Multi-party politics

I’m reminded by the ACT election how much more interesting politics can be when there are more than two choices. If I lived in the US, I think I would despair at the monotony of the eternal struggle between the Democrats and Republicans.

However, Australia still hasn’t truly come to terms with multi-party politics. We certainly have more than two parties, but there are (broadly speaking) still only two likely outcomes: a Labor or Labor-Green coalition, or a Liberal or Liberal-National coalition. Admittedly, there are subtle differences between coalition and one-party rule, but the potential for cross-ideological alliances seems fairly remote.

So what precisely was the ACT Liberal leader Zed Seselja contemplating when he gave his victory-like speech, bashing the other two parties, after his own party failed to secure a majority? It’s an odd way to open negotiations. Seselja is trying to make it look as though the Liberals deserve to form government, without actually furthering that goal. In effect, despite appearances, he’s really just reapplying for his own job as Opposition Leader. He has presumably calculated that the barriers to a Liberal-Greens or Liberal-Labor coalition are insurmountable, and that it’s better to simply fire up his supporters for another term in Opposition (or perhaps “Government-In-Exile”) than to even try negotiating for Government.

This has some parallels to the picture that emerged in Tasmania after the 2010 election, with the Liberals and Labor on 10 seats each and the Greens with 5. Both major parties washed their hands of the Greens, descending into a fantasy in which, presumably, one or the other would be able to hold minority government in their own right (not strictly impossible, but highly implausible). Nobody spoke of a Labor-Liberal coalition, but there were really no other options once the Greens were excluded. The Governor eventually reinstated mathematical reality, giving us the bizarre spectacle of an incumbent Labor government being re-elected apparently against its will. However distasteful the Labor-Greens alliance, once again, nobody was prepared to entertain the alternatives.

Then there’s the Liberal-National alliance in WA. The Liberals and Nationals are separate parties in the west, with no formal standing agreement, so when the Nationals claimed the balance of power in the 2008 election, negotiations were on. Or, at least, that’s what the National Party wanted the Liberal Party to think, in no uncertain terms. But nobody expected the Nationals to side with Labor, no matter what was offered, and they didn’t.

Post-election negotiation is regarded as almost unnatural in Australia. We expect decisive victories — even if only by one or two seats. The problem with such negotiation, as Julia Gillard found to her chagrin, is that you’re negotiating with people who promised the electorate different things to you. Any compromise is most likely going to result in “broken promises”, which, as we’ve all seen, are easily spun as “lies”. This problem will inevitably beset any leader seeking a negotiated victory, which itself is the inevitable result of an evenly-divided electorate in a multi-party system.

The whole notion of an election promise only makes sense to the extent that a decisive outcome is likely. Your election promises are made on the understanding that your party (or standing coalition) alone will govern.

Perhaps political leaders should spell out what they would be prepared to trade away in hypothetical negotiations. Ah, but “I won’t speculate on hypotheticals” is the inevitable verbatim refrain from any party leader you would care to ask, unless they go for the outright lie that they won’t compromise. They won’t countenance negotiation, until they have to. They won’t, because the public would perceive it as weakness, and the other major party would further perjure itself in pursuit of the “moral highground” of total obstinance — that perverse ideal that a party’s most strident supporters seem to value above all else.

Here’s a thought experiment. What if a third “swing” party arose; one holding approximately centrist views, and one that could achieve the balance of power in most elections? How would conventional political strategies adapt to it? Would the public realise the essential meaninglessness of unilateral election promises? Would party leaders be brave enough to posit compromise policies before the election? Would they take a more sophisticated view of the centrist party than merely “friend or foe”? Would there be quite the same level of anger when “promises” are negotiated away in the forming of government?

Here’s another thought experiment. What if the “balance of power” (as we conventionally understand it) was held by a minor party of outright evil intent — say, the Hitler Party — a party whose motives and policies were so monumentally counter-productive to any mainstream ideology that no negotiated outcome was possible with anyone else at all. And what if this party retained the balance of power after each successive election. How long would it take — how much flailing rhetoric, how much campaigning, how many angry protests, how many election re-runs — before the leaders of the two major parties confronted the only possible solution: an alliance with each other?

