It’s an impressive word, isn’t it? Positively drips with authority. We’ve heard it bandied about quite a bit in this election by the two major parties. Abbott ‘has a mandate’ because the Coalition has a larger slice of the primary vote. Gillard ‘has a mandate’ because Labor is winning the two-party preferred vote. The Coalition has the mandate because the people rejected the mining tax. Labor has the mandate because the people want better broadband.
So it goes. But what does that actually mean? What the heck is a mandate anyway?
At its most basic, a mandate can be defined as ‘a command or authorization to act in a particular way on a public issue given by the electorate to its representative’. Seems clear enough. In this case, then, the ‘public issue’ is actually forming government. Also pretty straightforward – so figuring out who’s got the mandate should be easy, right?
Not if you read/listen to/watch the media. There are passionate arguments coming from both sides, and from all areas of the media. Most of these arguments sound rational – or at least plausible, which doesn’t help. Surely the party who got the most votes should govern? But wait – we have a preferential voting system, not first-past-the-post, so should all preferences should be factored into the final decision? The commentary goes round and round and it just gets more confusing.
The Coalition are particularly strident in their claims of a mandate. The reasoning behind it seems to be that if they say it long enough and loud enough, people will eventually realise they are ‘right’. Labor’s not getting left behind on the mandate rhetoric, either. That nearly brought them undone last night, when the Australian Electoral Commission suddenly changed the way it calculated the two-party preferred numbers, and the Coalition appeared to surge ahead.
The simple truth is this: there is no clear mandate to govern, and there won’t be – no matter which party eventually gets backed by the Independents, Green and WA National MPs. The reason? The Constitution is silent on the whole question. It doesn’t say which set of numbers indicates a mandate to form government if a majority of 50% +1 isn’t reached. As former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser said last night on QandA, convention dictates that all things being equal, the current Prime Minister should make the first attempt, but that’s all it is – convention. State governments have wrestled with the question of minority governments, and the solutions have been as varied as the states themselves.
Bob Brown said it most succinctly – the party who can get the most numbers after negotiating with the minor parties and Independents will form government. That’s it.
So, whichever way this shakes down, neither the Coalition nor Labor will have any basis to claim they have a moral right bestowed upon them by the electorate. Not that this is likely to stop either of them. But it’s worth remembering. As a people, Australia did not deliver a clear mandate to anyone. No amount of number-crunching or finger-pointing is going to change that.
It’s fairly important that the major parties not be allowed to forget that, either. In a perfect world, this might be an opportunity for them to learn some humility. I’m not that optimistic, but I do hope that it will at least be an occasion for some party room soul-searching.