Independents feed off the weak

Wednesday, 8 September 2010 

This is not a mandate for any government. We should have a great big swear jar for the next three years and if anyone uses that word mandate they should have to chip in some money. No one party has dominance over the executive or the parliament, that is the reality of the way we’re going to do business of the next three years and that is a good reality.

Rob Oakeshott 7 September 2010

So I make this plea to country people, some of whom who don’t agree with the Labor Party, this isn’t about philosophy. Philosophy, in terms of both these parties, died about a decade ago or probably longer. This is about using the political system to advantage the people we represent and those people in regional Australia.

Tony Windsor 7 September 2010

Fran Kelly: Why do you think Tony Abbott would be more likely to go to the polls early for an early election?

Tony Windsor: Because they would be more likely to win if they did go back to the polls.

Journalist: How can you back a government that is less likely to win?

Either the independents who backed Labor have seriously miscalculated, or what Labor figures have been telling us for the last two weeks is wrong. The media has gone to town over Windsor’s comment that he didn’t back Abbott because he thought he could win a snap poll, as a denial of democracy. This is funny because while they were happy to let the negotiations to decide the government to be done in secret (and they still are), avoiding a poll because of parliamentary convenience is what elected governments do all the time. Windsor and Oakeshott are doing no more than exercising the prerogative of election timing that the major parties once used to have.

But let’s be blunt about what Windsor is saying here. They have picked Labor because it is the weakest and least likely to want an election any time soon. Windsor was doing no more than spelling out the basis of this ‘stability’ they have been talking about since the election. It is about hitching up with the weakest side that can’t shrug them off. The media were incensed about the drawn out press conference given by Windsor and Oakeshott, but actually it was quite interesting. In justifying to their traditionally conservative electorates why they were supporting Labor, they had to very clearly set out why the two party system had lost all meaning – something that probably some in the waiting media did not want to hear.

What we have seen through the last two weeks of opaque bargaining for a new transparency, is the independents taking advantage of the weakness of the two parties and how they are going to make it last. It is why it makes sense for Katter to go to the Coalition. Not only does it keep him onside with his conservative supporters for now, but it keeps the Parliament finely divided giving the individual independents maximum leverage. Maintaining this balance was why it was so important to clarify the status of Crook in the last days. They have the major parties just where they want them, and they ain’t letting them go.

For the Coalition not only do they not get government, but the Nationals in particular have to watch the independents get the type of pork-barrelling they could only dream of. The independents’ ability to get a good deal out of Labor exposes the emptiness of the Nationals’ alliance with the Liberals that used to mean something in the past and that they had been trying to hide with talks of mergers and phoney populism. It is no wonder that a morose Joyce on Lateline last night must realise his game has now come to an end.

But the real vulnerable ones are on the Labor side, it is why the independents chose them and why all the comparisons made by Labor figures over the last fortnight with recent state Labor minority governments that later produced thumping majorities are so wrong.

Firstly those state minority governments were formed when the trend was towards Labor, not against as it was in this election. In the case of SA and Victoria, these new technocratic Labor parties came as an early response to the hollowing out of the major parties. The old business-union Labor model had blown up in both states over earlier financial collapses, but were then followed by Liberal governments who took it as a sign that it was now time for faux Thatcherite agendas, which was wrong as well. Labor’s cross party alliances with the independents were a suitable means of setting out the end of two party politics, which they carried on when they won power in their own right.

This was translated to the federal arena under Rudd. Here again we had a phoney right agenda such as Workchoices exposed. But what gave Rudd his real dynamic compared to the states was the international agenda with that classic issue for undermining the old two party system, and what Gillard was again using as a basis for a new consensus yesterday, climate change.

But there are weaknesses in that technocrat model. With no clear political agenda, the governments lose their authority, partly seen by being all about spin, and also being judged on little more than the provision of services that never satisfy. As a response to the fraud of a phoney right agenda they make sense, but have nothing to offer in their own right.

This golden age of the Labor technocrat has passed. The South Australian election was the best sign of its decline at the state level and, of course, the fall of Rudd was the clearest indication in Canberra. This is the tension at the heart of the Gillard leadership. They have reacted to its decline by trying to re-assert the party’s traditional power bases and reclaim a reconnection with the electorate, but as the election showed, they have found they have nothing to offer. Gillard will no more be able to use climate change politically as Rudd could in his final months, because the international momentum has gone. Instead the focus will be on delivery like it is for state governments, and as Abbott noted yesterday, especially for the NBN. The vacuum is still there but now neither Labor nor the Coalition has any basis for taking advantage of it, leaving it to the independents to enjoy their new ‘fun’ Parliament.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Wednesday, 8 September 2010.

