We just had a national election in Australia. As I have done for every other election, I held an election party, this time sans-partner (who was in Oz), and sans-Australians (since I was in Japan). It was attended by an Iranian, two Japanese, one Australian, an American and a Thai.

So, it seems I should also have an obligatory election post here, since I commented on Australian politics recently, and also on the British coalition government.

For my non-Australian reader(s), a brief overview of Australian politics. Australia has a Federal system with a bicameral national parliament, consisting of the lower house (House of Representatives, HoR) and the upper house (Senate). Voting is compulsory and we have a preferential single transferable vote system, so essentially: you have to vote and if your first choice doesn’t get up, your vote wings its way on to the next most popular person, and so on, until it exhausts or someone you preferenced really low gets past 50% of the (preference-allocated) vote. You can see the shenanigans in action at the AEC virtual tally room[1]. The senate is voted at a state level and is even more horribly complicated. There are two main parties, the left-wing party being a social democratic workers party, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and the “right-wing” party being the Liberal Party, which never garnishes enough votes to rule in its own right and so is in a coalition with the classic party of agrarian socialism, the National Party. The Liberal Party is supposed to traditionally be the party of old-fashioned liberalism, but under Howard it took a turn to protectionist/state-interventionist conservatism, and this was reflected even more so in the current leader, Tony Abbot, a failed catholic monk. There is one other significant party, the Greens, who have a broad political platform but are often characterised as single issue because they were, once. They’re also characterized as “watermelons” (green on the outside and red in the middle) but there is actually some debate amongst rational people as to whether or not they are a social democrat party at all – their own policy manifesto suggests an economic, as well as social, “third way” that is neither classically capitalist nor social democrat[2][3]. The significant leftist party, the ALP, were the incumbents for this election, but kind of screwed the pooch a bit when the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, was deposed by his deputy, Julia Gillard, just weeks before the election was called, in what is rightly characterized as a midnight doorknock-and-knifing. People were horrified by the brutality of his demise, and I was certainly upset for him (Kevin Rudd seemed like a decent guy), but I also note that this is how the ALP works – they’ll throw their own grandmother under a bus if a) it gets them power and b) it helps the workers[7]. At the time this seemed like it might be an election-winning idea, and I was supportive of it for that reason (I share with the ALP a certain respect for brutality towards the higher echelons of the workplace!) but it turns out that it just meant, in the eyes of the electorate, that the ALP threw away all the benefits of incumbency. Every time anyone said “we were a good govt” people could say “well then why did you take Kevin out the back and shoot him?” Bit of an oops that one.

A few notes on Julia Gillard and the ALP government: The ALP steered Australia through a recession without any significant harm, through a combination of good luck and fast, early stimulus, well documented here. I have previously discounted statistically claims that the second part of that stimulus package created extra house fires, and recent reports have suggested that the final, biggest stage – the BER – really wasn’t very wasteful, given its context. They also introduced some partial reforms of healthcare funding, a much-needed area of reform in Oz, and they apologized to indigenous Australians for a dismal aspect of our past, the Stolen Generations. They repealed the previous government’s horrific labour rights legislation, the viciously-misnamed “workchoices,” and attempted to pass a carbon-abatement scheme. This carbon-abatement scheme – which, incidentally, was much criticized for doing nothing but give money to polluters – was the cause of all their subsequent trouble, because it led to massive chaos in the opposition, culminating in the replacement of a new breed moderate leader with the worst type of reactionary (Tony Abbot) and was subsequently knocked back in the senate. Then, instead of showing the spine required of an ALP leader, Kevin Rudd squibbed on it and refused to force it through. He had the choice of a) negotiating a real agreement with the greens or b) ramming it down the conservatives’ throat by means of a “Double Dissolution” election. The latter requires spine, and the former requires principles. So instead he announced that he would delay the ETS essentially indefinitely, and then his poll numbers started to dive.

A few notes on Tony Abbot and the Liberal/National coalition: Tony Abbot replaced a moderate (who was very dodgy himself) in the furore over the carbon abatement scheme, and has run a campaign based exclusively on negativity and having no policies. He promises to “stop the waste, stop the boats and stop the debt” but has no policy on anything to offer. In addition to being very negative, he’s also a staunch catholic who believes women should “save their precious gift” for marriage and who, when health minister, acted to ban the early abortion pill RU486 over departmental advice. I don’t think his religious views would be that relevant in government but if he ever secured control of both houses of parliament things could get a bit… retrograde … in the sex and marriage department[10]. He also got an easy run in the media, who reward stunts over substance every time, and didn’t ever seem to inquire into his policy ideas at all, or pursue them. I have yet to see a single media report on the home insulation program, for example, make any attempt (even vague) to link increasing numbers of fires to increasing numbers of insulations[11]. This is trivial stuff, but as I’ve said before, journalists are so thick that they depend on being fed lies by smarter people than themselves in order to do their job. As an indication of how stupid journalists are – Tony Abbot believes that climate change is “crap” (his words), but journalists still believe things he tells them. It’s actually really hard to pin down a single policy Abbott held in this election except “we’ll give money to rural and marginal seats.” Also, there was a general policy of “our government won’t spend money on infrastructure,” exemplified by his opposition to the government’s $43 billion planned investment in broadband – the opposition preferred a $6 billion policy based on subsidizing the current monopoly to provide wireless to rural seats.

