Friday, August 27, 2010

Tony’s The Winner

Day six of the never ending election, and perhaps the final result is looking a little clearer. At the time of writing it appeared that the Coalition would hold 73 seats, the Labor Party 72, the Greens 1, and the Independents 4. Of course, that counts the Western Australian non-aligned National as part of the Coalition, along with the indication already given that the Green member would support Labor, so depending on how you look at it you could say that it’s 73 seats each plus 4 others, or 72 seats each with 6 others. Either way, the balance could not be any more precarious. Of course, it is that very fact which raises the question of whether or not any minority government which might be formed can possibly maintain any kind of stability.

On balance, I suspect that the real winner of this election has been Tony Abbott. The increased support for the Greens speaks for itself, but it is Tony Abbott and the Coalition who have come back from the wilderness to be within a whisker of taking office. It is Tony Abbott who has been the catalyst to restore the fortunes of the Coalition, while being instrumental in the downfall of the government’s credibility over the past nine months. Even before the election, Tony Abbott was a winner simply because he had pulled off something very few people believed possible just by getting the Coalition back into the race. Now, whichever way the result finally goes, all the cards are likely to favour Tony Abbott in the weeks and months ahead.

If Labor manages to form a minority government it will do so from a position of weakness. It will be hamstrung by the need to negotiate everything, and it will be hampered by an apparent lack of legitimacy, both which will be failings that you can bet Tony Abbott will highlight at every opportunity. Even if such a minority government could manage to last a full term, Mr. Abbott will spend the whole period presenting himself and the Coalition as a safe and stable alternative. If, on the other hand the Coalition forms a minority government in the next few weeks, it could be seen as almost a provisional government which has stepped in to pick up the pieces after the implosion of the once popular Labor government. It would then have the opportunity to establish itself before returning to the polls at a later stage to seek to obtain a majority in its own right.

Either way, Tony Abbot is already in front, and all he really needs to do is not to stuff it up.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Keeping The Bastards Honest

Day Five of the seemingly never ending election count, and the first signs of unrest are appearing. Despite the fact that the Electoral Commission won’t finish counting every last vote until the end of next week, some are already calling for a fresh election. Today, the Daily Telegraph has suggested that the $170 million required to send us all back to the polls would be a small price to pay in return for certainty and stability. David Penberthy has written that the three independents present an unacceptable risk of the country being hijacked, most particularly by the North Queensland representative Bob Katter. He accuses Mr. Katter of having an unfounded prejudice against city dwellers and suggests that such views should not be allowed to dictate the national agenda. Of course, the idea of reaching resolution by going back to a fresh election makes the assumption that the outcome would be different, and the fact is there is no guarantee of that.

In any event, a fresh election should be an option of last recourse. Every other avenue should be explored before such a course of action is pursued. It is only day five, and we already know that the process will take a couple of weeks, and possibly a little longer. Being impatient is not going to change that. The first step is to complete the count of every last vote to be clear on just how many seats each party has. The next step is for the Prime Minister to advise the Governor General whether or not she has the confidence of the House of Representatives and can form a government. If not, the Leader of the Opposition must advise whether or not he can command the numbers in the House. If not, then it will be necessary for the Governor General to call a fresh election. But by far the most sensible outcome is for one or other of the major parties to attempt to form a minority government.

Of course, the immediate concern would be whether any such minority government could function effectively, or indeed function at all. A secondary concern is whether the independent members, along with the Green member and the non aligned National from Western Australia would be in a position to wield undue influence and effectively hold that minority government hostage by making unreasonable or even irrational demands. But the reality is that it is in their own best interests, as well as the best interests of all concerned, that they don’t. Without the numbers of at least one of the major parties, the cross bench members have no power to do anything, only to prevent things from being done. Neither of the major parties will entertain any demands which are excessive, unreasonable, irrational, or against the national interest. If the independents cannot contain their expectations to a reasonable level, a fresh election would become inevitable, most likely leading to them losing whatever influence they might currently have.

So long as they hold the balance of power they hold the opportunity to (as the Democrats once promised) “keep the bastards honest”, but it would be utterly self defeating for them to become too precious.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Guessing Game Continues

While the guessing game continues as to just who will hold how many seats in the final make up of the new parliament, and the manoeuvring for the favour of the independents unfolds, it is probably a good idea to take a breath, calm down and be a little bit patient. The final count from the Australian Electoral Commission won’t be known for days yet, and possibly not until the end of next week. After all, there is a thirteen day period allowed for postal votes to arrive, so if the seats hanging in the balance come down to a handful of votes that’s how long we will have to wait. But this is a period of uncertainty, that’s not the same thing as a period of instability. While the final votes are counted, and the negotiations take place, the normal business of government goes on.

Pensions are still paid, taxes are still collected, and while the outcome is determined the old government continues on in a caretaker capacity. There is no disruption to normal process, there is no interruption to the chain of command, and there is minimum inconvenience to anyone other than the politicians themselves. Of course, some things are on hold such as future funding decisions, new policy implementation, and business investment decisions which might be influenced by the shape of future government policy. But even those decisions would have already been shaped by the election timetable, and so long as a resolution is reached in a week or two there should be no significant fall out. Anyone basing billion dollar decisions solely around the election outcome probably isn’t very good at long term planning anyway.