And for my next wish…

Just as I hoped, we have a hung parliament.

A few days after the event, all I can say is this: Rob Oakeshott, you legend. Oakeshott, one of the three independent kingmakers, has proposed a unity cabient, wherein the two major parties would share power.

Doubtless there is much scepticism to be had over whether this could actually work, but in principle it has great appeal. This was the way the system was always supposed to work. Oakeshott and his colleagues Bob Katter and Tony Windsor are espousing the high-minded ideals of parliamentary democracy, wherein parliament becomes a mechanism of government, not just a rubber stamp for the ruling party.

On the other hand, there is another tempting argument: neither party truly deserves to be in power. As punishment for their vicious, purile and jaw-droppingly narrow-minded political strategising, we should now force them kiss and make up, and more importantly to swallow their poorly-chosen rhetoric. As punishment for their lack of competence and vision, we should force them to pool whatever little talent they do possess and share both the power and the responsibility. No more blaming it on the previous government, or snide armchair governing from the comfort and financial wonderland of opposition.

Of course, there can only be one Prime Minister, but it probably doesn’t matter whether it’s Julia or Tony so long as both are involved, along with their ministers. Stick Adam Bandt in there somewhere for good measure.

But they hate each other, I hear you cry with horrified incredulity. Why yes – that’s largely the point. If they can’t get along, they’ll make each other miserable. I call it a win-win.

Was it right? (part 2)

This is a counterargument to a previous post, in which I argued the case for switching from Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to Prime Minister Julia Gillard (or rather, why certain objections were unfounded).

Gillard’s rise to power may have restored Labor’s popularity for the time being (and certainly at a very opportune moment), but the party has done very little to actually deserve this electoral reward. I also spoke about Gillard and climate change in my last post, but here I’m going to bring Rudd back into the picture.

Gillard’s position on climate change is essentially the one that Rudd had announced in April – that nothing would happen prior to 2013. This new policy decision is largely thought to have instigated Rudd’s (and Labor’s) precipitous fall in popularity in the first place. To rule out both an ETS and a carbon tax for another three years is an act of utter recklessness, as Rudd himself had passionately argued, and is inexplicable both pragmatically and idealistically. Further, it’s an insult to our intelligence for Labor to change the unpopular leader but not the unpopular policy.

But it’s more than that. The ETS delay was not truly Rudd’s policy in the first place. It was the NSW Right faction that pushed Rudd to delay emissions trading, one of the groups that lent its support to Gillard’s subsequent coup. Rudd was hamstrung by his own party and then scapegoated for the consequences of that very mistake. An anonymous Labor factional leader gave this assessment:

This crypto-fascist made no effort to build a base in the party. Now that his only faction, Newspoll, has deserted him he is gone.

This gives some strong hints as to the extent of Rudd’s unpopularity within his own party, but it’s hard to argue that this in itself justifies the demise of a sitting Prime Minister. Labor’s internal party politics are certainly no substitute for the will of the people, and Rudd’s poor showing in opinion polls is hardly unusual for a first-term PM, nor was it even necessarily of his own making. In his press conference on June 23 (on the eve of his dispatch) he gave a glimpse of his views, and foreshadowed Gillard’s policy positions:

If I am returned as the leader of the party and the government and as Prime Minister, then I will be very clear about one thing. This party and government will not be lurching to the right on the question of asylum seekers, as some have counselled us to do. Also, on the question of climate change, we’ll be moving to a timetable on emissions trading, which is of the government’s decision, contrary to the views of some, in terms of when that best occurs.

