There’s two interesting results that this election might throw up. The first is a hung parliament, as discussed by other contributors to this august wossname. Bring it on, I say, even if it means crazy Bob Katter is holding the reins.
But perhaps even more interesting would be a repeat of 1990 and 1998: an overall majority vote for one party, who nevertheless fail to gain a majority of seats. Perhaps we might get the quinella — a parliament that is hung even though either Labor or the Coalition gained an overall 50%+1 against all other parties, but were still denied the automatic first go at forming government.
Would that finally make people wake up and take this democratic deficit seriously?
Nothing exposes more clearly the desiccated and purely formal nature of the Australian political system than the hypocrisy and apathy with which we treat this disjuncture. We prate to school children about Australia’s role as a democratic nation, secret ballot, blahblah. When that system delivers a result that means the will of the majority is thwarted, we simply shrug our shoulders and carry on as if nothing happened.
There’s no rational defence for this. It’s not as if we’re deliberately weighting certain seats to have more sway; it’s a purely the random effect of equally weighted seats. It’s travesty pure and simple.
Moreover, it’s a travesty which has had momentous consequences. In 1996, the Australian public threw out Paul Keating and Labor with a resounding thud. In 1998, Labor having installed a more modest and everyday figure, and Howard having launched the GST, a majority of people came back to Labor.
Had that majority wish been expressed in parliament, Kim Beazley would have been prime minister during the period of higher boat arrivals and 9/11, and Peter Costello would have been leader of the opposition. Beazley’s foreign policy credentials and philo-Americanism would have stood him in good stead to consolidate a majority in the 2001 elections, and the contempt in which Costello has always been held by a majority of sensible people would have condemned the Coalition to further wanderings.
Howard’s single term, an interruption in a generation dominated by Labor, would have been seen as an embarrassing error, and Howard himself the Liberal Party’s great mistake; their Latham. Mark would be an education minister or ex-minister, seen as erratic but valued for his determination to give Labor a kick up the arse on its core mission.
History has determined otherwise. Howard consolidated himself both personally and politically in his second term. Anyone who thinks the ‘man of steel’ was born with iron in his soul should take a look at his shambolic musings on the night of the ‘98 election, when he thought he’d lost and began muttering about “reconciliation”, etc. And he won clear mandates in 01 and 04. But he did so from the position of authority bequeathed him by the illegitimate result of ‘98.
The 1990 election, which Andrew Peacock won by 50,000 votes, might have changed subsequent political cycles so greatly that neither Keating nor Howard would have been prime minister. Whether that would be better or worse than what transpired is open for debate, but it would have been different.
What I find truly bizarre about this issue is that people who believe this system is democratic can be so blaséabout the results it throws up. I don’t think it’s remotely democratic, and it makes me wild. People who actually believe this parliamentary system has some legitimacy should be in the streets demanding change.
Is it possible that any such result on Saturday will not be treated with the equanimity of earlier times? After all, from 1966 to 1996 we had a political culture that was bipartisan on a general notion of liberal progressivism. Whatever the differences, we were moving forward as a pluralist, liberal democratic society with a progressively more tolerant and humane public sphere.
Howard’s victory coincided with, and was in part a product of, the destruction of such a polity by the rapid advance of globalised capitalism. As social connection and solidarity was clobbered and fractured at the base economic level, conservatives presented a counterfeit social unity, based on formulaic patriotism and an unending series of enemies: the ‘politically correct’, the ‘elites’, and of course Muslims.
Thus a lot of the divisions between the party’s social bases are entirely imaginary — based around phantom fears of people in boats, the ‘fragility’ of Western civilisation, the godlessness of the elites, etc. But they are nevertheless more deeply felt as divisions of identity than were the real class divisions of an earlier era.
So, how will Labor’s core supporters, both working-class and ‘cultural producer’ class, feel if Tony Abbott has a free-ish hand (subject to Senate composition) to impose his vision on an Australian people, when he’d been rejected by a clear majority of them? And how will the Coalition base feel if they’re being ruled by an atheist, childless, shacked-up, etc w-w-w-woman, when a majority of Australians chose the most personally conservative prime ministerial candidate in our recent history?