Rather than being anxious about the outcome, we should all relax and allow the process to unfold. The vast majority of Australians will feel no immediate impact on their lives one way or the other. Ultimately however, there is in fact a great opportunity for the political process to be reformed and improved as a result of the negotiations presently underway. It would be a pity if that opportunity was not fully explored to deliver a greater voice in public affairs for ordinary everyday Australians who might feel that in recent years they have been ignored more and more by the big parties. Of course it is always possible that after this period has passed and at some future time when one of the big parties once again has a clear majority any such reforms might be cast aside and forgotten. It is always possible that even after all that has happened this week that the big parties have not heard the message which I believe the Australian people have been sending to them. It is always possible, that the parties fail to learn the lesson that they cannot the voters for granted.

I hope that’s not the case, because if the current situation does not teach them that lesson then I suspect that nothing will.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Real People’s Assembly

While some might be tiring of the ongoing federal election saga, the fact remains that this is an almost unique situation. It is so long since there has been a hung parliament in Canberra that to all intents and purposes the situation is unprecedented. While some have suggested that the campaign has been boring and that the outcome a reflection of that, the fact is that there is drama and irony to be seen at every turn. While many might be concerned that this period of political uncertainty may be harmful to business and community confidence, the fact is that the outcome of Saturday’s election also provides a unique opportunity for political parties to re-examine the way thewy conduct themselves, and to consider how to improve the parliamentary process.

One of the reasons that Kevin Rudd fell out of favour with his own party was that he somehow managed to lose touch with his own colleagues. It has been widely reported that Mr. Rudd effectively ran the entire government as part of a gang of four including himself, Julia Gillard, Wayne Swan, and Lindsay Tanner. Apparently, when things started to go wrong, he found himself with a shortage of friends within his own party. This could be seen as indicative of the broader political process where politicians generally have been seen to be out of touch with their constituents, and the executive out of touch with the parliament. In effect, so much power has been concentrated at the top that the lines of communication through the cabinet, through the parliament, and out into the community, have been cut off.

In the wake of the election result, it would seem that it has now become necessary for all the politicians to actually talk to each other again. It has become necessary for the politicians to actually listen to the concerns of the constituents of independents and minor parties. It has become necessary for the process to become collaborative rather than combative. It presents an opportunity to reform the parliamentary process to permanently encompass the role of parliamentarians as representatives of the people by removing some of the power from the executive and restoring it to the floor of the parliament. Before the election Tony Abbott criticised the Government’s proposal for a “People’s Assembly” because we already have such an assembly and it is called the Parliament.

This election seems to be offering us the opportunity for that to actually be the case.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Disappointment And Disgust

After months of suggesting that if there was a box for “none of the above” on the ballot paper then it would be likely to win, it seems that is exactly what has happened. At the time of writing, the latest count is showing a likely outcome of 73 seats each for Labor and the Coalition, plus the three existing independents and one Green. Although it appeared that there might be another independent elected in Tasmania, the latest adjudication from the Australian Electoral Commission has awarded the seat of Dennison to Labor. The end result is that it could not possibly be any closer than it is. Although all the polls indicated a tight result, very few people believed that Labor would fail to scrape back in with a slim majority. But that hasn’t happened and instead Labor has seen its grip on government evaporate right before its eyes.

Presumably, the leading lights of Labor will be dissecting this massive failure for years to come, but at this early stage it appears that at least some of them are still in denial. Part strategist Senator Mark Arbib and Campaign Director Karl Bitar are still blaming anybody but themselves. They are still saying that the campaign suffered as a result of the cabinet leaks, and that if Kevin Rudd had remained as Prime Minister the vote against Labor would have been even worse. Of course, these are matters which will be open for debate as there is no way to ever know for sure what might have been. But I believe that they are missing the point.

It is clear that the people of Australia have sent all politicians a very loud message, but many of them are still not hearing it clearly. That message is simply that we expect all of them to do better, and that they cannot take the support of the Australian people for granted or treat us with disdain and contempt. People are still angry about home insulation and school halls, their still worried about immigration and asylum seekers, and they are still angry about what happened to Kevin Rudd. That’s not because of any deep affection for Mr. Rudd, but because dumping him was a blatant attempt to con us all into believing that a new ringmaster would make a difference while still surrounded by the same old clowns. The people of New South Wales especially have seen it all before with a succession of Premiers installed to patch up ailing opinion polls, but delivering nothing more than a series of ex-Premiers.

While Tony Abbott has done an outstanding job of bringing the Coalition to the brink of victory, against all expectations, he too has been sent a message by the people of Australia. While a significant number of voters have turned away from Labor, either in disappointment or disgust, not quite enough of them are prepared to accept Mr. Abbott as a genuine alternative. If the Coalition had been able to offer more than simple slogans based on derogatory attacks against a government which had by its own admission lost its way, perhaps people might have found something to vote FOR, and not just AGAINST. As it is, both the Labor Party and the Coalition still have a long way to go before either of them truly regains the trust of the people.