BY BEN HABIB.
It seems ironic that an election campaign of such unprecedented mediocrity could produce a result of such stunning complexity and implication for the conduct of politics in Australia. Perhaps this is our reward for having to sit through five weeks of negative, superficial garbage. Personally, I find the present situation to be exiting and pregnant with promise, regardless of who ends up cobbling together a majority.
The Result: A Tale of Migrating Votes
Voter preferences have obviously shifted over the course of the past parliamentary term to drive the spectacular realignment from ALP avalanche in 2007 to hung parliament in 2010.
Clearly, a large block of voters abandoned the ALP for the Coalition on election day, driving the swing that saw the Coalition pick up a number of seats, particularly in Queensland and New South Wales. This group was largely comprised of lower-middle and working class voters in marginal outer suburban electorates, which received the lion’s share of both party campaign resources and media attention.
The motivations for this demographic appear to be a mixture of financial insecurity and fear. The Coalition’s vile appeal to “stop the boats” may have been a despicable appeal to racial prejudice, but it tended to play well with a demographic that is socially conservative, under the pump economically and not very politically astute. The voting behaviour of folks with these characteristics is often tinged with vengeance, looking for someone to blame. Asylum seekers fit the bill, as did poorly performing state ALP governments. Federal Labor didn’t do itself any favours with its careless administration of stimulus spending, which allowed the Coalition to make its spurious argument about spiralling government debt. The backlash against Kevin Rudd’s removal in his home state of Queensland was also not helpful to Labor.
However, the swing against Labor did not migrate completely to the Coaltion. A second block of voters abandoned the ALP for the Greens, deflated by unmet expectations from the previous election. Labor shot itself in the foot with this group by failing to offer a credible climate change policy. Kevin Rudd came to power talking up the climate change threat and his government’s intention to deal with it. However, its CPRS legislation was not strong enough and when it was abandoned altogether, Labor’s climate policy lost all credibility. Given that the Coalition’s climate policy is even more limp-wristed, these voters had nowhere else to go but support the Greens, whose climate change policies, of all the parties, best reflect the level of urgent action being demanded by climate science.
A third block of voters migrated away from the Coalition towards the Greens and other independent candidates. Members of this group included people similarly underwhelmed by the Coalition’s Direct Action climate change plan, along with others who found Tony Abbott’s race-card campaign a bit too much to swallow. It also included many socially conservative rural voters who were unimpressed by the Coalition’s commitment to the bush. Independent candidates (like Louise Burge in Farrer) benefited from this backlash.
The number of informal votes at this election were also significant, reaching a thirty-year high. Much has been made of former Labor leader Mark Latham’s role in promoting informal voting as a protest strategy on polling day. It is easy for us to dismiss Latham because of his gruff manner and the noticeable chip on his shoulder, a burden he’s carried since 2004, but in this case he was clearly on to something. While I don’t endorse informal voting as an effective protest tactic (it effectively endorses the status quo), the election statistics show that Latham was tapping into a widespread dissatisfaction with the performance of the major parties.
On the whole, Labor and the Coalition have been so concerned with branding themselves with spin and policy on-the-run on peripheral issues that they have forgotten about taking reasoned and sustained policy positions on key issues. Essentially, they have been arguing about the bogey man while real intruders stalk the house.
The Future: How the Parties Stack Up
Tony Abbott is understandably bullish over the Coalition’s Lazarus-like recovery from its electoral oblivion. The danger for Abbott, however, is that he’s behaving as if he’s won the election, which in a hung parliament is obviously not the case. He may come to regret not being more magnanimous in his negotiations with the independent members, as Julia Gillard has been, if we are forced back to the polls without a functional government.
Thanks to the ALP’s spectacular self-immolation, the Coalition is back in a position to govern before it has had a chance to renew and consolidate itself. The Coalition left office in 2007 a stale and exhausted force. To be effective in power it needs to reinvigorate itself with new blood and new ideas, a process it has yet to undertake (it took the ALP eleven years to do this). After campaigning purely on fear, Tony Abbott may become seen as the emperor with no clothes and the Coalition may be exposed for its lack of philosophical and policy depth.
