So after seventeen days of chaos into which Australia degenerated into a Mad Max style apocalyptic hell-world, finally we have a government. Sadly, unfortunately, it is a Communist “rainbow coalition” between the centre-Left Labor, the Greens and three independents. You can hear it, can’t you? The march of soldiers through Circular Quay in Sydney, Federation Square in Melbourne, the raising of statues of Lenin on Perth’s Murray Street mall?
Oh, you can’t? Then clearly you haven’t been reading the hysterical over-reactions of the Australian media’s response to the election, the hung parliament and its highly predictable horsetrading aftermath. Taking its cue from the not-bitter-at-all Liberal-National coalition opposition, Australia’s media appears to have dropped their collective Cornetto in the sand over the mere prospect of a slightly progressive, negotiated accountable government.
In order to understand the implications of this new political paradigm, we must first understand the intricacies of a confusing, vexed election and aftermath, as well as Australia’s unique political landscape. As I discussed earlier in a previous piece here on Global Comment, new Prime Minister Julia Gillard (Australia’s first female PM) took power in a behind-the-scenes coup in June on the very last day of sitting Parliament.
Though the Rudd government had become increasingly unpopular largely due to a widely criticised proposed tax on the mining industry, former deputy Prime Minister Gillard gathered a reputation as a “Lady Macbeth” character, a femme fatale illegitimately stealing the reigns of power from the former leader. Interestingly though, election results in Rudd’s electorate of Queensland showed that while this perception might have hurt Gillard’s chance, there was little swing in sympathy for the fallen Rudd at the voting booth.
The results of the election overall were even more enigmatic. Labor gathered 72 seats, while the Liberal-National coalition gathered 73—both short of the 76 seats in the House of Representatives required to rule, thus creating Australia’s first hung parliament since before World War Two. Even more surprisingly, the big trend of the election was not a swing to the Right in the form of the arch-conservative Tony Abbott, but to the Left. The big winners of the election were, in the end, the Greens, who gathered a 3.7% swing (compared to the Liberals 1.7%), and gained a record ten seats in the Senate and took the prize seat of Melbourne in the House of Representatives.
Kevin Rudd’s former Labor government had taken pride in being the most right-wing Labor government in Australia’s history, but for the first time in a long time the Labor party’s slow move to the right has exposed its left flank and cost it dearly. Further, three rural Australian independents, three former right-wing National rural members (Bob Katter, Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor) found themselves in an unexpectedly strong bargaining position.
Rural issues so long ignored by Labor and taken for granted by the Liberals as safely conservative areas swiftly became part of the national conversation, with decent telephone and broadband connections in the notoriously isolated Australian bush, as well as protectionist economic policies for farmers suddenly in new prominence. As Queensland independent Katter put it bluntly in an impromptu press conference shown on the ABC’s 7:30 Report:
All I’m after is the right for the areas I represent to survive. We’re not surviving in rural Australia, we’ve been declining for 25 years, our industries are all collapsing. Our populations are going, every business can look forward to less and less income every year.
Thus, in order to form a viable government, Gillard was forced into delicate negotiations with mostly urban Left Green party, new Tasmanian MP and former Howard government intelligence officer Andrew Wilkie, and the three rural members. In the end, Labor pulled together the support of the Greens, Wilkie and two of the rural “kingmakers” in the form of Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor, forming a government on the narrowest of margins.
Abbott, on the other hand, after first refusing to hand over the figures for his election promises to the independents’ scrutiny, was found to have over-estimated his figures by a stunning $10.6 billion—and this from the party that sells itself on its economic credibility. Indeed, Abbott reportedly refused to even call Greens leader Bob Brown, squashing the faintest possibility of a UK style ConDems unlikely alliance.
The incompetence of the Opposition did not end there. During the tense 17 day standoff, the Coalition on September 3rd, three Coalition members lined up for some good old fashioned red-baiting on the ABC’s PM show, pontificating about the aforementioned coming Communist cacatopia (to steal a phrase from youtube blogger some grey bloke):
ANDREW ROBB: I would find it almost inconceivable that the country Independents would back a Labor-Green Coalition. It would be the most left wing government in Australia’s history.
JOE HOCKEY: It is inconceivable to me the country Independents would choose to go with what will be the most centre-left government in Australian history.
PETER DUTTON: The fact is that this will be the most left leaning government probably since Whitlam but perhaps before.
And yet, to the utter horror of the Liberals, they did. Shockingly, Abbott’s hamfisted behind-the-scenes politicking and public scaremongering did not woo the rural independents to their prospective partners. Afterwards, the former Howard government attack dog Abbott set a new personal record for graciousness, waiting a whole day before sending his shadow minister flying monkeys to work on what has been snarkily dubbed a “rainbow coalition” by the Liberal-National coalition.
Accordingly, the press have already begun breathlessly reporting signs of discord in the new government and beginning the countdown to a new election and “inevitable” Abbot triumph. The Australian today, incredibly, vowed that the Greens, a party voted for by 14% of the population, should be “destroyed at the ballot box.”
Australian politics is thus more volatile than an AFL team’s night out drinking. Gillard’s fragile minority government will have to balance the economy, the Green’s environmental concerns, delivering jobs and services to the bush, whilst coping with a hostile media and an Opposition baying for its blood.
It is not a strong situation for a government to be in, but nevertheless it may prove to be the best outcome for the Australian people. Gillard’s new government will have to be accountable to the Left’s concerns about the environment and job stability and the good of rural Australia, and that can only be to the good in a global climate of austerity and inhumanity that has frequently left behind such ethical concerns.