So, Australians went to the polls facing a choice between a lunatic coalition and an ALP that had shown itself willing to back down on its principles at the first sign of trouble. Australians don’t vote in the ALP to back down on principles. So there was a huge swing against the government, most of which flowed to the greens, giving them a new primary vote of 11.5%, a seat in the lower house (Melbourne), and 4 more seats in the Senate. This means that they control the balance of power in the new senate. The two main parties are both going to fail to get enough seats to control the lower house and are currently frantically negotiating with 3 rural independents to form government. A few notes on this:

  • hung parliaments are rarely rare in a compulsory voting, single transferable preferential voting system – the last one was in 1940
  • The Greens vote is not unexpected after the ALP backed down on the carbon scheme, and a first term swing to the opposition is not unexpected as well, but 1.7% nationally is probably a bit much
  • The government lost its majority largely because of shenanigans in two states, New South Wales and Queensland, whose State governments are so on the nose that they may be poisoning the Federal vote – this may have been a problem even if the ALP had behaved impeccably at a national level, and the Liberals certainly played on it
  • If it weren’t for the rural gerrymander favouring the Nationals, the result wouldn’t be in question. The Nationals win 4% of the vote nationally and get 7 seats; the Greens win 11.5% and get 1 seat
  • There was a huge amount of postal / pre voting that polls suggest heavily favoured the ALP, and so it’s possible that close seats will be decided in favour of the ALP (or the Greens) after preference counting is complete. If this happens the “hung” parliament may be reversed to a bare ALP majority (highly unlikely) or the ALP may not have to negotiate with the independents
  • The Independents are ex-National Party rural politicians, but they also really hate the Nationals[12], so it’s unlikely they’ll side easily with them
  • The Independents also seem to be strong supporters of climate change action and broadband investment, so this is a plus for the ALP in negotiations, particularly since the Greens will hold the balance of power in the Senate and dealing with them will require some quid pro quo
  • The ALP has won a slightly higher proportion of the primary vote (50.7%) so they also can argue they are the “more popular” (hah!) party[13]

So my guess is that we’ll get a coalition of the ALP with Greens and/or Independents; and even if the Greens are excluded from the coalition in the House of Representatives, they’ll ultimately de facto have to be included in the coalition because from July next year they have a stranglehold on the senate. The only alternative (and it’s not impossible) is that Labour and Liberal may work together to exclude the Greens – they may continue to think it’s in their best interests to oppose the growth of a third party.

The main bonus of this election is that it highlights the coming of age of the Greens, from a protest party through a single issue party to a party of national relevance. They haven’t really been a single issue party for a long time (their manifesto, written by Bob Brown with the philosopher Peter Singer, was published in 1994), but they’ve always been treated that way by the media. It has taken this extreme situation of a collapse in confidence in the major parties and some good luck in a local electorate to get a member in the lower house, and it has been growing awareness of that single issue – the environment – which has propelled them to fame. In the past they have entered coalitions at a State level and it hasn’t worked so well, but at a Federal level they have an excellent thinker in the form of their senate leader, Bob Brown, and there’s every chance they can behave responsibly and with principle. If they do, Australians will be shown an alternative to the two main parties. This will end the ALP’s 100-year-long effective stranglehold on the left-wing vote, and may have significant ramifications for the Nationals if their rural electorate start to think of the Greens as alternative representatives of farmer’s wealth and rural issues[14]. In quite a few electorates the Greens gave the final winner from the main party a run for their money, either coming close to them in the primary vote or forcing them to depend on preferences. This indicates that the old order is starting to fray at the edges, and if either of the main parties forms an effective coalition with Independents and/or Greens, we may see the beginning of the end of two party dominance in Australia.

The Liberals particularly need to be scared of this, because the combined primary vote of the Greens and the ALP is 50%, much higher than the Liberal/National 44%. If that gets turned into seats for the Greens – either through the ALP coordinating better with them, or the Greens winning in seats where a three-headed race previously favoured Liberal – then the Liberal/Nationals are facing big electoral trouble. The Liberals must be keenly aware of this given that the Nationals’ vote share has been declining over the last 30 years (they are “agrarian socialists” after all). If that vote share drops below a certain level, there’s every risk the Greens will replace the Nationals on the Federal stage, and that is the death-knell of conservative/classical liberal politics in Australia. This in turn would be very good for Australia because it would force the Liberals to reinvent themselves as a socially left-wing, environmentally conscious party of liberalism, rather than the socially-conservative right-wing broad church that they’re trying to be now. Such a move was on the cards after the last election but the conflict over the carbon abatement scheme halted that move. A move towards coalition politics in Australia might – depending on the performance of the coalition partners – hasten it, and <i>that</i> would be a very good outcome for Australia.