For its part, the ALP will be kicking itself for exhausting all of its political capital from the last election without achieving any lasting policy reform. As I wrote in a previous posting (WEEKLY DISPATCH: The Demise of Kevin Rudd & the Politics of Hot Air), Labor is left emaciated after three years of excessive spin and policy on-the-run. Like the Coalition, the ALP desperately needs a little less public relations branding and a lot more policy depth based on a sustained philosophical position.
The continued rise of the Greens has been both spectacular and predictable, given the inadequacies of the major parties describe above. They enter a new era holding the balance of power in the Senate, a role potentially fraught with danger for any alternative party. If they are too doctrinaire, they may become an impediment to stable governance (especially in a hung parliament) if they habitually reject government legislation. This danger is likely to be greater if the Coalition comes to power. If they compromise too readily, they will alienate their base, as the Democrats did by supporting the GST legislation in 1998. Needless to say, with the Greens holding the balance of power in the Senate we are unlikely to see the passage of any activist legislation from which ever party can cobble together at majority in the House of Representatives.
The independents are doing what they should be doing, using all of their leverage in this unique situations to extract the best deal for their constituents. Theoretically, that is what all members of the House of Representatives are meant to do but unfortunately the strict partisan discipline of two-party politics has perverted this noble intention of the founding fathers of our constitution. Needless to say, the House of Representatives will cease to be a rubber stamp for the government and parliamentary question time is about to get a whole lot more interesting.
The Broader Context of the Election Result: Politics in the Age of Consequences
In November 2007, American think-tank Project for a New American Century published a report on the economic, social and national security implication of climate change, which referred to our present time as the “age of consequences”. I like this phrase because it describes, accurately, the present moment as a time when converging global problems including climate change, peak oil, food insecurity, and the unwinding of the global financial system begin to impact on our everyday lives. These are the issues that are increasingly shaping governance, service provision, economic well-being and social cohesion across the country.
Ominously, none of these issues rated serious attention during the election campaign. It is worrying because the major parties appear to be firing blanks at this herd of oncoming beasts, because they have no answers to address these problems. They are wedded to ideological and economic paradigms of the 19th century that seem increasingly incapable of adjusting to the new realities of the age of consequences.
Our hung parliament may be a preview of things to come in politics during the age of consequences. We may see wild fluctuations between the major parties from election to election as both sides fail to comprehend and respond to the new global realities.
Last weekend’s election result gives cause for both caution and optimism as we move into this troubling new era.
An uninformed and fearful voting public—like the voting block which swung from Labor to the Coalition on Saturday—are vulnerable to fear-mongering and scapegoating in the age of consequences. People who are not politically savvy enough to comprehend complex problems are dangerous in troubled times, because they are vulnerable to cheap promises from populist demagogues.
Conversely, I take heart from the growing number politically savvy voters from across the political spectrum, who used their votes strategically by supporting alternative candidates. Not only did they send an effective message to the major political parties, they also represent the type of politically engaged citizenry that will help our diverse multicultural society to safely navigate the choppy waters of the age of consequences.
Now, more than ever, it is important that everyone becomes politically savvy, is well informed, and takes an active interest in politics ALL THE TIME!
Benjamin Habib is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at La Trobe University, Albury-Wodonga. Ben’s research project projects include North Korea’s motivations for nuclear proliferation, East Asian security, international politics of climate change, and methodologies for undergraduate teaching. He also teaches Australian politics. Ben undertook his PhD candidature at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, and has worked previously the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship. He has spent time teaching English in Dandong, China, and has also studied at Keimyung University in Daegu, South Korea.
Ben welcomes constructive feedback. Please comment below, or contact Ben at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga.