The old order debases itself

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

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16 responses to “The old order debases itself”

  1. Anonymous on 26th August 2010 10:21 am

    Twitter Trackbacks…

  2. James on 26th August 2010 10:28 am

    So Shrike, do you think a hung Parliament is what the media generally wanted? And I still find it bizarre that after so much media analysis during the campaign, they have provided no analysis of their roles in the result. That’s a glaring hole.

  3. Riccardo on 26th August 2010 11:24 am

    Yes, there are cross purposes. The independents seem to have bought the
    ‘markets are scared’ line which designed to discredit them and them alone.

    THere’s nothing wrong with pledging to one party – we’ll back your supply and confidence, but one nasty scandal and you’re out the door, then telling your own electors, don’t worry, your second choice party will be in soon, just after this one has its first scandal.

    If you want sovereignty of parliament over executive, then the best way to do it is to be genuinely independent. Tell neither party they have a mandate (which is true). They only have the right to pass supply measures, and a vote of confidence if the opposition is just being silly.

    TPS, what do you think of the observation that independents come not from the marginals, but from the heartland (in the link it refers to Tate taking the Labor heartland seat of Newcastle as an independent). Katter, Windsor and Oakshott are all in seats that should be convincingly National, and Wilke and Bandt seats that should be convincingly Labor, but for the phenomenon you’ve identified.

  4. brisbaneMFP on 26th August 2010 3:51 pm

    Very thoughtful piece, though I would think that parties can adapt if circumstances radically change such as the Republicans in America. They being once the party of Lincoln and then 100 years later adopting a Southern Strategy. I would also add for a laugh I have sometimes read the comments at poll bludger and seen your occassional comment present. I cannot understand why you would bother with that school yard forum.

  5. The Piping Shrike on 26th August 2010 4:55 pm

    On the media, I think there has been a degree of self flagellation in this campaign shown by the sensistivity to critcisms in the blogs (even employing one of them!).

    I think their reaction to the current Parliament is interesting. On the one hand the usual cynicism is suspended when talking to the independents. On the other hand, wedded as they are to the two party system, there is some discomfort, most notably at the Oz.

    I think it’s interesting that these indies come from the heartland (although Katter is from a trad Labor seat), it shows their rise is more about the parties’ problems than anything else.

    The parties can change and adapt, but would need some social basis for doing so. It’s clearly getting hard to find one at the moment.

  6. The Piping Shrike on 26th August 2010 5:21 pm

    Interesting story …

    … and a good summing up of Abbott’s tactics.

  7. Possevino on 26th August 2010 8:21 pm

    I agree with your call that the Independents’ efforts are no Festival of Democracy. It seems they have over-played their hand, and reached beyond their very limited legitimacy in the Parliament to demand too great a role in executive government, and nowhere is this clearer in the requests for the public service’s incoming government briefings being provided to them to allow them to make a political choice in Parliament. I see Steve Bracks on the 7.30 Report today supports their request for briefing requests from Departments, no doubt attuned to Federal Labor’s approach. The question that Kerry O’Brien failed to ask was did the Victorian Independents receive these kind of briefings before the formation of the Bracks Government. Of course, they did not, and nor should they.

  8. Riccardo on 26th August 2010 10:51 pm

    It’s just convention – and convention gets rewritten by the victors.

    You only need to look back 30 or so years at all the other conventions broken, most famously when Field was appointed by Joh to the ALP senate position that brought down the Whitlam Government. It took a referendum to repair that one.

    We are now seeing a National member of the SA ALP cabinet, a Green member of the Tas ALP cabinet – everything is clearly negotiable now so we shouldn’t be surprised to having 3 crossbenchers wanting executive power.

    I’d truly support their call for a US Congress style budget office – one attached to Parliament not Treasury – seeing as any member of the lower house can propose budget measures, not just the government.

    A minority government only needs to guarantee supply for the ordinary operations of government, not for special appropriations or taxes.

    Also I’d like to see a referendum question on preventing supply blockages by making the previous year’s budget the default budget in the event of being blocked. Again, this would give the government enough money to govern for ordinary business – not the ludicrous US situation that nearly happened here in 1975.

