Just when we thought it was all over …
Australia stepped up and did its democratic duty on Saturday. Amid accusations of dirty tricks, last-minute frantic electioneering and the heady smell of the sausage sizzle, we shuffled up to the ballot box and cast our votes.
The result? As my Magic 8-Ball said around 10.30pm Saturday night, ‘Ask again later’.
That’s right. We don’t have a government. With five seats still in doubt, the ALP holds 70 seats, the Coalition 72, Independents 2 and Greens 1. (And then there’s Tony Crook, the National MP who looks as though he will take Wilson Tuckey’s seat of O’Connor – and won’t necessarily support the Coalition). Neither of the major parties were able to make it over the 76-seat line to form government in their own right.
So what do we do now? We wait. And speculate. And horse-trade. Because it’s looking increasingly likely that we will have a hung Parliament. If that’s the case, then the business of politics may well start to resemble some kind of Japanese game show. Abbott and Gillard will race to collect enough MPs to survive a no-confidence motion, then see who makes it to the Governor-General first. We’ll have to supply our own frenetic commentary and chase music, of course. And sadly, no sumo suits.
Sound ridiculous? That’s because there are, quite simply, no rules to dictate how this is supposed to work. Who gets first bite of the Parliamentary cherry, as it were.
Abbott claims he has a mandate to form government, because the total number of Coalition votes is higher than for Labor. Gillard points out Labor won the two-party preferred vote. Abbott says it’s ‘clear’ everyone wants a change. Gillard says the Australian people have not made a clear choice. Meanwhile the rhetoric and the spin and the attacks continue.
Abbott talks like he already is the Prime Minister, and is just waiting for those who hold the balance of power to come to him asking to be let into the Big Kids’ Club. Gillard’s using the ‘consensus’ word a lot and focusing on negotiation, but making sure she slips in how much good work Labor did in power.
You know what, though? None of that matters.
Here’s what matters: the people who may determine how we are governed for the next three years. Bob Katter (Kennedy), Rob Oakeshott (Lyne), Tony Windsor (New England), Adam Bandt (Melbourne), Tony Crook (O’Connor) and Andrew Wilkie (Denison).
Who the hell are they, we might ask (with some justification)? We never see these guys on the news. How can they hold our future in their hands?
This is the nature of a two-party dominated political system. Media focus falls on the big parties, because after all, they’re going to be the ones who matter, right? Sure, a few Independents may get in here and there, but overall, could they really make any difference?
The answer to that is a resounding, ‘YES‘. This time around, it could be consensus politics, not party lines, that shapes the Parliament. Given that, it’s worth getting to know who they are.
Katter, Oakeshott, and Windsor are former National Party members. Each left the party because they were dissatisfied. Katter is vocal on the subject – he feels the Nationals no longer represent the interests of the bush, particularly farmers. Windsor’s biography is pretty coy, but there’s no love lost between him and his former party. Oakeshott parted ways with the Nationals over issues of property development and an Australian republic.
All three of these MPs are passionately committed to representing their local interests. They’ve said that they’ll work with either party, since stable government is more important than personal feelings. Interviewed on The 7.30 Report last night, they all said that they supported a national broadband network, and that Labor’s proposal was better. They’re not uniform in all their concerns, however.
Katter is concerned about issues of deregulation and protection for farmers, and opposes an Emissions Trading Scheme.
Windsor supports action on climate change, and has been involved in a number of projects, including soil carbon.
Oakeshott definitely wants an Emissions Trading Scheme.
Bandt is the first Greens member to win a seat in the federal Lower House. He claimed the seat of Melbourne from Labor after Lindsay Tanner, the Finance Minister, announced his retirement from politics earlier this year. In keeping with his party’s policies, Bandt has said he is committed to action on climate change, including a price on carbon. He is also concerned with dental care, same-sex marriage and high-speed rail links.
Bandt has already stated that he will support a Labor government.
Wilkie is former intelligence officer with the Office of National Assessments, who came to media attention in 2003 when he revealed that he believed the Australian public was being misled as to the real situation in Iraq. He ran unsuccessfully against John Howard as a Greens candidate in Bennellong. He is likely to become the Independent member for Denison.
Wilkie’s a bit of an enigma – a former Young Liberal, turned Green, and now Independent. There’s certainly no love lost between him and the Coalition (being the target of particularly vicious rhetoric for his stand over the Iraq war), but he’s signalled that he won’t necessarily side with the Greens. His concerns centre on public education, Medicare and dental health, and ethical government.
Then there’s Tony Crook. Although a member of the National Party, he has not committed to supporting the Coalition. Rather, he wants to be part of minority government negotiations. This makes him something of a maverick – it’s likely that if he does not eventually side with the Coalition, the Nationals would dis-endorse him as a candidate.
These are the men who may hold the keys to government. You’d think the major parties would be mindful of that, and respect them.
