Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Double Disillusion

So, it appears that after six months as Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull has finally done something clever.  He has presented the minor parties in the Senate with an impossible dilemma: vote in favour of a pernicious union-bashing piece of legislation, or be sent to a double-dissolution election on July 2 in which the most likely outcome is that most of them will be wiped out of the Senate courtesy of new voting rules designed for this very purpose.  For good measure, he will be hoping that the prospect of what is essentially a three-month election campaign will silence his increasingly vocal enemies in the right wing of his own party.

So at least a partial win for Turnbull whichever way it goes, but a sad and difficult time for us voters. We are facing the biggest double disillusion election in my almost forty years on the electoral roll.  

Back in 2007 when we were disillusioned with the long-running Howard Coalition government we could turn to Labor under that beacon of hope and change, Kevin Rudd.  Then in 2013, after three painful years watching the senior figures of the Labor Party put their own ambitions ahead of good governance, we could vent our disillusion by electing an apparently united and reassuringly moderate-sounding Coalition under Tony Abbott.

It didn't take long for that to fall apart.  The first Abbott Government budget gave the lie to the pretensions to moderation, doing a whole list of things Abbott promised not to do like cutting pensions, health, education, overseas aid and ABC funding.  Within two years it was clear that the Liberal Party was as divided and dysfunctional as the Labor Party, and with the same result - it dumped its leader part way through its first term.

Australians hate divided political parties, and they hate extreme partisanship.  The Liberals have given us both.  The removal of Abbott, the ongoing campaign of the party's Right to bring him back, and the increasingly obvious tension between Turnbull and Morrison are clear evidence of a divided party.  The cuts to essential services and pensions while protecting tax breaks for the rich - and advocating more of them - smack of lack of interest in ordinary Australians.  Meanwhile the increasing disquiet over asylum seeker policy, now spread beyond typical lefty groups to mainstream institutions like churches, schools and hospitals, makes the government seem cruel and inhumane.

All of this would suggest a Labor election win, and the polls seem to be moving in that direction.  However we haven't forgotten that only three years ago they were also hopelessly divided, and we know that Bill Shorten was a key figure in both changes of leadership, supporting Gillard and then shifting back to Rudd and taking his Victorian Right colleagues with him each time.  We've never warmed to him, and tend not to believe what he says.  So now Labor have policies and the Coalition have thought bubbles but we don't have any confidence that either of them will follow through if they get elected.  Plus, the fact that both parties have the same asylum seeker policy means no-one can take them seriously if they talk about justice or compassion.

All of which means we will drag ourselves to the polls come July 2 (assuming that is what happens) without much enthusiasm for either side, and force our hands to put numbers in squares.

Normally this would be good news for independents and minor parties who are the normal recipients of our disillusioned votes.  However the government, with the backing of the Greens, has just forced through a change in Senate voting rules which basically makes preferences optional.  This means that the intricate web of preference swaps which delivered us Senators from the Palmer United Party. the Liberal Democrats, Family First and of course the Motoring Enthusiast Party are likely to be a lot less effective.  Pundits are expecting them to be wiped out.  Turnbull certainly hopes so.

I suppose in a way it makes tactical sense for the government.  After all, if you're really bad at negotiating the obvious answer is to make sure you never have to negotiate with anyone.  Or perhaps you could improve your negotiating skills, because you may find you need them anyway.

For a start, both parties obviously need to learn better ways of negotiating agreement between their own factions.  We're now approaching a decade of chronic instability in both parties.  There doesn't seem to be any sign yet that they have learnt from the experience.

Then there is the fact that there are a lot more ways to have a hung parliament than intricate preference deals between micro-parties in the Senate.

For instance, a close House of Representatives election could leave neither party with a majority and a handful of independents holding the balance of power.  Tony Windsor is polling well in New England, disillusion with the major parties is at an all-time high in North Queensland, Nick Xenophon is trying to spread his wings in South Australia, and the Greens are targeting more inner city seats.  Turnbull, Shorten and their respective advisers would be wise to think ahead about what deals they will make, rather than foolishly ruling out making any in the leadup to the election.

Another possibility is that the big winner from the new Senate voting rules could be the Greens, left with a bigger share than ever of the disillusion vote.  That seems to be what they are hoping.  Why else would they risk an unholy alliance with the Coalition to rush the changes through, knowing there was likely to be an election hard on their heels?  Perhaps this is Turnbull's secret plan to act on his long-cherished dream of bringing in an emissions trading scheme, which no doubt the Greens would once again demand as the price of their support.  And of course, Tony Abbott will still be in parliament.  The more things change....

Then again, those clever minor parties could come up with their own ways of navigating the new Senate rules.  After all, no-one saw Ricky Muir coming.  Maybe this election will be too soon for them to solve the problem, but you can imagine more formal alliances, party amalgamations or joint tickets bringing together a "fourth force" in Australian politics - an independent, grassroots, broadly conservative political movement that attracts disaffected Coalition voters in the same way the Greens have come to rival Labor.

I could be wrong, but it seems to me there is a real chance that hung parliaments and large cross-benches could become a permanent feature of Australian politics.  Labor and the Coalition may hate it, but it might not be such a bad thing really.  After all, it turned out there was a lot more to Ricky Muir than a drunken video involving kangaroo poo.

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