Habemus PM

by John Quiggin on September 13, 2010

The Australian election three weeks ago turned out about as close as possible. The two main parties (Labour and the permanent Liberal-National-Liberal National coalition) each ended up with 72 seats (out of 150) and almost exactly 50 per cent of the two-party preferred vote, the relevant measure of support in our preferential (=IRV/AV) system. That left six remaining seats: one Green, one non-coalition National, one leftish independent and three country independents, all formerly associated with the conservative National party). Because the Parliament has a Speaker, 76 supporters are required for a stable government.

Unsurprisingly, things took a while to sort themselves out. Because of postal voting and the need for recounts, the final determination of seats took more than a week. Then there was another week of haggling and jockeying. The Green MP declared for Labor first, followed by the leftish independent (Labor) and the dissident National (Coalition). No surprises there. That left the three country independents. It was expected they would move as a bloc, but in the end, one announced support for the Coalition, and the other two for Labor (the last of them spending half an our of explanation before finally stating what had been obvious from the moment his ally went that way). So, after 17 days, it was 76-74, and Julia Gillard retained the office she had snatched from Kevin Rudd only weeks before the election.

Overall, it was a startlingly good outcome. Any democratic system is going to have trouble when the vote is as close as this, but compared to the US in 2000, or Belgium/Holland right now, things went relatively smoothly. And, startlingly, to get the independents on board, Labor actually had to promise better government, rather than pork-barreling for those electorates fortunate enough to have a pivotal vote. By contrast, the Liberal leader Tony Abbott, came with an open chequebook and was rebuffed. It’s true that the effect will be to give much more favorable treatment to rural and regional areas in general, but the independents have a fair enough basis for the claim that these areas have been neglected (complex and competing calculations of the relative treatment of urban and rural areas are a staple of Australian policywonkery).

Even better, when the newly elected Senate takes its place (not until July 2011 thanks to the marvels of our electoral system) Labor’s dependence on the Greens will be enhanced by the existence of a Labor-Green majority in the Upper House. Going into the election, Labor had dumped the commitment to action on climate change that gave it victory in 2007 (how this happened is too depressing to relate. I think George Monbiot covered it a while back). But now, with the government dependent on Greens and greenish independents, the issue is back on the agenda.

It’s often said that a country gets the government it deserved. Going into the election, with two competing leaders who had seized power without any real popular support, and policy platforms derived entirely from particularly dimwitted focus groups, I wondered what we Australians had done to deserve this. Now, I wonder how we merited such good fortune. I only hope it will last.

{ 27 comments }

1

alex 09.13.10 at 11:58 am

My only comment on this is a question – how can anyone be happy with a govt presided over by someone who sounds like a Thatcher clone that’s constantly having to remember to pretend to have an Australian accent? The most bizarre noise coming out of a politician’s mouth since, well, Boris Johnson said anything.

2

Timothy Scriven 09.13.10 at 1:51 pm

I wouldn’t call Gillard a Thatcher clone, except to the extent that more or less everyone is these days. Also, I’m afraid that’s actually the way she speaks.

3

dsquared 09.13.10 at 1:54 pm

I thought we’d agreed we weren’t going to mention Habermas in the titles of posts because it puts off the readers.

4

Earnest O'Nest 09.13.10 at 3:07 pm

Not to mention the ugly green font.

5

ChrisN 09.13.10 at 3:44 pm

An unusual or striking voice is perhaps an advantage in politics?

In the relatively recent history of countries whose leaders I’ve had to hear talking a lot, I’d rate the following as more annoying speakers than Julia Gillard: Bob Hawke, John Howard, Jean Chretien (both languages), and the Georges Bush. Also Ronald Reagan, but that might be just me. In the Australian second tier, there’s Neville Wran and Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

A key advantage of the funny voice is that it makes it much easier for the comedians and entertaining for the rest of us (see the Julia 9-5 video, eg).

Also, several of my family members sound very much like Gillard, so this notion that it’s somehow faked seems odd.

