On the Aussie election stalemate

As the Sydney Morning Herald columnist Peter Hartcher says,
there’s a rough justice to the Australian election outcome, given that both major parties ran essentially as opposition leaders – Julia Gillard against the Rudd government whose mistakes she promised to fix and Tony Abbott as the opposition force able to throw out the Gillard government. Even a large chunk of the support for the Greens can be put down to a ‘plague on both their houses’ process of rejection. Since positive politics have been so thin on the ground throughout this campaign, the current stalemate does seem like an apt outcome – everyone has managed to negate everybody.

While the counting continues, both sides are now playing the numbers to suggest they have a moral claim to have first crack at forming a government. Abbott is pointing to the 480,000 majority of voters who made the Coalition their first choice, while Gillard is pointing to the preferential voting outcome between the two parties – because that way, Labour comes out with a razor thin 50.68 : 49.32 percentage lead.

From the outside, it seems incredible that Gillard could not sell a message to the electorate that Labour has steered the country through the global recession in better shape than any other developed country. In Queensland, the Rudd coup is being cited as a factor in Labour’s losses there – and similarly, the widely unpopular Labour state government in New South Wales is being blamed for the party’s losses in that state. Marian McKew, the widely respected and defeated Labour candidate in Bennelong, has laid the blame fairly and squarely on the Labour leadership for running an inept campaign, for carrying out the Rudd coup and for backing down on the emissions trading scheme. What went wrong for Labour? Everything.

While there are still five close contests in which special and postal votes are still to be counted, the deciding factor on who gets to form the next (minority) government will probably come down to which major party the bloc of three back-country independents finally chooses to support. Despite the ill will between these MPs and the National Party rump of the Coalition – and there were classic insults (“fool,” “clown” “unfortunate person” etc) hurled back and forth between them on election night – it seems very hard to imagine that the country independents will prop up the Gillard government, no matter what baubles are offered to their constituents. Abbott is already promising to revisit the Coalition’s much-derided broadband project, in order to make it more attractive to the independents, and their farmland supporters. No one really knows which way this bloc is going to go. Currently it is open to all bids – now, and for as long as this government lasts, which will always be at their pleasure. For that reason, I’d be inclined to guess that they will ultimately go with the Coalition.

In the meantime, the Greens who welcome this stalemate because it will necessitate compromise and negotiation are probably being overly optimistic. A bluffing game of mutually assured destruction more commonly ensues. Governments elected on razor-thin mandates tend to act as if they have a right to govern – and their makeshift allies and opponents are usually reluctant to being manoeuvred into being the party that cops the blame for calling a new election. In the meantime in Australia, the country independents will become just one more lobby group to be pandered to, until the country inevitably returns to the polls.

It will be interesting to see what happens to the party leader who loses the immediate race to form a minority government. Given that a fresh election may be just around the corner, do you change the party leader, or wait and hope for better luck next time? Plainly, Julia Gillard has been rejected by a wide swathe of the electorate – while on the other side (at Abbott’s shoulder) stands Malcolm Turnbull, waiting impatiently to re-assume what he feels is his rightful place of eminence. Right now, the Lucky Country is deeply divided, and volatile.


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