IT appears unlikely that the political disarray into which Australia has stumbled in the wake of last Saturday’s election can satisfactorily be resolved without going to another poll. That is not going to happen very quickly.
As it is, the average parliamentary term is three years. Throw in state and council elections, and Australians are called upon to vote rather more frequently than most of them would care to. Therefore, any party perceived as paving the way for an extra election can expect a bit of a voter backlash.
On the other hand, given how evenly the parliament is poised, it’ll be a minor miracle if any government can survive beyond a year or two at the most. Although final results in a couple of seats might not be available for another week or more, it seems the Labor Party and the Liberal-National Coalition will have 73 seats each in the 150-member House of Representatives, with three independents and one representative of the Greens. Thus, whether Julia Gillard remains prime minister or is replaced by Tony Abbott essentially depends on the independents.
To Labor’s disadvantage, all three of them were previously associated with the conservative side of politics. But whichever side forms government is likely to have a single seat margin in parliament. It’s hard to see how that could prove sustainable.
What’s more, any government is also likely to face a hostile Senate – although, with the Greens holding the balance of power after doubling their strength in the upper house, that would appear to be a bigger problem for Abbott. But that’s a relatively distant issue – the new Senate won’t be constituted until July next year.
Australia, which hasn’t faced a hung parliament since the early 1940s, is more precariously poised than Britain was following the inconclusive election last spring: notwithstanding the tensions within Conservative/Liberal-Democratic coalition, the partners together share a comfortable parliamentary majority. That will patently not be the case in Australia. What’s more, there is no guarantee that another election in short order would not throw up a very similar result.
Compared with the British Labour Party, which had been in power since 1997, Australian Labor’s decline has been considerably more precipitous. It has also been largely self-inflicted. Squandering the popular goodwill that swept it into power less than three years ago has been quite an achievement, especially in view of steady instability at the helm of the Coalition: Abbott is the third opposition leader since John Howard lost the prime ministership (and his own seat) in November 2007. Furthermore, when he was elevated to the post after winning a leadership contest by just one vote last year, he was largely considered unelectable at the national level.
Until the turn of the year, meanwhile, Kevin Rudd’s popularity as prime minister was largely intact. He scored an enormously damaging own-goal when, having failed to win ratification by the Senate of his carbon emissions trading scheme, he showed few qualms about postponing its consideration by at least a couple of years, after having described climate change as the biggest moral challenge of our times. Going to an election at that point would have been seen as a decidedly more honourable course of action. Doing nothing inevitably invited speculation about whether he stood for anything at all.
His demise as Labor leader followed another crucial misjudgement: the announcement of a seemingly hefty, although economically justifiable, tax on mining firms. The resources companies obviously weren’t keen to share their enormous profits and immediately launched an anti-government campaign. Rudd’s failure in this case lay in his inability to weave a convincing narrative about his initiative for popular consumption.
Even after his sudden departure, Labor was unable to improve its skills in this regard, not least in its failure to capitalize on Australia’s relatively smooth passage through the global financial crisis. Nor did it succeed in neutralizing the sour taste left by the manner of Rudd’s ouster, which was in fact compounded during the campaign by a series of damaging leaks from different factions of the party. It is now being said that Labor would have performed better with Rudd at the helm. It is at least equally likely, though, that it would have done worse.
Rudd had a tendency towards deathless prose consisting in large part of jargon and cliches, and most Australians eventually stopped listening to him. Julia Gillard is capable of exuding warmth, but almost everything she has said in public over the past couple of months sounded as if it had been scripted by public relations hacks. And it probably was.
The Australian political scene serves to illustrate the extent to which western democracy has been reduced to a marketing contest between rival contenders for power, with few principles at stake – and diminishing levels of product differentiation. Political parties expend a great deal of resources in keeping up with popular predilections and prejudices, particularly among the expanding band of swinging voters, and then going out of their way not to say anything that might upset this disenchanted segment of the electorate. In consequence, they all too often give the impression of being altogether bereft of values. Which, in turn, increases the level of popular alienation.
At the same time, there is a tendency to pander to the lowest common denominator, obliquely or otherwise, instead of seeking to demonstrate the sort of leadership that could swing public opinion. The fraught issue of asylum-seekers coming by boat to Australia offers the classic illustration of this pathetic syndrome.
Had the swing away from Labor last Saturday mostly benefited the Coalition, the latter would have posted a clear majority. In fact, most of the voters who abandoned Labor drifted further to the left by voting for the Greens – whose inroads suggest they could in time emerge as a credible third force in Australian politics.
Gillard, meanwhile, occasionally lets slip the odd indication that she could potentially be a progressive prime minister. Abbott succeeded during the brief campaign in disguising his social conservatism as well as his confrontational style. Without a meaningful majority, neither of them is likely to display their true colours. Whether the present stalemate will ultimately propel Australia towards some sort of political renewal remains to be seen. But that will certainly not be achieved by relying on so-called focus groups and honing other marketing techniques.