Thursday, 26 August 2010
In a few days, the independents have done more to undermine the old political order than Rudd managed in two and half years. Their power does not come from what the independents stand for themselves. It’s not just the policy differences between them that are greater than their common National background would suggest. Even as individuals they struggle to maintain coherence over a few days. Bob Katter wants Abbott to submit costings to Treasury but doesn’t think they (especially Henry) will do a good job. Tony Windsor is threatening another election if, er, the parties don’t agree not to call an early election. Most importantly, what they actually agree about seems to turn reality upside down; with calls for a more accountable Parliament ignoring the obstructionist Senate of the last three years, and demands of a less adversarial politics, the non-election we have just had.
Their power, of course, comes from the discrediting of the major parties from Saturday’s result and the problem of legitimacy it has left for the major parties and the traditional party system. While the weakness of both parties necessitate having to deal with the independents, it also makes it harder. For the Coalition, the independents’ very existence comes from the decomposition of the weakest part of the Coalition, the Nationals, and the junior Coalition partner is not only facing the humiliation of being shut out of the negotiations but having to watch its former members achieve more than they can as a party.
For the government, the sinking of the government’s agenda to the mess of the states has only aggravated the instability of Labor nationally as both the Queensland and NSW governments are forced to get involved to offset the blame from the national campaign, and so raise the question whether Federal Labor is any more likely to deliver stable government than they did before the election.
But not everyone it seems is aware of the context in which this ‘horse-trading’ (or more accurately ‘mugging’) is happening. It was fun watching Abbott decry ‘adversarial politics’, claiming that it has been especially bad in the last three years (surely he means since he took the leadership?) But commentators generally found Abbott’s intransigence over submitting costing to Treasury incomprehensible.
However, that would be to make the mistake that getting the independents on-side is the only game in town. As Australia’s last political party, the Liberals are acutely sensitive to the need to protect its credibility and ‘brand’ from the damage it received on Saturday and could yet receive from rolling over too eagerly to the independents’ attempt to undermine the two party system. Protecting the brand is, after all, the reason why Abbott is their leader.
Labor, however, doesn’t seem to have those concerns. Bruce Hawker, the strategic genius who helped mastermind Labor’s brilliant 2010 campaign, saw this as an ideal opportunity to recreate what happened at the state level in South Australia and Victoria when Rann and Bracks formed minority governments. These technocratic governments turned out be quite popular and led to Labor winning huge majorities in their own right.
Ironically at the federal level, the best practitioner of such cross party tactics was Rudd, who at his height not only appointed former Coalition leaders like Nelson and Fischer to plum international jobs but paid careful attention to these now powerful independents, as Crabb noted on Insiders last Sunday. Hawker himself made a speech to the Brisbane Institute in 2008, when Rudd was doing all of this, claiming a broader rethink of where government leadership should come from was necessary given the vanishing membership of the major parties, as he bluntly describes:
It has been calculated that the Labor Party had about 370,000 members in 1939. Estimates of its active national membership in 2005 were as low as 7,500. I understand that the story in the Liberal and National Parties is much the same. The only time that any Party’s numbers grow these days is when they are being fertilised by a branch stacker seeking pre-selection.
But this is not 2008. The technocratic moment that led to wall-to-wall Labor governments has passed. Rudd’s now gone and the state governments are in various stages of decay. Those minority state governments in SA and Victoria were created by a party that, while it did have to manage its legacy from earlier State Bank debacles, at least were facing Liberals that had just been discredited by an electoral loss.
There is an awfully big difference in creating such cross party governments from opposition than from a government that has itself just been discredited by losing an election. The abdication of power from such an alliance with independents determined to beat the major parties down, has the potential to damage Labor’s credibility even further.
The problem is, however, that Labor is in no place right now to make an objective assessment of these dangers. The consequences of Labor losing government for Gillard, and the power brokers who put there, are unthinkable and Labor will be desperate to cling to power and is likely to be blind to the problems it could bring.
Finally, it has to be said that there is also an unpleasant smell for the rest of us in how far Labor will go to hang on. This blogger’s ears pricked up last night when Hawker said that he wants to “look for ways of making that 76 feel more like 86”. Huh? If they can only muster 76, then 76 is what an elected Parliament will give them. How can they make a majority look bigger than it is? By drawing from outside the Parliament apparently. Just quite how by-passing parliament will make the government more accountable to it, as Hawker claims, is a subtlety that escapes this blogger. Let’s not get into a left-wing “I’m really concerned about the slippery slope etc. etc.”, but let’s also be frank, this ain’t no Festival of Democracy we’re watching.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 26 August 2010.Filed under State of the parties