6

Ben Alpers 09.13.10 at 4:15 pm

You quite properly compare this outcome to the US in 2000 and Belgium and the Netherlands. How about the UK 2010 or Germany 2005?

I’m generally inclined to like multiparty systems and coalition governments (in part out of frustration with the US two-party system), but in the real world, they have a relatively mixed record of producing good results. The UK’s Lib-Con coalition government is a particularly bleak instance of the form (and I say this as someone who would probably have voted Lib-Dem, depending on the constituency).

Australia 2010, so far, seems to be an example of a multiparty system working to produce, as you say, a better government than you even deserve. What, if anything, can we learn from it?

7

nick s 09.13.10 at 8:27 pm

how can anyone be happy with a govt presided over by someone who sounds like a Thatcher clone that’s constantly having to remember to pretend to have an Australian accent?

You haven’t heard Kristina Keneally yet, I take it.

The two independents were fairly explicit about their final choice being based upon the precariousness of the ALP’s position. They believed (probably with good reason) that if they backed the Coalition, Tony Abbott would go back to the country early, and that any concessions they were initially promised might not be delivered; keeping the ALP in power, on the other hand, gives them a kind of dead man’s switch on the government for the next three years.

(The actuaries have already had their say about the role that death, illness or scandal could play in changing the numbers in the House of Representatives.)

8

Timothy Scriven 09.14.10 at 12:55 am

Nick S, I don’t buy labor is any more precarious than the liberals. They have 72+The greens who have no choice but to back them. The libs have 72 plus Tony Crook who may or may not sit with them but has shown himself to be dangerously voliatile in such a situation and has indicated that he will sit on the crossbench. Arguably Wilkie is like the Greens in having only one horse to back, bringing them to 74. So before the rural independents come in it’s 73/74 v 73

Calculations that suggest the libs have any easier time of it simply ignore that Tony Crook has indicated he wishes to be a crossbencher, and ignore that the Greens have only one place to go. To my mind, Labor came in with the advantage.

9

Timothy Scriven 09.14.10 at 12:56 am

And this is discounting the senate.

Gosh, must not write comments before coffee.

10

Martin Wisse 09.14.10 at 6:21 am

Ehhh, compared to some elections this round of coalition forming in the Netherlands hasn’t gone on particularly long yet. There have always been stretches of “instability” — close elections followed by difficulties in getting a government together — and they’re usually a sign the political system is realigning itself.

Hasn’t harmed the country so far.

Compare and contrast with the last British election, where the LibDems allowed themselves to be pressured into becoming Tory without getting any payment for it, other than the usual half assed promise to reform the electoral system and there’s now a slash and burn happy government going to put the country back in recession.

Myself, I’d rather have an “ungoverned” country than one in which the government has a mandate for “tough measures” because I know the latter willl mean spending cuts, mass unemployment and more money to the already rich.

11

GrueBleen 09.14.10 at 7:00 am

Now be fair, poor Julia was born in Wales and only came to Australia to ecape from serious bronchopneumonia at the age of 5. She spent her formative years in Adelaide, but her mature years in the western suburbs of Melbourne where her accent would be considered almost toffy.

And Kristina Keneally was born A’Murcan (in Las Vegas), though to an Aussie mum, so we’re not inclined to be too unforgiving of her accent either.

12

Alex 09.14.10 at 8:05 am

Well, looks like having an ideological purge of everyone who isn’t a hardcore climate-change denier wasn’t a winning strategy when you need to convince the Greens…

13

sg 09.14.10 at 8:46 am

I don’t think that’s what happened, Alex. The previous CPRS (designed before any “ideological purge”) was insufficiently useful to convince the Greens, and the govt relied on the Liberals to pass it. When that failed the designers of the CPRS decided to give up on the whole deal; it was after this decision that poll numbers started to nosedive and the “ideological purge” happened. Now they have Combet in the climate change role, and as I understand it he’s pretty strong on global warming.

