Welcome to interregnum politics, that joyful period when politicians have to process that voters don’t trust either side enough to govern, and they’ll actually have to cooperate.
Expect a lightening of the national mood while negotiations and final counting stretches the result out. Business will mutter darkly about uncertainty, as though democracy is merely yet another inconvenient piece of red tape. But the lack of a government, and the spectacle of politicians being forced out of their traditional combative roles, will be appealing to voters.
Remarkable transformations can take place in interregnum politics. Politicians whose attitude to political and parliamentary machinery is to exploit incumbency as ruthlessly as possible, suddenly discover the benefits of greater transparency and accountability. “We have an opportunity at this critical juncture to improve the standards of our parliament, our policies and our development of policy,” Julia Gillard said yesterday. Well, prime minister, you had ample opportunity to do that while you were actually in government.
This election has been a splendid one for hypocrisy, and it just keeps on coming.
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Labor, at least, has been fast out of the blocks with trying to negotiate an agreement with the independents. Gillard has brought Wayne Swan in to drive negotiations — handy given Oakeshott has said he wants to get a better feel for how the economy is placed. The Coalition’s reaction so far has been some helpful contumely directed at the independents by the National Party and an opposition leader who appears piqued that he isn’t being gifted the prime ministership.
Between Tony Abbott’s triumphalist speech late on Saturday night and his cranky micro-media conference yesterday, he appears to be expecting the independents to fall into line, a peculiar view given they have now been joined by WA’s Tony Crook, who has done parliament a valuable service in removing from it the burden of Wilson Tuckey. There’s even talk that new CLP member Natasha Griggs may not be compliant with Coalition wishes. Both sides might discover that being in minority government gives backbenchers all sorts of interesting ideas once they realise that every vote counts.
And while, as three Country Party-style independents, you’d have to assume Windsor, Oakeshott and Katter will end up backing the Coalition, it’s worth noting just how toxic relations are between Tony Windsor and the Nationals. Windsor rose in parliament in 2004 and accused then deputy prime minister John Anderson and Nationals Senator Sandy Macdonald of attempting to bribe him out of parliament:
“John Anderson was paranoid about me and the demise of The Nationals and the rise of Independents; Mr Anderson asked Mr McGuire to meet with me and give me some messages, which Mr McGuire was then doing; Mr Anderson said that if I tried to get any credit for the funding of the Australian Equine and Livestock Centre the funding would not take place… Mr Anderson and Senator Macdonald asked Mr McGuire what it would take to get me to not stand for re-election and indicated that there could be another career for me outside politics, such as a diplomatic post or a trade appointment, if I did not stand for the seat of New England. Senator Macdonald said, ‘Offer him whatever it takes, we can deliver.’ One of the them also said, ‘The government makes about 500 political appointments, it can be done.’ Senator Macdonald also said, ‘Windsor has a pension, why does he want to hang around anyway?’ Apparently, he was referring to my 10 years in state parliament.”
The claims enraged Anderson. A subsequent AFP investigation led nowhere.
That apart, there’s good reason for the bad blood between the Nationals and Windsor and Oakeshott. Both hold former Nationals’ leaders seats, and both have successfully exploited the Nationals’ greatest weakness: the sense that they no longer represent regional Australia but are just the rural rump of the Liberal Party. Windsor’s primary vote went up yet again, although the poorer performance of the Labor candidate meant his 2PP margin has fallen slightly; this was Oakeshott’s first federal general election but he was a successful independent in NSW (with a strong relationship with Bob Carr), until he took Lyne from the departing Mark Vaile.
Every successful election they contest is a reminder to the Nationals of what they used to be and are no longer. And now they are better placed than any National to make demands of a federal government. That’s why Warren Truss and Barnaby Joyce have trouble keeping their hostility in check.
Still, that’s not a bar to the independents backing the Coalition. The most passionate hatreds are always within parties, not between them. It just needs Abbott to stop coming across like power should drop into his lap by right.