Contrast the last sentence against Gillard’s “citizens’ assembly” idea. Rudd seems to be preemptively attacking Gillard’s appeal to populism, and so this meme must have been floating around in the party for a while. (I don’t even see what political advantage a “citizens’ assembly” could really convey. It won’t legitimise anything. It may involve “ordinary Australians”, but most ordinary Australians will be quite distant from it. The Opposition, not being constrained by reason or evidence, can paint it and its outcomes however they like.)

Gillard’s other major policy initiative that clearly distinguishes her from Rudd – offshore refugee processing (also alluded to in the above quote) – was very poorly handled. It was clearly designed to neutralise the Liberals’ xenophobic ramblings over boat people, but it sounds awfully like giving in to them. The other problem is that the policy relies entirely on international co-operation that had scarcely even been sought. It’s not clear that this co-operation will ever be forthcoming (except from Nauru, which would probably be too humiliating to consider, since it would nail John Howard’s colours to Labor’s mast), leaving this policy in limbo and playing right into the “failed-policy” mantra of the Liberals. Rudd, the diplomat, clearly wouldn’t have made such a fool of himself.

From one point of view, Gillard is an important symbol. Hopefully she can inspire future generations of women to fight their way to the top. Her rise to power may also have helped legitimise non-belief. (By contrast, it seems almost inconceivable that a US politician could openly admit to being a non-believer. Look what happens when one shows signs of doubting the complete literal truth of the Bible.) Neither Rudd nor Abbott, through no fault of their own, can be such a symbol.

Like most senior politicians, I’m sure Gillard does ultimately have what it takes to run the country. Even Abbott does, I’ll concede – it’s not as though we’re dealing with an Aussie version of Sarah Palin, after all. However, unlike Rudd, neither seem to have much vision – much sense of how the country could be made better. Gillard and Abbott play politics like chess, where the only objective is victory over the other; victory for its own sake.

Neither do they seem to have quite the expertise that Rudd possesses. Australia needs a delicate approach to foreign affairs; balancing our interests – and humanitarian interests – with the pragmatic realities of international relations. We probably owe much of our prosperity and security to good relations and carefully-negotiated agreements with other countries. I still trust Labor to handle this better than the Liberal party (mostly because a large part of the Coalition’s support these days comes from that section of the community that doesn’t understand why other countries even need to exist). However, Rudd was surely the better choice.

Whoever does win the election will have to work hard to prove retrospectively that they deserved it.

I vote for a hung parliament

How did it come to this? The Greens, supposedly a party of the “far left” (whatever that means), are now the flag bearers for a market-based policy – carbon emissions trading.

Rudd along with three successive opponents – Howard, Nelson and Turnbull — all pledged to introduce or support an ETS. Now the Labor Party has well and truly capitulated. What crumbs Gillard has to offer in lieu of a price on carbon look as bizarre and pitiful as those sprinkled before us by Abbott. Crikey has a good summary of the situation.

The most positive thing you can say about Gillard’s position is that it’s sufficiently ambiguous to allow some sort of action in the future. That’s what we’re left with, just six months after both major parties successfully concluded negotiations to pass ETS legislation. I can only gape in astonishment at the magnitude of the bipartisan failure of leadership having occurred in the intervening time. Gillard has just propelled this failure to new hitherto unknown depths of farce by abdicating responsibility to, quite literally, a random assortment of laypeople.

On the merits of its policies (climate change, asylum seekers and Internet filtering), the Labor Party frankly deserves to lose this election, and lose it badly. So, of course, do the Liberals, for many of the same reasons. I’m still of the mind that the Liberals deserve to lose slightly more, mainly because I’d prefer Labor’s incompetence over the Liberals’ incompetence and poorly-disguised ideological mindset, but it’s a close call.

The most positive election result I can imagine now is a hung parliament, with the Greens holding the balance of power in the House of Representatives (presumably as well as in the Senate). I don’t care to guess how likely this is, considering the Greens have never won a single seat in the House of Reps before. However, I expect they’ll be the beneficiaries of an electoral backlash. They deserve to do very well indeed, in my opinion, simply by holding to a broad policy that used to enjoy bipartisan support — the only climate change policy that even really deserves to be labeled as such. The prospect of a forced coalition with the Greens would surely help drag at least one of the major parties back to the negotiation table.