But at present, the more realistic outcome (as far as I can see) is that after a remarkably successful election campaign for Tony Abbot and his conservatives, we’ll end up with the most left wing government in 30 years…

UPDATE: The independents have presented a list of demands to the Gillard government, and they’re impressive. Part of this is a demand to fully cost both party’s policies, which should be a problem for the liberals – their policies have not yet been costed, and there is some dispute as to whether they will work out. This letter also seems to put the ball firmly in Gillard’s court, since there are a variety of undertakings there that are harder for an opposition to meet than a government. They also in my view address concerns that the independents were just going to be pork-barrelling. I think there is some strong behind-the-scenes distate with the National Party working behind all of this, and I wonder if the past behaviour of the Nationals is hindering Abbot in negotiating with them. I heard that the Nationals’ leader, Warren Truss, is not allowed in the negotiations with these independents and I recall before the 2004 election there was an attempt to smear Windsor with a bribery allegation, possibly by Truss. I imagine there is not much love lost between them!

fn1: The AEC is an Aussie organisation to be proud of, btw. 14 million Australians voted out of 22 million, and the polling booths all closed without fuss at 6pm, and the decision was (approximately) known by midnight. Compare with the UK, where 27 million people out of 64 million voted, but there was chaos.

fn2: For this reason I am only partly a greens supporter. I like their environmental and social policies but I’m also strongly social democrat-aligned, and I’m really suspicious of economic policies that aren’t based on social democracy. I can see that for post-industrial (like the UK) or resource-exporting societies (like Oz) a non-social-democratic model could be a good idea, but I can also see that it could just be economic hoodoo, and not worth trying.

fn3: Incidentally, while I broadly approve of the rough characterization of social democrat as “left,” I think the dichotomization of this kind of debate into social democracy VS. capitalism is puerile, particularly in a country like Australia where essentially all the parties are social democratic, and the debate between them concerns workers rights and what proportion of the economy should be socialized (and that debate itself narrows over time)[4].

fn4: Lenin agrees with me about this. He was full of scorn for social democratic parties and saw them as a weak attempt to soften capitalism’s hard edges. The way this played out in pre-war Europe is beautifully described in Darkness at Noon by Koestler[5]

fn5: A book I think is in many ways better than 1984, and should definitely be read by those interested in a genuine, non-ideological critique of the ideology of marxist-leninism[6]

fn6: as opposed to a non-ideological critique of the outcomes of marxist-leninism, which is trivial, like shooting fish in a barrel

fn7: though I think it’s safe to say this part of the ALP’s “let’s throw granny under a bus” impulse is getting weaker over successive generations of hacks[8]

fn8: and it’s also worth noting that in a services- and export-oriented economy like Australia, the concept of “helping the workers” is getting harder to found in a single party political program, which is why I’m increasingly tempted to look into the details of the Greens’ economic policies[9]

fn9: which is possibly the mistake that Saruman made

fn10: Typically the federal government doesn’t get control of both houses, and has to negotiate for everything. This is even true of the current ALP, who won in a “landslide” so significant that the former PM lost his own seat; but they still couldn’t control the senate.

fn11: The media still report deaths in Iraq as “over 100,000” when we know that they’re over a million – they won’t report anything which disputes their preferred narrative, and their preferred narrative for the insulation program was that it was a failure. This narrative is straight from the liberals.

fn12: One described them as a “cancer” he had given up, two of them referred to the Nationals’ Finance Spokesperson as a “fool” who “embarrasses rural Australia” and the leader of the Nationals, Warren Truss, has been excluded from negotiations with them because their relationship is so bad

fn13: In the Oz system, “2 party preferred vote” means the percent of votes assigned to the party after preferences have been distributed, and due to the Strong Law of Large Numbers is unlikely to ever be bigger than 52% or less than 48% – very small differences represent large “popularity” (under a very strained definition of popular in which only 39% of people actually voted for the ALP)

fn14: Australian farmers are typically represented as anti-environmentalist rednecks but there is a lot of evidence that this is just the opinion of their elite representative bodies, the Farmer’s Federations and the Nationals, not actually particularly representative of rural opinions. Country people have a lot of significant environmental concerns quite apart from global warming, and the Nationals have failed to deliver on them for years – which is part of the reason all the independents in the House of Reps are ex-Nationals.

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