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It doesn’t have to be a circus

By Don Aitkin - posted Friday, 8 July 2016

The driver who took us home from the airport suggested that the election result was a bad thing because the outcome was uncertain. I said the result was the result we had, and that the politicians would simply have to make it work. That was, after all, what their jobs were about. Politics is the art of the compromise. He was unpersuaded. A clear outcome was what he had been seeking, and it seemed to him, I thought, that anything else was bad for the country. We didn’t solve that one before the car arrived at our freezing house, unheated for a month.

But the discussion stayed in my mind, not because I thought he was simply wrong. Many people want clear outcomes, so that they can get on with their lives, or have some sense of what is likely happen in their area. But a muddy outcome is not necessarily a bad thing. Why did half the country not want the Liberal and National Parties in power, and the other half didn’t want the Labor Party there either? The answer has to have something to do with a substantial lack of trust in the capacity of our governments to govern well. How do you govern well? In my opinion, you are governing well when the great majority of the citizens are concentrating on their own lives, and confident enough about the direction in which the country is heading. It helps if the country is reasonably prosperous and likely to stay that way.

Indeed, we are decently prosperous, but still there is that doubt. What can the politicians do about it? One must begin with some assumptions. I am assuming that Mr Turnbull will still be Prime Minister, and probably dependent on support from one or more Independent or minor party MPs. I am assuming also that the new Senate is not much less hostile to the Government than the one that has gone out into the wider world. What will he have to do? Why, negotiate, compromise, deal, bargain — above all, listen. Some of the things he may want to do just won’t be possible. If he feels strongly about them he will need to talk at the same time to the wider electorate, so that those who take any interest in politics have some understanding of what he wants to do, and why he wants to do it.


In fact, he needs to talk to the wider electorate, not simply the press gallery, in an engaging and alert way, putting forward his ‘plan’, whatever it is. In passing, whoever thought a Liberal leader in Australia would be talking about his ‘five-year plan? — shades of Joe Stalin! I have written before (here and here) that the old assumption about our long-lived two-party system — that it sorted out the important issues for the rest of us — is no longer valid. We are  in a new era. The ALP was once the party of and for the working man (and his wife and family). With fewer than 20 per cent of the workforce in unions (the figure was over 60 per cent in the 1960s) it is not at all clear who ‘the working man’, let alone ‘the working woman’, now is. Many workers are self-employed now, where once they would have been employees — or are in jobs that had no counterpart in the past anyway.

The Liberal Party was the party of and for the middle class, the employers, the  self-employed, some farmer and graziers, and professionals of all kinds. Quite a few of those people are now Labor. The old class and status distinctions that were obvious to me as a young man have gone, or shifted their positions, much as the old Protestant/Catholic divide has gone, and what is ‘religious’ now is Islam and Hillsong. The Nationals are much as they were, but they are now weaker and smaller than they were. The old  established parties are attacked from the left by the Greens, is some sense the real inheritors of Marxism, and from the right by One Nation. I said in my last essay that the Greens’ policies have no intellectual rationale that I can discern, and I could say the same about One Nation, which is a party of protest of those who feel left out, and feel also that they ought not to be left out. The Greens think that ‘climate change’ is the defining issue of our time. One Nation wants a Royal Commission into what it sees as corruption and poor behaviour with respect to the issue. The new Government will have to negotiate with both of them.

What is to be done? I said above that in all probability the Coalition Government will have to negotiate in both Houses of Parliament. There is nothing strange about such a situation, if you set Australia in a global context. Countries whose legislatures are elected through some form of proportional representation system are used to this. No party usually has a clear majority, so negotiations have to take place before a government is formed, and virtually all the time afterwards. No one talks about having a mandate, or does so quietly if they must. For a long time we thought parties that won a clear majority of seats had the right to do all the things they said they were going to do during the election campaign. But for a hundred years and more, the voting outcome of Australian federal elections has usually been within the 55:45 range. Why should such a division have provided an open cheque, so to speak, for the governing party?

For some time now all Australian governments have had to negotiate with a Senate in which they did not have a majority. When John Howard finally possessed a majority in the Senate, he blew it on Work Choices, and went to defeat at the next election. So, back to the point at issue: if Malcolm Turnbull cannot bring himself to negotiate he needs to find colleagues who can, and who can deliver afterwards. The Leader of the House and the manager of Opposition business, the two who determine what happens on a day-to-day basis in the House of Representatives, have to make deals and negotiate with one another all the time. There is nothing strange about it, and they often build up a friendship that crosses party lines as a result of the trust they develop in one another. He will need several colleagues with that outlook, experience and patience.

I read somewhere that the new Senate meant that the new Parliament would be a circus. It doesn’t have to be one. The incoming Government must recognise that it is not able to simply say ‘We are the Government’, and have the rest of Parliament nod respectfully and pass its legislation. And out of the supposed turmoil there may come some consciousness of what ought to be a new intellectual approach to Australian politics, one in which costs and benefits are talked about seriously, and slogans and rhetoric diminished in their noise and frequency.

Or we may just go on getting deeper into debt and ignoring the consequences. After all, as more than one politician pointed out, there are other countries worse off than ourselves. We can’t we be like Greece…

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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