Filed under State of the parties

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14 responses to “Independents feed off the weak”

  1. Al. on 8th September 2010 8:39 am

    Just imagine, if this parliament DOES do well / delivers unto the public in a very satisfying way, over the next 3 years … the public will wonder how they could possibly engineer such a combination minority government again, surely a once in a lifetime outcome ?

    Of course, no matter how good they might be, they will be failures according to the opposition (what else COULD we expect .. ( my eyes are rolling) …

    ‘Instead the focus will be on delivery’ …

    Hey, that sounds not all bad …. judged by results ! They actually have to do something .. instead of just waffling on.

  2. James on 8th September 2010 10:24 am

    Clearly, the mainstream media knows very little about the kind of political environment we have moved into. They can theorise about how it will work but it is something they mostly don’t have any experience of working within.

    The Australian, in particular, must feel bitter-sweet about the situation. They were particularly adept at spooking the government into panic and flip-flopping and have gone within a whisker of helping to topple it. (While it is not largely read, the Oz certainly has been very powerful in setting the media’s agenda and tone.) However they have also contributed to the creation of a situation that could transform politics beyond their interests.

    One view I have formed this year is that media entities should be banned from running polls because it’s a conflict of interests and roles.

  3. Senexx on 8th September 2010 12:40 pm

    Welcome to the Mainstream Media Shrike

    I wont reiterate it, you can read the clarification over at LP

  4. Paul of Berwick on 8th September 2010 1:04 pm

    Two things:

    1. No mention this morning in the MSM of the “blasting” of the MSM that Oakeshot & Windsor delivered in their 3pm press conference yesterday. Sigh!

    2. News staff writers are reporting that the ALP figures are saying that the review should be about ….
    “This election has laid it bare … it stands for nothing. We need a fundamental reassessment of what we stand for”. Well, they should have been reading TPS!

    Read more:

  5. The Piping Shrike on 8th September 2010 4:54 pm

    Senexx, I totally disagree with LP on this. Anyone watching the actual press conference would know it is precisely what Windsor meant when he was asked twice about this (and Oakeshott didn’t seem to have any trouble with it either, but he later differentiated himself as the media drew out the implications. If the media called what Windsor said wrong, so did Oakeshott). The additional pressure it would give for The Australian to argue for an election is why he ‘clarified’ the comment later on The 7.30 Report (unconvincingly, I thought) and Lateline.

    But on elections, firstly let me say I happen to like them and the public getting a say as much and frequently as possible. But The Australian’s complaints is obviously hypocritical since Windsor is doing no more than what every government has done before, choosing to go the polls at its convenience and that’s never worried The Australian before. But The Australian is only saying it because it thinks the Coalition will win. Is it right? I suspect it is. I can’t tell what LP thinks.

    But let’s get back to what the independents actually said. It’s not the MSM that’s denying this government legitimacy, Oakeshott went out of his way to emphasise that the government does not have a mandate. After the way they conducted the election, I think this would be true even if they had a 30 seat majority. It seems both the left and the MSM are choosing to hear what they want.

    But finally, what LP and The Australian also both have in common is that they think there is a material difference between the two parties. Tony Windsor does not. Neither do I.

  6. Mitchell Porter on 8th September 2010 5:01 pm

    The theme of this blog has been that the traditional parties of Australian politics are hollowed out ideologically. I wonder, then, if ideological reinvention will begin here, with Labor retrospectively discovering a higher logic behind the contingent dealmaking which kept it in office?

  7. The Piping Shrike on 8th September 2010 5:05 pm

    Labor will try and make a virtue of necessity no doubt.

    But I suspect that those who are hoping for ideological reinvention are on a false trail.

  8. dedalus on 8th September 2010 7:47 pm

    Nice post Shrike. You might be right in some sense about the decline of old-style 2 party politics, which I take to be part of your thesis.

    This is what I took to be the most interesting thing about Windsor’s decision. He mentioned 2 key things, one of which was the broadband issue. The second thing, I thought, was far more important and is pertinent to your thesis.

    What Windsor was signalling to all country voters was that they should not “waste” their vote by voting along partisan lines. That they should vote more like people do in city based swinging electorates. So Windsor was prepared to risk the “wrath” of his conservative electorate by siding with Labor, in effect saying: “look, you can be pragmatic and vote according to your interests, not just according to the partisan position that the national party has taken for granted.”

    Windsor, being in the twilight of a career, can afford to do this. It was a bequest to country voters for all future elections.

    That’s why the Nats would be worried at his decision. You can be sure it’s a strong signal for country voters in general to consider independants in other seats. It’s also a reason why independants only ever win seats in rural electorates. Because Labor generally runs dead there, implicitly their voters know that they’re being taken for granted by the coalition. It only needs a strong candidate to awaken this realisation.

