The strangest thing about this election is that the campaigning didn’t stop on polling day. Bleary eyed and on auto-pilot Abbott and Gillard were straight back on the job on Sunday. They each had two tasks: to cobble together a coalition and to pitch for legitimacy. To win the election you need to do more than just persuade people to vote for you. You need to spin the outcome.
Abbott is arguing that he should form government because i) Labor has lost its majority and ii) that it received 400,000 fewer primary votes than the LNP Coalition. In the recent British general elections the fact that the Conservatives received a higher proportion of the (first past the post) vote than the Labour Party apparently carried enough moral force to persuade the Liberals to enter coalition with David Cameron, rather than Labour, their more obvious political bedfellows.
Gillard countered that the Australian electoral system is based on two-party preferred voting and that, on that basis, more people chose Labor than the coalition.
Clearly neither Abbott nor Gillard has in their own right a particularly strong claim to legitimacy. The Federal electoral system (and indeed that in every State except Tasmania) is profoundly unrepresentative. As Bob Brown pointed out, the nearly 12 per cent of the vote obtained by the Greens nationwide should entitle them to 17 lower house seats - instead of which they have one - and to determine who takes power.
Although more equitable than the British first past the post system, the preferential single member electorate system still encourages a polarised two-party politics. Those who defend it argue that it makes for stable government and prevents the political (and economic) uncertainty generated by precarious coalitions that have existed in the past in nations like Italy with proportional representation. But it is important to recognise that elsewhere - Germany and Ireland for example - stable coalition governments are the norm.
The Federal electoral system is a relic of the late 19th century, conceived of long before the two-party system shrivelled politics to squabbles over small change. On matters of substance - refugees, industrial relations, foreign policy, education funding, public health -major parties are now distinguished only by inches. Long gone are the days of visionaries with their headland speeches.
A Gough Whitlam or a Jim Cairns would probably not have got a start in today’s Labor. Former party president Barry Jones said on ABC television on election eve that this was the least substantial political campaign he could remember. The numbers men and the spin doctors rule; the faux factions are constituted by arcane tribal loyalties and crude ambitions with nary a principle to bless themselves with. The same criticism applies on the other side of politics where pragmatism trumps anything resembling doctrinal conservatism. All of this has conspired to reduce public debate to a suffocating minimalism.
This gave many electoral promises a hollow technocratic ring. Go ahead Julia, promise to build a new rail link, but where is the urban and environmental visions that should accompany such an announcement? They don’t exist because this would involve taking Labor into the risky territory of the currently unpopular and being obliged to try to win over public opinion instead of slavishly following it. Given the failure to deliver on transport over such a long period, I can well understand the cynicism of the voters of Bennelong.
Gaining electoral trust involves taking risks. There was much indignation about those who had leaked information that Gillard had, in cabinet, questioned the wisdom of introducing a parental leave scheme and pension increases. But this slightly misses the point: that the ALP is now an institution where even a feminist who emerged from the Victorian Socialist Left differs little from the parade of pragmatists who preceded her as Labor leader. Clearly, to the Prime Minister and her party, hardly anything is non-negotiable.
The problem with the turbulence of election campaigns is that it reduces us to blogging about minutiae. We lose sight of the tectonic shifts that underpin it all. It is worthwhile mapping these shifts so as to make sense of the current electoral deadlock and its possible resolutions. Coalitions are not just the products of political manoeuvrings they represent alignments and realignments between larger social blocs.
Some interpretations of socio-political change have been stated often before. Deindustrialisation has robbed Labor of its blue-collar electoral bedrock and weakened its ties to the trade unions. Social democracy was built on these foundations but has long since been abandoned in favour of mealy-mouthed suburban populism.
The main game is the struggle over the Tollway Tory vote, a situation which condemned the party leaders to hawking their wares around the Western Sydney during the campaign. Gillard’s appeal to ordinary hard working Australians was reminiscent of Latham’s call to the aspirationals two elections ago.
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He is editor (along with Scott Poynting) of a new book Global Islamophobia to be published by Ashgate in early 2012.