I’m sure that collectively the power elite across the major parties, the media, and monopoly capital, would do their best to dampen down any public protest against a result that reveals the Australian system as a process of turn-taking by two major parties that are quasi-state apparatuses, maintained by compulsory voting, exhaustive preferences and public electoral funding matched to voting numbers.
But a ‘thwarted-majority’ vote would give Australians its best opportunity for years to outflank them, and start a genuine popular movement that puts the structure and content of the Australian political system on the table.
Such a movement could found itself on the cornerstone of the government’s lack of legitimacy. Instead of campaigning on a specific programme of change, it could campaign on the proposal for a process of public conversations similar to the 1890s movement that led to federation, and the particular constitutional form it took.
Such conventions — the genuine form of public debate for which Rudd and Gillard’s 2020s and ‘citizens assemblies’ are the elite counterfeit — could take in everything from the future of the federal system to voting systems in both houses, compulsory voting, different public funding models or none at all, separation of the executive from the legislative (and a consequent republic), media funding to ensure a pluralism of information sources, and a redrafting of the constitution.
The important point about such a campaign would be to emphasise the process of re-opening the Australian political system to conscious and reflective reconstruction, not to specify any specific formulation for change. That would create the opportunity to build a larger movement bridging people on left and right who believe the whole system to be desperately in need of change even if they worked in separate groups.
It’s vital to pop this pathetic Australian self-delusion that we are somehow good at democracy now, because we were at the forefront of it once. We’ve traded on that complacency for so long that it has become a fatal barrier to seeing the truth: the lower-house triple lock (compulsion, preferences, public funding), state powers and oligopolistic media power gives us one of the least effective manifestations of actually existing democracy in the West.
If you doubt this, imagine it elsewhere. Imagine, say, in the 1970s, a canny East European country had decided to channel dissident demands by creating a two-party state, instead of one. Thus, the Communist Party would be opposed by the Workers Party, both sharing the same economic philosophy, with some variations of emphasis and technique, the same foreign policy, and entertaining some differences on cultural policies, etc. Voting was compulsory, only those parties appear on the ballot, and each party then receives an allocation of funds for maintaining itself based on what split of the vote it got every three years. The media consists of a state broadcaster, and two quasi-state combines, whose minor differences mirror those of the official parties.
Yes, it is not the same as our system. But nor is it that different either in terms of outcome, and in terms of its ability to legitimate itself. “Look,” the oligarchs would say, “we combine political contestation with stability. We simply require that citizens fulfil their obligations and vote for one of the two parties, whose ongoing popularity surely suggests that they be supported by the public.”
Should the opportunity to throw this system, East Germany of the Pacific, into question at this poll maybe, just maybe, the mass of largely directionless left-liberals, Monthlyites, blogging libertarian hobbyists, ARM refugees, nu-skool ex-Eurocommunist social democrats, rural populists and the like will bestir themselves to a concerted politics that has a chance of real change.
For anyone interested in an Australia that is not only less undemocratic, but where energy flows between the political and social realm more effectively, there is now no other recourse, but to a civic politics focused on the system itself, rather than expressed through the parties (aside from the Greens, which remain the only genuine political movement standing).
But I can’t see this happening without some critical event that throws the legitimacy of the system into question for many people as a top-down movement. Like the ARM, it wouldn’t work. Nor could it be based merely within left-liberalism. It would have to make a genuine common cause with sections of the right, or simply with angry mass groups who see themselves as battlers, ordinary Aussies, blahblahblah, who (quite accurately) feel they are in no meaningful sense enfranchised.
As has become clear to most people in this dog of an election, the problem now lies not with the policies and intent of either party, but with the deep structural problems that disconnect social energy from political process and thus transform that energy into cynical anti-politics. The best result will be no clear result, and the possibility for new directions that may create.