Lazy Luddite Log

2.12.07

Federal Election Ends

The Federal Election is over and I am contemplating its effect on me (other than sunburn). As an Australian Democrat I am kinda shattered (shatted?). However we have in many ways been preparing for the worst since the last Federal Election so that allows me to be somewhat “philosophical”.

As a citizen I am reasonably happy. The change of government was overdue and is most welcome. The new Senate in which nobody has a majority is likewise a worthwhile thing forcing compromise on an otherwise powerful new government.

As a political observer I am enlivened because this is a new era in Australian politics with many fascinating changes on the way. In this entry I will discuss some of those changes and I may as well start with the one of most significance to me – the demise of the Australian Democrats as a party with Federal representation.

Australian Democrats

I have stood at polling places for the Australian Democrats since 1990 (my final year of secondary schooling). What was interesting for me was comparing my polling place experience this time with last time (2004). We got a much more positive reception this time with several voters making complimentary comments regarding the party or its senators. So I was somewhat surprised to discover us still getting pathetic one and two percent figures. It is almost as if we got the same core vote but that this time they were prepared to admit who they were. The affect then of our campaign was to make those with a continuing commitment to us to be proud to say so.

From a campaign management perspective our efforts this time were much better than in 2004. There were many aspects of the campaign that I was content with by the standards of a minor party. However it seems that once the electorate switch off they switch off. Still I am happy that we put in the effort we did. For anyone who cared to notice they could see that the Australian Democrats were still here despite the contrary meme that has been circulating. Some of our detractors very much wanted us to chuck it all in and some members wanted to follow this advice. That would have been a mistake. Only the electorate should decide the fate of a political party – particularly one that has made such a historical contribution as us – and now they have done so, and decisively, over two half-Senate elections. Those Australian Democrats who wish to go on can do so knowing that they have to operate as something other than a Senate party. Those who wish to move on can do so knowing that we gave voters every opportunity to recognise our role and that we did all we humanly could.

It is worth me commenting somewhat on why I think we have fallen as we have. Some (mistakenly I think) blame particular legislative decisions such as that of amending the Goods & Services Tax (GST) and then go onto lament the loss of a party that once did many good things. The irony is that we only ever did good things because we were prepared to risk offending sensitive voters for the sake of improving government laws.

However it was never the controversial policy decisions that affected our vote. If you look at overall voting figures (rather than personal anecdotes) you will see that we held the line post tax reform. We elected four senators in both the GST election of 1998 and the post-GST election of 2001. It was only once we started to have internal tensions (some of which went back a long way and were more personal than political) become public (with too many changes in Leader from 2002 to 2005) that the media and therefore the public lost confidence in us and we got zero senators elected in 2004 and once more in 2007.

One of the things to understand with the Australian Democrats is that the bulk of our voters came from both major parties. They were more interested in the overall role we played as part of the political process rather than specific policy platform. The average Dems voters was less progressive than the average Dems member. As a result we could get a decent vote from major party voters who wanted us in the Senate only. At our best this gave us nine senators. It was the loss of confidence in our ability to function, rather than concern over controversial legislation, that caused the loss of most of our vote back to the major parties. It is this transfer of votes that has resulted in half the states electing only Labor or Liberal-National senators. Our primary vote is now so small that it cannot even help get the candidates of like-minded parties, such as the Greens, elected.

Drawing moderate voters away from the major parties to elect senators with a much more progressive agenda was a fantastic strategy while it lasted – and it lasted for three decades - but we were always a fragile party. The moment any kind of personal pressure is placed on your average rank-and-file Dems member, then rather than argue back they tend to wilt. And it is in this regard that the GST was politically problematic. It gave external opponents and internal rivals a convenient push-button to make members squirm. This in turn allowed tensions to become full-blown conflicts in the party. This significantly reduced our ability to campaign, and once the leadership issues hit it was very difficult to resist the damaging media with a robust on-the-ground response. The result is a much more volatile Senate... or is it?

The Crossbenches

Currently the incoming Kevin Rudd Government faces a Senate controlled by the Liberals and Nations in Opposition. New Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson commands a one-seat majority in the Senate till 30 June 2008. In that time the key interaction in the Senate will be between the Government and Opposition. But rather than conflict I expect a time of caution and compromise on selective issues. The four Australian Democrats senators who retire on 30 June will be there to do what they can do foster improvements in legislation in whatever areas there are chances for improvement.

