You can tell that something that resembles politics is happening in Australia now, by the chorus of derision that professional insiders are directing at the three rural independents, and any suggestion that this impasse of a result may be an opportunity for the country to stop and think about what sort of political institutions and processes it wants.

With the ‘doughty three’ (like that huh?), releasing their seven point letter to the PM, the establishment commentariat has gone into panicky overdrive in an attempt to head it off. It’s bad enough the Greens have snuck into the Lower House (for a second, not first time), now there’s three possibly, four independents.

And that godamn WA National won’t take the whip. You can see why they’re spitting. Imagine if you had to report politics on your front page, rather than writing a series of memos to party heavies, cunningly disguised as actual news.

Thus Michelle Grattan in The Age:

Rob Oakeshott sees safety in his bold model for consensus politics — but others will see naivety. Parliamentary reform is one thing, and much needed … But Oakeshott’s proposals go way beyond ordinary change.

What? Beyond change that can be absorbed back into the system? Noooooooooooo!!!!

This is a terrible election result for Australian foreign policy, Greg Sheets Sheridan wrote, mourning that the man of steel would not be succeeded by the age of Iron. The Greens are less fussed about Afghanistan than they were about Iraq…But they might make the difference in dissuading it from offering any increased help there, or undertaking any new security role either.

God, a prudent foreign policy with checks and balances on war? Nooooooooooo!!!!

None of this will be easy as demonstrated by the confused ramblings of Rob Oakeshott during the past 24 hours, Paul Polonius Kelly remarks. Forget the nonsense that party politics has taken a blow or is in retreat.

Not easy? No business as usual? Nooooooooo!!!!

Tim Soutphommasane, the Oz’s pet left philosopher, counselled against ‘educated despair’ by which he meant any meditating on whether things could be done other than through the existing party shells.

And Dennis Shanahan simply wants a new election to be held immediately, and to keep repeating it until we get it Right.

The 2010 election result has offered that rarest and most blessed of things, a rupture and a discontinuity in the process. It’s one that makes it impossible to sell the line that the parliamentary electoral system we are ruled by has some deep-seated pole of wisdom that somehow expresses rather than imposes a political form. What the result is making clear to people is the inherent arbitrariness of the system, its closed nature, and the way in which that is obscured when a party is elected with an unchallengeable majority.

The difficulty for the business as usual crowd, is that they spend so much time celebrating the virtues of the single member electorate system, that when it throws up a number of actual single members, they can’t damn it out of hand.

And when such members begin to suggest that the process by which they were chosen could be reflexively acted on by both MPs and the public, the business-as-usual crowd panic about stability. Weird, isn’t it? Post-election Iraq has been without a government for several months, with no working coalition in sight, and this is an example of democracy at work. Australia has a few days or weeks with no majority party but a process of rational and open negotiation, and it’s a disaster.

What has happened in Australia, in little more than the wink of an eye, is that the political question has been pushed into an entirely new dimension. Ever since the 1970s the economic question has lain moribund as a major political division, no matter what lip service is paid to the gulf separating etc etc, and the occasional flashpoint such as WorkChoices.

The political question who leads, how and through what institutions has barely been regarded as political at all, or cynically manipulated, as in Howard’s handling of the Republic debate.

The virtual stasis of both these questions is one reason why so much political energy flows into cultural questions and why culture wars become the dominant mode of struggle.

Once an interruption such as the 2010 election makes it impossible for that stasis to be maintained, the energy flows back into the political question, and real change can be imagined by all except those whose job depends on nothing changing ever, ie the mainstream commentariat.

Once that happens, the left/right divisions based overwhelmingly on the economic (and social-cultural) question cease to be of primary importance, and there is the possibility of new processes, and new flows which make provisional blocs in different ways. It’s the most imaginative solutions that become the most possible.

Thus, why should we not consider Rob Oakeshott’s idea of a multi-party cabinet? Why is Dennis Shanalamadingdong’s idea of a whole new election the ‘sensible’ idea, while Oakeshott’s idea that the people who actually have been elected form a government seen as the whacky one? The Constitution recognises parliament, the GG as head-of-state, and her/his appointed ministers as government. It has nothing to say about prime ministers or parties.

So Shanahan’s suggestion is that the system has failed because it worked.

What’s happened in this election is that the process of parliamentary electoral politics which is minimally democratic and the party-based politics of interests, which isn’t democratic in the slightest, have come into contradiction, in a situation where the system usually silently serves the interests. The profound cynicism and mild fear of the commentariat have caused them to back the interests against the system.

The process has left many people high and dry, desperate to catch up. Thus Paul Kelly, who disguises his cynical anti-democratic power elitism by sporadic attacks on cultural elites, is desperate for a cozy party system that can be nagged to impose a yet more neoliberal agenda, against the oft-expressed wishes of the mass of the Australian people.

The fetishisation of ‘stability’, as if the country was Bosnia-Herzegovina one heartbeat away from a shooting war, is a con. If we are so pusillanimous as to entirely subordinate our political process to the flickering of the global markets, then we may as well let Goldman Sachs choose the government.

Stability is the very achievement that allows a country the luxury of uncertainty, when isolated outbreaks of actual public will throw up an ensemble capable of creating a new situation. I’m under no illusion that the rural independents are about to put the whole constitution and political apparatus into play. But they don’t need to.

The mere process over the last three days has done more to make visible the invisible structures of power, and their potential (if not straightforward) transformability, than a hundred civics lessons. Other gains, such as an increased role for private members bills, would serve to bang the wedge a little further into the old tree dead.

Stability is not the issue, nor is it the danger. The danger is a politics so deadened that only the most demented and monomaniacal, the Feeneys, Shortens, and Bitars, can stand it, and everyone else retires to their private lives. The more the commentariat shriek in fear, the more interesting the ride.

The independents and minor parties should push this process until the rivets are popping.

Peter Fray

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