I think more likely, the ALP floundered for a year trying to come to terms with the fact that they had to really genuinely act on climate change, rather than just appear to – and this problem was independent of leadership. They didn’t come to terms with that until the Greens got the BoP. They also didn’t predict the depth of confusion in the Liberals’ ranks, and the previous leadership (Rudd) was a bit spineless about confrontation, but really bad at negotiation. The election result simply represents a year of these kinds of political mistakes, not any underlying ideological drive to throw out climate change policy.

14

Emma in Sydney 09.14.10 at 10:09 am

FFS, I wish people would quit whingeing about Gillard’s voice. She talks like any other English child-migrant brought up in the suburbs of Adelaide, and I think it is very revealing of the whingers’ snobbery that they even *notice* it. She has a perfectly ordinary regional Australian accent. End. of. story. Have you noticed that she speaks in complete sentences? That’s far more rare.

15

sg 09.14.10 at 10:21 am

I agree Emma, complaints about Gillard’s voice are just nasty snobbery.

16

alex 09.14.10 at 12:09 pm

No, I have a delightful sarf Lundun accent myself, but apparently residents of the suburbs of Adelaide speak as if they’re not quite sure which word comes next. Fair enough.

17

sg 09.14.10 at 12:34 pm

hence the claim that she is “having to remember to pretend to have an Australian accent”? Maybe your sarf Lundun accent is a put on too? Helps you fit in does it?

18

alex 09.14.10 at 2:11 pm

I said that’s what she sounded like, I didn’t say she was doing it. Reading comprehension much?

And my working-class family and comprehensive education thank you for your concern, but, yes, I do know where I come from, thanks.

19

sg 09.14.10 at 2:44 pm

It’s that knowing where you come from that helps you cast aspersions on other people’s fake accents, right?

20

Earnest O'Nest 09.14.10 at 2:46 pm

19- no, he’s just provoking you into making him feel less lonely.

21

The Slog 09.14.10 at 4:39 pm

Why is it that so many of the world’s election now are dead heats….Bush/Gore, Cameron/Brown, Gillard/the other guy….and so on?

So many developed democracies now consist of two almost exactly equal and bitterly opposed sides….
http://nbyslog.blogspot.com/2010/08/this-is-age-of-neck-and-neck.html

22

mds 09.14.10 at 7:17 pm

where the LibDems allowed themselves to be pressured into becoming Tory without getting any payment for it

A better interpretation is that the Orange Book Gang had an excuse to become open Tories, rather than stealth Tories.

What, if anything, can we learn from it?

That rural centrists can be wooed by something other than rhetoric about tax cuts, science denialism, and immigrant bashing? That the phrase “more government spending” shouldn’t automatically be treated as profanity by both sides of the aisle?

23

chris 09.14.10 at 9:01 pm

If they wanted to become any kind of Tories, why didn’t they just become Tories? Is there a membership fee? Entrance exams?

24

mds 09.15.10 at 2:38 am

If they wanted to become any kind of Tories, why didn’t they just become Tories?

Based on the post-election polling, many LibDem voters have apparently been asking that same question, though perhaps with a slightly different phrasing. It’s almost as if there’s some sort of mysterious ideological faultline running through the Liberal Democrats.

25

John Quiggin 09.15.10 at 3:01 am

@TheSlog your analysis looks right for the US, but not for Oz. The overwhelming mood was one of disgust with both sides, reflected in a greatly increased vote for independents and minor parties and in an increase in the proportion of blank ballots (casting a vote is compulsory, but there is no obligation to make it valid).

26

Leinad 09.15.10 at 5:54 am

Indeed.

Thanks to our 85-year old love affair with compulsory voting apathy can end up playing strong roles in electoral outcomes, though this has to be the first genuine ‘yaz can all get stuffed!’ election in my political lifetime (1996- ).

Apathy tends to favour the incumbent but the disposal of Kevin Rudd followed by Julia Gillard’s attempts to run against those parts of his legacy (immigration, population) she didn’t try to run away from (just about everything else) turned the electoral contest into a battle of two Opposition Leaders with huge amounts of nothing to say on anything of interest and a lot of oxygen to squander on debates about debates and silly games over costings.

27

GrueBleen 09.16.10 at 3:38 am

A perfect short summary, Leinad.

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