Then from 1 July we will see a new Senate in which nobody has a majority. To have its legislation passed the Government will need to secure the support of all of the five Australian Greens and the lone Family First Senator Steve Fielding and the newly elected independent Senator Nick Xenophon. This will be a different ‘shared balance-of-power’ than the one we see in the Victorian State Parliament in which the Brumby Government can choose which non-government party it works with. This is a balance-of-power of “and” rather than “or”.

The Australian Greens will grow from four to five senators strong. Family First will still have just one senator – Steve Fielding – whose party has stalled as the public become aware that they only support a very narrow definition of ‘family’ that serves very few Australians well. Then there will be independent Senator Nick Xenophon. Xenophon has a background in South Australian state politics, but we in other states are yet to get to know what makes him tick.

Can any compromise happen with this disparate group? I think it can but it will depend on the issue. Xenophon will I think be open to all sorts of proposals as long as it can benefit his own constituency. Family First are moderate (if sloppy) on economic issues and so there is room to move there. And the Greens will have an opportunity to do more than make speeches, but rather will have a chance to negotiate changes to government legislation if that is what they are prepared to do.

The Liberals & Nationals

The Coalition has been routed. They have to re-assess who and what they are and I think we are seeing some of that happen now. The Liberal Party has always been an alliance of liberal and conservative elements and that is fine in itself. However under Howard they presented Australians with only the most negligent form of classical liberalism and only the most intrusive and offensive form of conservatism. They need to work on returning to a more moderate compromise position.

I think the selection of Brendan Nelson represents a compromise between resurgent small ‘l’ liberals (whose natural candidate was Malcolm Turnbull) and the still entrenched conservatives (whose preference was Tony Abbott). Whether Nelson stays long is another matter, but one thing for them to remember is that leaders need time to consolidate a position in the public mind. And they need to be very careful in how they respond to Rudd Government bills. They cannot simply agree to everything proposed because they are a different party with a distinct identity. But nor can they obstruct everything Rudd proposes between now and 30 June, since the Labor Party has won strong support for its government.

Australian Labor Party

Winning successive elections takes a lot of work. Australia is a diverse society and securing more than half the vote is a challenging task. The way Howard did it was to stitch together a rag-tag alliance of disparate interests using a combination of pork-barreling and dog-whistling that played to different desires and fears. It was an impressive skill but one that was always destined to be shaky. The moment Howard won control of both chambers was the moment from which his days as Prime Minister were numbered. Nobody was there to hold him back from drifting away from the centre of Australian politics. And even if he managed to keep the rag-tag patchwork together he risked loosing those more moderate voters that he took for granted.

In contrast Rudd has won a decisive victory by managing to identify the centre of Australian politics. This is something that Labor has done at a state level in every state and territory for some time now. Rudd translated that ability to the Federal level. By winning the centre they have succeeded in satisfying the majority of voters rather than actively seeking to pander to the demands of particular groups. In this centrist formulation few get everything they want but most of us get a configuration of policy decisions that we can be content with for the present.

The concept of a mixed economy is embraced by Labor and doctrines of too much market or too much intervention are rejected. Getting the precise mix right becomes the challenge. The warnings of “wall-to-wall Labor” were made but voters accepted that risk and a big part of that acceptance comes from the fact that those Labor governments in every state and territory have managed some semblance of a balance between financial responsibility and public funding generosity (something they can do in part because of GST revenue).

The fact that society is slowly becoming more accepting of its own cosmopolitan and permissive nature is recognized by Labor, whose policy keeps pace with that progress but only just. With this in mind we can (for instance) hope for some improvements in the 'practical' aspects of government recognition of same sex relationships.

Environmental dangers are more fully recognized by Labor which will make efforts in this area while still remembering voter concerns over livelihoods.

Am I happy with this? I expect the Rudd Government will fall short of my hopes in many policy areas. But I am just one person. Those who think like me are only so many. A government has to govern. There is a diversity of political perspectives in Australia and more than any other party today Labor represents that diversity in its own factions. They somehow are managing (currently) to keep peace between very different members whether they be social or liberal or conservative in nature. This makes them the best party to “represent” Australia, both in terms of us having elected them to represent us, and in terms of the Labor Party looking something like Australian society in miniature.

In politics I can only ever get some of what I want. Today this citizen is happy with the improvements – even small ones – that are likely to come with the change of government.

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