Gods, where’s Malcolm Turnbull when you need him? This is turning out to be a stinker of an election.

Was it right?

Tony Abbott wasted no time in conjuring up the “midnight execution” imagery to describe Julia Gillard’s usurpation of power, and a little later trying to explain why this wasn’t precisely the same thing that he himself had done to Malcolm Turnbull six months earlier. (He probably had to go all out, because Gillard out-polls him by quite a distance.)

Abbott can argue that his coup was motivated by policy, unlike Gillard’s, but the policy in question – Abbott’s apparent political raison d’être – hardly serves to exonerate him. That policy was climate change denialism (contrasted against Turnbull’s compromise deal with Labor on emissions trading), which is the product of blatant, willful ignorance and hollow ideology, and is precisely the reason Abbott isn’t fit to govern. I rather like the idea of our government heeding the advice of experts (in any field); indeed, this would be the principal factor upon which my vote would rest, if only I could see into the heads of politicians. Gillard’s coup was at worst motivated by cynical populism, which is still frankly the far lesser of two evils.

Abbott’s gloating over having been the instigator of Rudd’s downfall is juxtaposed against his apparent outrage over how it happened. But if it was going to happen at all, how could it have happened any better way? Leadership tensions often play out over months and even years, as Peter Costello will attest. Such continuing leadership instability in the Labor Party would have been good for Abbott, but not particularly good for the country. Though the position of Opposition Leader doesn’t naturally lend itself to nuanced pontification, it still seems a little silly for Abbott to spend his entire waking life denouncing the Prime Minister only to then bemoan his rapid removal from office. Was a slow political death the only acceptable option, in his professional opinion?

(This seems to be standard practice in politics, though. A deposed leader is no threat, so the other side can suddenly afford to heap on retrospective praise to make it seem as if the change is a step backwards.)

Of course, there is the democratic argument. One side argues that we didn’t elect Gillard (at least, not as PM), so what right has she to assume the Prime Ministership? The other side points out that we don’t actually elect the Prime Minister but the government as a whole; there is certainly no suggestion that anything unconstitutional has occurred. The first side might retort that, although this is the case in theory, it was the “Rudd” label that won the election for Labor in 2007.

Even the last point is a bit academic though. What happened in 2007 was nearly three years ago, and the polls strongly indicate that people have changed their minds in the mean time. Democracy doesn’t just happen every three years – it should be a continuous process. While statistically-sampled polls don’t have the same aura of legitimacy as an election, they are based on legitimate scientific methods and do, after a fashion, reflect the will of the people.

Surely democracy is best served by putting forth the best possible candidates for election, as indicated by the electorate itself. There may have been some sort of academic expectation that Rudd would serve out his full term, but nowhere is it written that this is necessary in a healthy democracy. Replacing a leader with a more popular one is how representative democracy works. (That’s not to say that replacing the leader ought to be done lightly, because government stability is also an important consideration.)

Some might argue that they wouldn’t have voted for Labor if they knew that Gillard would take over, but I wonder. If it was known that Gillard would take over, she would have been more a part of Labor’s 2007 election campaign, and she would have been much more in the public eye. She would have had more of an opportunity to cultivate her image – which is what this is really about after all, Abbott himself having argued that Labor’s policy approach remains the same. This is little different in principle to any other change in government direction . You can’t expect the government to map out precisely what it will do at election time, because events are guaranteed to overtake it (as in the case of the global financial crisis).

In previous elections, the Labor Party itself made much of the idea that John Howard wouldn’t serve out his full term, but would hand over the reins to Peter Costello. I’ve always found this to be a bizarre and unconvincing argument. As politicians are fond of saying, we ought to focus on the policies and not on the people. Unfortunately, this is surprisingly difficult.