  9. adamite on 27th August 2010 7:40 pm

    The Liberals may well be trying to ‘protect their brand’ but the problem for them is that its at the expense of offering any identifiable substantive product to the average punter besides spin and negativity.
    Hence abbort’s pathetic attempt at brinksmanship to try and cover up the policy abyss beneath the surface label in the hope of slipping into government(in true Howardesque style).

    Yet, to their credit, and despite their differences, the independents are taking concerted action to bring the opposition and government to account on policy substance and costings, effectively sidelining the media circus in the process. The longer this goes on the more difficult it will be for abbort to simply repeat the bluff and bravado act.

    If they achieve nothing else, introducing a brief (hopefully ongoing) moment of real accountability into the political circus will have been a major positive for our democratic system.

  10. The Piping Shrike on 27th August 2010 10:50 pm

    I agree Abbott is not doing this with a deft touch. But I think the need by the Liberals to maintain integrity as a party is being severely under-estimated. For their own interests, I see it as absolutely necessary they do not agree too easily to the independents’ demands.

    Labor, in contrast, is getting close to delusional on this. I see this as a continuation of the disastrous tactics we have seen from the ALP this year.

  11. fred on 28th August 2010 7:41 pm

    I haven’t noticed much about the Greens in the media, some reluctant nods in the general direction of acknowledging that they achieved more than 12% of the vote in the Senate, now have nearly doubled their Senators, have their first general election successful House of Reps candidate and had the biggest swing to them over all of the country and even in all the regions.
    Surely their success is at least the no.2 story post election?

  12. Riccardo on 30th August 2010 11:57 am

    The Greens have had a delayed effect. It is not till July next year we finally see the 11-12% of the vote they have been polling for some time translate into senate seats.

    Good to see Fielding disgrace himself, deal himself out of the picture. But the 2004 senate has damaged Australia for 7 years. We only now see Green senate seats begin to approximate votes.

    The barrier to a Labor Greens coalition is those damned Santamaria clones who linger on. Already some unions are starting to see the Greens as more consistent runners for their interests than the ALP, including oddly enough some electrical union workers who’d rather be fitting renewables than coal-fired (although I suspect the real issue is opposition to privatisation)

    It is the Catholic Right for which Laborism in Australia does not equal Social Democracy, and it would be perfectly possible for us to have a German style SDP-Green coalition without loony right of the ALP blocking it.

    Even Bob Carr, the one of few on that side who can string coherent sentences together unaided, noted that Richo, Keating and co grew up in a time when the biffo was in aid of getting an ALP government in for the purpose of BOTH implementing policy AND giving them all nice comfy seats in Ministry.

    As for the ALP Left, well with Tanner gone and Wong claiming that she’d rather not have gay marriage, any credibility they might have had has gone with the wind.

  13. Senexx on 30th August 2010 10:37 pm

    The current political order needs to be undermined to put improved political processes in place.

    Independents provide a balance of power in the House as the Greens do in the Senate and that’s a win for democracy. That is the result the democratic process has always intended if not always given. This means legislation is given the scrutiny it deserves and is not rammed through the parliament.

  14. The Piping Shrike on 30th August 2010 11:24 pm

    I tend to see it differently. A hung Parliament is no more ‘democratic’ than one with a party with a huge majority. The issue is the degree to which it reflects what voters want.

    In this case I think the new Parliament mainly reflects the problems in both major parties and their inability to develop a program. In my view, this is because neither party really represents any particular interest in society that would guide such a program.

    When people talk of Parliament becoming more accountable, accountable to whom? In as much as the parties don’t really represent any base in society, I can only see it being ‘accountable’ to the independents who are deciding the government.

  15. john Willoughby on 31st August 2010 12:27 am

    so its turned into a DLP/NP v Labour/Green cage match
    where have the Menzies Liberals gone.

  16. The Piping Shrike on 31st August 2010 1:22 am

    The establishment (if that’s who you mean) lost interest after Gough.

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