Gillard’s speech on Saturday night acknowledged Abbott as a ‘formidable opponent, and recognised that Labor had lessons to learn. She congratulated the four Independents and Bandt on their wins. She said she looked forward to negotiations, and that she realised Australia expected consensus.
Gillard phoned all five on Saturday night to congratulate them, met with Bandt and Greens leader Senator Bob Brown on Sunday, and has more meetings scheduled today.
Abbott, by contrast, came out swinging. Labor had lost the election; the Coalition had won half a million more votes; the government had therefore lost its ‘legitimacy’. His acknowledgment of Gillard sounded grudging at best; she had ‘worked hard’, ‘it couldn’t have been easy for her’. He didn’t mention the cross-bench MPs until close to the end of his speech, and when he did, it was only to say that he’d talk to them about forming government.
He made one phone call after 1:00am on election night, and has since contacted everyone except Wilkie. In a remarkable display of rudeness, his media conference yesterday lasted all of three minutes, after which he left hurriedly as a reporter was in the middle of asking a question. He made it clear that he believed the Independents owed it to the country to form government with him, repeating his ‘lost legitimacy’ rhetoric. His strategist, Michael Kroger, is out this morning warning the Independents that their electorates will turn against them if they support Labor.
If respect counts for anything, Abbott may be in trouble.
There’s another thing that Abbott should try to get his head around. Yes, there was a swing away from Labor, but it mostly went towards the Greens, not the Coalition. Voter dissatisfaction with one party does not necesssarily translate into support for its major opponent. The claims that Labor has ‘lost legitimacy’, that the Coalition ‘has a mandate’ and that ‘Australian has spoken’ are nothing more than empty rhetoric designed to panic us all into thinking that the only possible outcome here is a Coalition government.
It isn’t, and people should keep that in mind. The government will end up going to the party who can gain the most seats, not who is the biggest bully.
It could take a week for this to shake down. The count is now underway, and it looks as though Wilkie may not take Denison, after all. That would make it a little easier for Labor, but a hung parliament is still likely.
In the meantime, we’ll have to endure more of the same. More slogans, more spin, more attacks and more hysteria. We can be grateful, I suppose, that at least there’ll be no more of those dreadful ads.
In all this, it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the crucial fact in this election. Australia has spoken, all right. We sent a clear message to both major parties – we’re not confident in either of them. They haven’t been able to convince us that they are capable of representing our interests, or of acting on issues that we believe are important.
Australia has spoken, and it said ‘None of the above’.
We must not let either Labor or the Coalition forget that.
The prime time news is reporting that Quentin Bryce, the Governor-General is ‘seeking advice’ about a possible conflict of interest, because her daughter is married to Labor MP Bill Shorten. Apparently this is in response to questions raised in the media as to whether she could truly be impartial in resolving the hung Parliament.
This is a beat-up of the first order, and here’s why.
The Governor-General does not decide who can try to form government. Her job is to wait until either major leader fronts up on her doorstep with a list of MPs that have agreed to form a coalition. If the requisite number if reached, she then swears in that leader as Prime Minister. This is immediately tested on the floor of Parliament, via a no-confidence motion brought by the Opposition. Should the putative government survive that motion, hey presto, we have a government.
To suggest that Quentin Bryce might pull some kind of sneaky trick is absurd. The only way she could interfere with this process is if Abbott fronted up with the numbers and she refused to accept them. Given the amount of scrutiny this whole election is under, the idea that she could do that and get away with that is ridiculous. Abbott would run straight to the media, and we would have a scandal of the first order on our hands.
The only power the Governor-General has here is to swear in the PM. If Gillard has the numbers, she gets in. If Abbott does, it’s his job. If neither can do it, Gillard has to seek writs for a new election.
And take a look at who was claiming this ‘conflict of interest’. Unsurprisingly, it’s been the Murdoch papers – the most partisan media group in Australia. The anti-Labor, anti-Green bias of Murdoch’s empire is well-known; you only have to look at a handful of editorials to see that. So why are they bringing this up now?
Maybe it’s because Labor is firming in the polls. It’s looking increasingly as though they will end up with 74 seats, counting Adam Bandt in coalition with them. This strengthens their argument that they will be more able to form a stable government (which is the one factor Katter, Oakeshott and Windsor have all said is most important in their decision-making process) – more seats, and a co-operative Senate to get legislation passed. Seen in that light, there’s more than a whiff of desperation about the whole notion that Bryce is hopelessly compromised by her relationship to Shorten.
In seeking legal advice, Bryce is not admitting anything. She is sensibly refuting the accusation that anything improper is going on. Already, constitutional lawyers have firmly declared that there is no conflict of interest.
This is just more noise and bluster. It’s completely in step with Kroger attempting to scare the Independents towards the Liberal-National Coalition, and Abbott’s claim that he has a moral right to form government.
It means nothing.