Monday, 23 August 2010
When the government lost its majority it also lost its legitimacy.
Tony Abbott 22 August 2010
The people have spoken and it’s going to take a little while to determine exactly what they said.
Julia Gillard 21 August 2010
Or at least to put an interpretation on it that will suit.
So as it turned out, we didn’t have to wait very long at all for the electorate to deliver the real verdict on the political class. With neither side having sought a mandate, it seems fair enough that neither side was given it.
But first let’s deal with this nonsense about Australians’ sense of ‘fair go’ means that they don’t get rid of first term governments. Of course first term governments can lose in Australia, especially at the state level. It’s simply that governments usually come to power with an agenda that suits current conditions and that takes time to unwind. Alternatively, you could, like Howard in 1996, come to power with barely any agenda at all and lose the popular vote at the first election. The idea that while the electorate as a whole was ready to turf out Howard in one term but that it was the marginals who got all mushy and decided to give Howard another chance makes no sense. At least as opposed to, say, the inability of an exhausted, demoralised Labor to make a convincing case for government. This idea of Australians’ innate sense of a ‘fair go’ is just one of those bogus national characteristics that may make us feel good about ourselves but only serve to mystify things.
In this case Labor’s agenda didn’t last the three years. There never was a real one domestically and the international one didn’t last long, so Rudd would have had trouble no matter ever happened. Nevertheless he probably would have been able win in a one-to-one against Abbott for similar reasons as he did in the health debate – Rudd does negative better. All the faction power brokers did was to speed the decline and accentuate the problems, by thinking that they had a new agenda, that didn’t even last three months let alone three years, and did little than to legitimise Abbott.
But whether Rudd could have done better is just speculation. The basic electoral fact remains that in the last seventeen years, Labor has only once beaten the Coalition at an election – and that was by hiding behind Kevin07. The exhaustion of Labor’s program and the bankruptcy and discrediting of the traditional power brokers was why the party turned to Rudd in desperation in the first place – both externally in how they presented Labor to the voters and internally with the temporary over-riding of the power of the factions.
What we have seen over the last few months is that while Rudd’s solution was temporary, a return of the traditional power brokers was certainly no solution. The closeness of the election should not conceal that this was a disaster for Labor. Everything that wasn’t tied down was thrown overboard and the good ship ALP still sank. The latest excuse is that it was all going swimmingly until the leaks – as though sacking a Prime Minister didn’t already indicate something was wrong. The leaks against Gillard by those in the ALP were certainly damaging – just as were the leaks against Rudd by others in the ALP in the preceding months. But Labor couldn’t control what were pretty unexciting leaks because the campaign had nothing else going for it.
In effect what Labor did over the last few months was to confirm that it had no real case for holding power at the federal level. That is why the federal campaign began to more and more resemble a state campaign. As Shanahan rightly noted on the eve of the election, Labor’s federal polling was becoming intertwined with the state governments, which in NSW and Queensland were having a disastrous impact. Gillard’s identification with State Labor over the Parramatta rail link was widely seen as a major mistake, but it reflected that Labor federally had no distinctive agenda from NSW Labor anyway.
With Labor’s agenda exhausted, and admitted as much by the party itself, there was no reason for it to retain government – other than the other party who would have taken its place. That Labor managed to limit the 2PP swing to what looks to be 2% was more a sign of its superior negative campaigning that highlighted that the Coalition had nothing to offer either. But if Labor is prepared to be open about its bankruptcy, the Liberals are in a state of delusion that they don’t have the same problem.
The return of Howard and the cheering of the fall of Bennelong are sure signs that we are not in the reality of 2010, but in a parallel universe trying to relive and rewrite what happened in 2007. The Liberals are doing double-think at the moment. On one hand they have thrown overboard all the values that Abbott was supposed to be about restoring, in order to be electorally viable. On the other hand you just know they think they haven’t really overthrown all those values and that somehow Abbott being ‘genuine’ and a conviction politician was one reason why he did so well. Leaving aside that even at the end Abbott’s personal polling was mediocre at best, and leaving aside all the help that Labor has given to make him look credible, what we have is a conviction politician with little that he is allowed to be conviction about. Hence all the mad, probably counter-productive, action man running around in the last few hours of the campaign as Abbott desperately tried to look busy to fill a vacuum.
Abbott’s comment that when a party loses its majority it loses its legitimacy is truer than he realises. Since presumably if a party that loses its majority doesn’t have any legitimacy, neither does the party that fails to gain it. For all the talk of momentum behind Abbott, there is nothing in what he has campaigned on that would give him a mandate even if he does manage to scramble together a majority with the independents.
While neither party has escaped the democratic consequences of not offering a mandate, what we have at the Parliamentary level is a vacuum. It is likely that whichever party forms government with the independents, they will use those independents as a cover for not being able to implement a program that they never had in the first place.
There has been a lot of nonsense that having government rely on independents will be good for democracy and a reform of Question Time etc. etc. Actually, in the proper sense of democracy as representing the will of the people, it is a step backwards. The whole programme of the two major parties which had reflected something in Australian society for much of the last century has now imploded and will hide behind the personal agendas of three independents who represent little more from their electorate than the dissatisfaction with the traditional political system that they are now being called on to replace.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 23 August 2010.Filed under State of the parties, The Australian state