07 September 2010

Reflections on the revolution in Canberra

We now know who is to govern Australia for the next Parliamentary term, however long that might be, and it is clear that things will be different at least for the life of this Parliament.

Things turned out much as I had hoped and expected.  The election turned out as I had hoped – a hung Parliament in which the independents would have the determining say in the House of Representatives and the Greens would control the Senate except when Labor and the Coalition combined to pass legislation (see A plague a’ both their houses).  

When that came to pass I tipped that the three country independents would support a Gillard Government. I am not particularly surprised that Bob Katter opted to go the other way. Carbon pricing and the mining tax were always going to be big mountains for him to climb, and it is clear from his interview on the ABC’s 7.30 Report this evening that there were other make or break issues on his list of twenty points.

My comments on the situation that we now find ourselves in:

(1)     Julia Gillard has been guaranteed the support of Messrs Windsor and Oakeshott in respect of confidence motions and supply only. They have preserved for themselves complete freedom of action on other matters coming before the Parliament, although she knows that there is a range of policy issues, such as the National Broadband Network, rural health and rural education on which she can count on their in-principle support.

(2)    The reforms of the way the Parliament operates will be welcome.  Keating, Howard and Rudd all took a rather Marxist-Leninist approach to the Parliament: once they “owned” a majority of votes in the House of Representatives they could treat everyone in it with disdain, because every holder of that majority of votes would do what he/she was told. This meant that Prime Ministers with authoritarian instincts (as all three of these were) could refuse to discuss even the most sensible of amendments: it was “my way or the highway”, and in the unlamented Kevin Rudd’s case it turned out to be the highway for him during his term. 

(3)    The new rules for Parliamentary procedure will of themselves improve things somewhat, but the more important factor will be that for the life of the Parliament the independents will be there to enforce them.  If there is one thing to be taken out of the last seventeen days it is the fact that Oakeshott and Windsor say what they mean and mean what they say, and have the nerves to negotiate their way to the sort of outcome they can reasonably expect in the circumstances.

(4)    All participants should take heed of Rob Oakeshott’s comment at the press conference this afternoon that no-one has a mandate.

I have never been a big fan of the “mandate” theory.  We are essentially voting in a two horse race, and we have to make a choice between one policy portfolio and another – we cannot cherry pick the contents of the two packages.  When we decide, as I suspect most of us did this time around, that we dislike one package less than we dislike the other, it does not imply that we are endorsing all or any of the policy content. I had to preference one of the major parties to cast a valid vote, but I was not conferring a mandate on anyone to bash up asylum seekers.

Conversely, we expect the governments we elect to deal with new and emerging issues as they come up, without returning to the people or engaging in endless “community consultation”.

What all this means is that, even when the election produces a clear majority on the floor of the House of Representatives, we are not giving them a mandate to do anything except govern, which paradoxically means that we give them a mandate to do anything they can get through both houses without being struck down in the High Court.

In the present circumstances, Oakeshott’s words have a deeper meaning.  The collective will of the electorate, which is the sum of the wills of the 150 separate electorates, did not confer a blessing on either of the major parties. Julia Gillard has a “mandate” to govern because a Green and three independents put her in a position to go to Yarralumla and say to the Governor-General that she has the confidence of the House of Representatives. She will remain Prime Minister for just as long as she can continue to demonstrate that.  While she was a bit inclined to cavil this afternoon when Rob Oakeshott’s point was put to her, she is smart enough to understand the realities and what they mean.

(5)    The absence of a “mandate” means that there is nothing sacred in the Labor Platform. Ms Gillard rightly says when asked that Labor policies are Labor policies, but that is all they are. They can only be delivered if she can put together 76 votes in the House of Representatives and 39 votes in the Senate.

(6)    This brings Bob Katter into play in much the same way that the other country independents are. Katter said that he would support a Coalition Government, but the Coalition is not in Government and Bob Katter remains an independent who can and will vote on every issue as he sees fit. This means that it is in Julia Gillard’s interests to treat him with the same courtesy and respect as the other independents. She may need his vote on occasion, and she may very well get it.

(7)    There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. There were some bitter things said on the ABC’s Australia Talks this evening – the independents have betrayed their electorates and more in that vein.  There are still people who deny the legitimacy of these people, regarding them as interlopers in National Party seats. Rob Oakeshott summed it up best this afternoon: these are independent seats. They are independent seats in the traditional heartland of the Country Party for a reason: as Tony Windsor explained it this afternoon, for thirty years the National Party has been a committed member of the Coalition, and has failed to use its voting strength in the Parliament for the benefit of country Australia. The independents have done more for country Australia in the last 17 days than the National Party has in the last 17 years. In earlier times the Country Party would conduct with its Liberal ally the kind of negotiation that the independents have conducted since the election, and there is nothing improper about that – it is simply a matter of establishing clear understandings about the basis on which the major party can rely on its junior partner for support. Without such understandings, the junior partner would be better off on the cross-benches.

(8)    There will also be dirty tricks. The three country independents detected signs of orchestrated campaigns in their electorates, and I expect that those will go on, with suitably plausible deniability from the Coalition leadership.  There will be digging for dirt, but I don’t think much will be found. The Murdoch Press will be unrelentingly hostile to the Gillard Government and the independents. It will deny the legitimacy of the Government, and will concoct all sorts of stories to adorn its front pages.

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