Don’t panic

In what’s looking a bit like a game of ‘Hard to Get’, the three country Independents are still not sure when they will make their decisions. Katter initially indicated that he would decide yesterday, but then made it known that it might not be until Tuesday. Windsor and Oakeshott agree on this, although Oakeshott even speculated that Wednesday wasn’t out of the question. Today, they’re talking again with the leaders of the major parties.

Surely they’ve made up their minds by now? What else can they possibly have to talk about?

Well, we don’t have any idea how they’re leaning, although that hasn’t dampened the speculation – and the condemnation. Here’s a sample – see if you can pick the pundits from the punters.

‘Sadly, the independents have apparently been sucked into the Labor Party orbit, taking advice from partisans such as Bruce Hawker and GetUp.’

‘ …the independents should not return this failed government.’

‘If there is a Liberal-National government formed, then that government will do its best to get those three out of office because they think that those seats belong to them.’

‘What a circus this is turning out to be. Windsor and Oakeshott are carrying on as if they have not made up their minds.’

‘Three formerly conservative Independent candidates, each humping baggage from their past affiliations get to choose the government. Three amigos? Three inflated egos more likely. If that is democracy, God help us.’

‘The longer this interregnum goes on, the more public sentiment skews towards another election.’

Those are some of the nicer comments. A quick tour around media websites and Twitter shows just how strongly people are prepared to put their views, however – lovely words like ‘farce,’ ‘power-mad’, ‘incompetent’, ‘insignificant’, ‘jumped-up’, and my personal favourite, ‘holding the country to ransom’.

It should be fairly clear by now that no one is going to hurry the Independents. That didn’t stop Abbott publishing an open letter in the Sunday Telegraph that can best be described as three-parts ‘the country is doomed if you back the Labor-Green alliance’, two-parts ‘the electorate has told you to back us, and besides, we like the bush’ and one-part ‘we love the bush so much that we’ll make it our priority in government’.

It was an extraordinarily clumsy move on Abbott’s part. It smacked of desperation – whether true or not, it gave the impression that Abbott was failing in his bid to form government. It also delivered a pretty hefty insult to the Independents. In going to the media to deliver his message, Abbott was turning up the pressure. Nothing in that letter needed to be taken to the public – it was clearly a signal to the Liberal/National base to turn up the heat. Supporters responded enthusiastically, bombarding comment columns with advice for the Independents that ranges from heartfelt pleas to strident commands.

Luckily, most of that appears to be water off a duck’s back as far as Oakeshott, Windsor and Katter are concerned, although Katter seems to be increasingly irritated by the whole process. And who can blame him? He’s got people calling him every hour, stopping him on the street, even following him to lunch dates, all wanting to know if he’s made up his mind yet.

Maybe they truly haven’t decided. Maybe they’re arguing details. Oakeshott hinted that there was a possibility one of them might need to consider changing his mind in order to vote as a bloc with the other two – which might well signal a split in the ranks. There’s no whiff of coercion, though – they seem to be genuinely committed to figuring out the best possible solution. Consensus politics in action.

There’s another factor here, though. Oakeshott drew up a list of parliamentary reforms, many of which parallel those requested by Adam Bandt and Andrew Wilkie – an independent Speaker, for example. Labor signed on, which was hardly surprising, given that they have already committed to substantial reforms. The Coalition has not yet done so – in fact, is balking at some of the proposals.

Oakeshott wants both parties to sign on. It’s the clearest indication yet that the Independents are really committed to parliamentary reform – they want a guarantee that no matter who gets to form government, the reforms will take place.

Glenn Milne is reporting today that there are mumblings favouring Gillard, although he is careful to stress that there are no firm indicators. Meanwhile, Gillard has announced a media conference for 4.20pm today.

With only about 48 hours left in the decision-making process, perhaps the task now is to stop second-guessing and pressuring the Independents, and start thinking about how the business of government is going to function for the next three years.

Whoever ends up in government is going to have to work closely with these Independents, and with Bandt and Wilkie. They won’t be able to rely on their numbers to push through legislation. Given the huge political divide between the major parties, and the flat refusal to even consider adopting each other’s policies, passing any new legislation is likely to rely on those five (possibly six, if Crook sticks to his avowed wish to be considered a cross-bencher) men.

It’s a matter for panic in some quarters. The fear-mongering ranges from speculation that the Independents might simply insist on lots of goodies for their own electorates, to assertions that they will cause irreparable economic damage with their narrow focus on the bush and their failure to understand ‘big picture’ issues. Far better that we go back to the polls now. (Of course, this last sentiment conveniently ignores the very real possibility that we would simply end up in the same place six weeks from now.)

A poll commissioned by a NSW lobby firm made the headlines today. Australians don’t want a hung Parliament, they want another election! We’re ‘fed up’, apparently. We’re ‘worried’. We ‘think it would be better’ if one of the major parties had a clear win. After all, who knows what these Independents could do? Can we trust them? Are they up to the challenge? It’s all too frightening. Let’s just pretend the election didn’t happen, and do it all again.

The optimism of the first week after the election has transformed into scared nostalgia, if you accept that poll. We’ve had a glimpse of the future, it suggests, and – to quote the movie Wayne’s World – ‘we fear change’.

Wait. Stop. Breathe.

Look at how these MPs have behaved so far. Every one of them has shown themselves to be principled, thoughtful, and concerned with the good of the country as a whole. Wilkie turned down $1 billion for his own electorate in order to secure an equitable arrangement for the nation. Bandt’s concerns range far outside the ‘traditional’ Greens focus on environmental issues. All five are absolutely committed to parliamentary reforms designed to redress imbalances in government and perhaps bring us back to a point where we are more concerned with getting things done than whether we can smear our opponents.

Hardly reason to panic, really.

Minority governments can work. They already do work in Australia. And where they don’t, it’s likely to be the fault of a major party that sees itself as disenfranchised, rather than of those who hold the balance of power.

So how about this – we all just unclench those white knuckles, take a deep breath and settle down.

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