and ‘can I just say’ mantras became like fingernails on a blackboard to many ordinary people on the street. What’s utterly mind boggling is that both Labor and Coalition speechwriters are still insisting on the same power phrases to try and get their message across – think ‘big new tax’ and ‘moving forward’. You know what, guys? Australians are not frigging stupid. If you genuinely believe what you’re doing is correct, then passion and charisma will shine through. Use your intellect more than your speechwriters, show us your vision and throw away the script. Australia needs you.