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

Tags: , , , ,


13 responses to “Illegitimate”

  1. David Jackmanson on 24th August 2010 12:10 am

    Yep, the fetishisation of Independents is a bad sign. People don’t seem to be able to grasp that voting for a party that stands for government with a coherent platform and social agenda is *possible*, let alone more desirable than having three unrepresentative rural MPs decide who will be in office.

    If you really wanted to reform Parliamentary Question Time and so on, one necessary thing to do would be to massively increase the number of MPs, so there were large numbers of them who’d never be Ministers and thus would have an interest in sitting on committees that hold the Government to account. Of course, the British Parliament shows how that sort of system can be captured by control-freaks at the top of political parties.

    And even if it were enough, it would never get through. You can imagine the “NO MORE POLITICIANS” campaigns that would be run.

    However one question that needs to be asked, given the political themes of this blog, is: Can Australian political culture change? What do people want? Is there room (for example) for a revival of social-democratic unionism, militant reformism or further-left class-based politics? Or are people pretty much happy with the way things are, and does the lack of political culture just reflect that?

  2. Tweets that mention Illegitimate :The Piping Shrike -- on 24th August 2010 6:48 am

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by David Jackmanson and Tad, The Piping Shrike. The Piping Shrike said: Which ever party cobbles together a majority, it will still be illegitimate. […]

  3. The Piping Shrike on 24th August 2010 7:14 am

    Change is happening now, and fairly quickly I think. Rudd’s rise was a catalyst for whole shake up across the spectrum. What’s coming? I don’t know but I can’t see the basis for the revival of something resembling old politics. I still think that questions about the nature of politics itself are starting to be raised.

  4. Riccardo on 24th August 2010 9:44 am

    It’s just impossible to imagine that a political party will arise whose job is to do the bidding of industrial organisations that are supposed to strike for better pay.

    Nor for a political party that is supposed to stop them.

    If pluralist politics still holds, and we have a 2 party electoral system, then it follows that what arises will coalesce to roughly 50 50 as it always has, because the interest groups will horse trade to the level of viability.

    Australia is a mixture, not like the US with a permanent ‘elite’ and a permanent ‘outside’ that the Dems and Repubs can trade around.

    David Chalke does the Australia Scan series of longitudinal surveys and notes long term majority positions:

    -for the death penalty, but against banning abortion

    -against higher taxes but otherwise in favour of government ownership, and provision of services

    -long term decline of religion, with the established churches dying quicker than the new ones grow

    -75% of people being either deep, moderate or light green on environment issues, and only 25% being hardened rednecks.

    My reading is that if the parties and partisans lost their hold on the 60% of the electorate they’ve sewn up, a Green-Social Democrat (non-union) party could do quite well on the sentiments revealed in Australia scan. And they could buy off redneck sentiments in rural areas by improving services, as Katter and co keep saying.

  5. nobby on 24th August 2010 10:18 am

    yeah i agree with riccardo,with the signs of global warming becoming more pronounced and the two majors captured by powerful vested interests some hybrid of the greens is very likely to emerge to tackle this issue.we may see a coalition of labor and liberal in response,and wouldn,t that be fun.

  6. James on 24th August 2010 10:57 am

    Mmmm, I think the hung Parliament could make politics in this country better or worse – it just depends who forms government and what happens as a result but the situation is unclear.

    I think the most likely situation is Abbott forming a minority government. That fills me with dread, to be honest, because it will have regressive effects and yet strengthen the Conservatives’ positions – a very negative juxtaposition.

    I fear the country will consequently have wasted an opportunity to transcend politics as we know it. How sad. We Australians generally think our so-called bullshit detectors make us so clever and savvy but generally the mindset evokes negativity and a lack of positive enterprise.

    Meanwhile there has been almost no analysis of the media’s role in this election result.

  7. James on 24th August 2010 11:00 am

    PS – I wonder what Donald Horne would say about this election result?

  8. The Piping Shrike on 24th August 2010 5:06 pm

    Dunno. Maybe something about us being a pack of apathetic bastards and deserving everything we get. Usual flattery from the Oz ‘intelligentsia’.

    I think the issue about the hung parliament is that it formalises what we already have. I have argued that if Abbott won office, the government would not be as ‘right wing’ as some claim. Now we see that it has to be in reality.

    The wonerful irony is that here we have a leader all about Liberal ‘values’ prepared to head what will be the most compromised Coalition government since the Liberal party was formed. That’s dialectics for ya!

  9. Riccardo on 24th August 2010 8:21 pm

    Just as Moses couldn’t enter the promised land, I don’t think any of us, who’ve grown up with late 19th century partisan ship, can see our way past it. I’m not sure I can imagine a replacement.

    The unions will continue sustaining themselves as legal gangsters, while the existing parties will become some sort of casting companies, casting ‘talent’ into political roles based on marketability, and (as pointed out by Mick Costa) their capacity to network and fundraise. A self-perpetuating system that alienates most of the population, but attracts enough to keep it going.

  10. Graeme on 25th August 2010 11:56 am

    The fetishisation of the independents is just another sign of the endemic but deepening public lack of faith or belief in either major party.

    Wilkie today accusing the 3 rural independents as acting as a bloc/party was curious. Wilkie will sit gnomically, and (potentially) with 20% of vote in one of the smallest seats in Australia, cast his wand over every piece of legislation. As someone big on process it’s a shame that he is a first-timer because otherwise the place for him would be as Speaker.

    Alice in Wonderland stuff.

  11. john Willoughby on 26th August 2010 12:13 pm

    Mining money has now removed two governments that dared
    to challenge it.
    Carpenter in the west and Rudd nationally .
    The big miners dont have to move offshore when they can treat this country like a banana republic.
    Fiji has got the right idea with the News limited press.
    Welcome to the Murdochracy.

  12. Riccardo on 26th August 2010 7:59 pm

    And the miners aren’t the only large companies.

    Cue Coles/Woolworths, the Banks, the oil companies and the media empires to do to either government what the miners did to the government.

    It must be far cheaper to campaign publicly against your tax bill, than actually pay your tax bill.

  13. Illegitimate – Budget edition :The Piping Shrike on 14th May 2011 8:14 am

    […] is forced to directly make its case to Australian electorate, at election time and the Budget. As we saw last August, elections are becoming more about political parties seeking legitimacy in their own eyes than […]

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