    So maybe the death of two parties theory especially applies to the Nat component of the coalition.

  9. The Piping Shrike on 8th September 2010 8:12 pm

    The Nat component is where the decline of the right is most evident, to be sure.

    In one way what Windsor was saying did not make sense. Tying with the Coalition had done a lot for moneyed rural interests in the past (not a lot for the plebs who had to use public hospitals, schools etc.). There may have been difference with metropolitan business over issues such as currency, tariffs etc. but the Coalition was based on a unity against organised labour. What Windsor is proposing is a new way of responding to that unity issue having gone – play weak parties off against each other.

    Must say in the blogosphere there is an awful lot of respect going around for the independents, but not much acknowledgement of what they are actually saying.

  10. James on 9th September 2010 10:43 am

    I actually think Labor would win an election held over the next couple of months. This new alliance with the Independents and Wilkie and the Greens would enbolden them to run a more inspiring campaign on climate change, asylum seekers and nation building. It would also give them a change to articulate the successes of their BER program. And if Rudd is a Minister during a new campaign, then I think that would heal some wounds too.

  11. dedalus on 9th September 2010 4:04 pm

    Maybe, but what the independants are saying is not what Windsor is saying. Take Barnaby for example. One of the most abiding images of recent times is that of Barnaby in a parched paddock surrounded by his ring of Qld cocky, browbeaten acolytes. Barnaby in rant mode and the cockies lapping it up. Or were they? They were nodding their heads, sure, but wasn’t it more a case of country reticence, or inarticulateness, or downright laconic grass-chewing apathy? Wasn’t it more of Barnaby missing the whole point? For while Barnaby was ranting to the converted, smart operators like Windsor and Oakshott have been in there white-anting his “take you for granted” position.

    It’s amazing, really, that Labor hasn’t long ago put in their own proxy to get these country votes. Well now, Tony Windsor has done it for them. So now we have two quasi anti-conservative alliances at play. In the cities Labor-Green. In the bush Labor (present by their very absence)- Independants.

    Admittedly a somewhat arcane theory – but it sounds nice.

  12. Riccardo on 9th September 2010 6:13 pm

    TPS definitely on the money. I had wondered if Oakshott and Windsor agreed with Katter than Katter should vote LNP, so that it stuck the the knife edge.

    It was the MSM who were demanding a 77 seat arrangement so that one was ‘spare’ but why would the independents want that?

    And the claim we are “one byelection away from a loss of confidence in the house…” – again, Katter, who is in fact ‘spare’ then has a fresh choice, fresh negotiations, fresh decision.

    And even if they do change sides, so what? A few months will be a very long time in politics.

    And you can bet this hypothetical byelection, if it is in a marginal seat, will have a table cloth – ballot paper full of independents, all hoping to do an Oakshott – and it would take 3 weeks to allocate preferences in such a byelection, hence even more time for horse trading.

    All I see as a result:

    -MSM with exaggerated sense of self-importance

    -money markets don’t really give a rats, and even if they do, why should we be too worried

    -legislation decided within the House rather than in Cabinet, as if the world would come to an end because of it

    -we are not going to see US-style earmarking and line-by-line pork barrelling, our constitution prevents earmarked revenue and is quite clear about the origination of appropriation bills.

    Certainly in ‘faceless men’ days we had tight control of caucus by a party, and tight control of the party by the unions. Now we have tight control – by whom though??? No-one in particular? Kevin Rudd??

  13. The Piping Shrike on 9th September 2010 6:26 pm

    I very much suspect that Katter is in on this to make sure it is 76/74 rather than 77/73. That’s why they needed to find out Crook’s position and why I found that report of what was written on Katter’s brief fascinating. Keeping it down to one suits all the independents and keeps the boot firmly on both parties’ throats.

    Labor making inroads into rural regions was done in Victoria. The problem is that there is no real basis for doing so other than a negative reflection of the declining influence of the Coalition (which was easier in Victoria with the lesser influence of the Nationals). You could argue that Labor is more willing to spend on infrastructure, but really against a Coalition ready to spend $1bn on one hospital, it doesn’t mean much. As I argue above, I think the positive momentum for Labor taking advantage of the hollowing out of the two parties has passed, the independents will do it better.

    I still think the MSM, and the blogosphere who are opposing them, have not realised what has happened.

  14. john Willoughby on 11th September 2010 12:37 pm

    Barnaby speaks bush,he’s the best retail politician in the
    nation according to Tony.
    Its insulting to the intelligence of anyone who’s actually
    tried to decipher the oxymoronic rubbish that Mr Joyce spews out when his brain and mouth engage .

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