The seat counting is all but finished, and it looks like shaking down into a dead heat between the major parties. Although the Coalition are still counting Tony Crook in their numbers, the new member for O’Connor has made it clear that he wants to be considered a cross-bench MP; given that, the Coalition can’t realistically claim to be leading the count. Even if Crook does decide, in the end, to side with them, the presence of Adam Bandt – who backs Labor – evens out the number again. That leaves us exactly where we thought we would be; looking to four Independent MPs to decide who forms government, perhaps by the end of this week. And of course, everyone has an opinion about that.
Some are delighted. To these people, this situation is a real opportunity to send a message to the major parties – you don’t get away with not listening to the people. All things are possible now, whether we’re talking about changing the rules for Question Time, more say for backbenchers or reining in election advertising. At the very least, we’ll see a change in the way things are done in Canberra. The Independents have a weighty responsibility, and are going about it in a sensible way. It’s up to the major parties to prove themselves capable of running a stable government.
But there’s also an interesting little vein of poison starting to run through public commentary as the days wear on. Who are these jumped-up backbenchers to decide our government, anyway? Most of us didn’t vote for them, after all. How can we be disenfranchised like that? Are our votes worth nothing? What they should be doing is obeying the will of the people and falling into line behind the Coalition. They’re ex-Nationals, after all, and what has Labor ever done for the bush? Why, even their own electorates want a Coalition rather than a Labor government. They should get off their high horses and stop grand-standing.
Katter, Oakeshott, Windsor and Wilkie are not our saviours. They will not ride into Canberra on white horses (although Katter just might, you never know) and sweep away decades of convention with the righteous light of their convictions. At best they could get a dialogue going on matters of parliamentary reform, and if the major parties decide to band together against them, they’d be reduced to voices crying in the wilderness. After all, look at how effortlessly the Greens have been defeated in the Senate, over and over, on the issue of same-sex marriage.
They’re also not a ‘message’ to anyone. The vagaries of the Australian political system put us in this situation, not some coordinated effort to spank the major parties. None of us went to the polls thinking, ‘Aha, with my vote I will make them have to beg humbly for government’. Some of us may have suspected that a hung Parliament was likely, but none of us were capable of orchestrating it. The result can certainly be read as Australia rejecting both major parties – or at least failing to convince more than half the country that they were worthy of our votes. The Coalition doesn’t believe that; they’re sticking to the line that the result is a resounding mandate for them to form government, and this Independent business is just an annoying hurdle to get over.
As for the discontented grumblings about disenfranchisement? We really should get over this idea that if the result isn’t something we like, we’ve been cheated. There are losers in every election; and yes, it’s painful to watch a government whose ideology is the polar opposite of your own step into power. A good friend once called democracy ‘the tyranny of the majority’, and it’s a brutal – but accurate – description. Everyone has a voice, but it’s the biggest number of people saying the same thing that get the prize.
If we voted formally on August 21, we made our voices heard. That we are now in a situation where there is no clear winner, and that we are now waiting for a handful of MPs to decide who to support, doesn’t change that. In every election, it comes down to that. Usually, it’s a few major party seats that hang in the balance. This time, those parties are sidelined. It’s not a case of too much power being vested in too few hands – it’s just that this time, they’re different hands.
Then there’s the argument that the Independents are somehow obliged to crown the Coalition. Why? Because three of them are ex-Nationals? The operative word here is ‘ex’ – they’re not Nationals, and should not be expected to feel any residual loyalty. For that matter, no one should expect them to automatically reject the Coalition, either.
What about the idea that the country electorates want them to back the Coalition? Well, let’s have a look at that. This argument hinges on newspaper polls in the local media showing 50-60% support for the Coalition – but these polls were available online. Anyone in Australia could vote in them, and skew the results. There’s literally no way to tell how far the numbers reflect the feelings of the actual constituents. Those polls should rightly be tossed out.
Finally, there’s the question of grand-standing. Are the Independents overreaching themselves in asking to be briefed by Treasury and various government departments? This is perhaps the sneakiest argument of all. Implicit in the accusation is the idea that these Independents have somehow ‘forgotten their place’. They represent three country electorates, and they’re not even members of a political party; why don’t they remember that and stop getting ideas above their station?
As the most vocal advocate of parliamentary reform, Rob Oakeshott has been the biggest target for those who subscribe to this idea. His calls for a unity government and for parliamentary and ministerial reform were soundly rubbished – there’s a note of offence in the voices of the major parties, and of patronising indulgence in the media when they reported on it. Now sure, he might be wildly idealistic, but there was a sense that he had no business talking about such things in the first place.
Why not? At what point did Oakeshott – or any of us – lose the right to criticise our parliamentary system, and suggest ideas for reform?
The accusations of ‘grand-standing’ have a nasty, unspoken corollary – ‘get back in your box’. Get out of the way and let the ‘real’ politicians get on with the business of government. Well, the ‘real’ politicians should probably take a step back and look at how well they’ve been doing so far – and then perhaps start taking their situation seriously, instead of arguing which one of them has more right to rule.
Katter, Oakeshott, Windsor and Wilkie are neither messiahs nor upstarts. They are elected representatives who find themselves in a position of incredible responsibility. And they’re taking it very seriously. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that in the last week, they have shown more integrity and commitment to the good of Australia as a whole than either Gillard or Abbott.
For this, they should be absolutely commended.