It would be, said Julia Gillard between slightly gritted teeth, a historic opportunity to improve our parliamentary democracy. Still less credibly, Tony Abbott mused on the delights of a kinder, gentler polity. Bullsh-t.
The hard fact is that both of them had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the cause of reform and succumbed only when the alternative — the loss of their last chance at the Treasury benches — was even worse. When they had the power, both fiercely resisted any alteration to the comfortable status quo, using as their excuse for inaction: “Well, you did it when you were in government.”
In fact, the changes proposed in what the independent Rob Oakeshott likes to describe as the new paradigm are hardly radical. The idea of answers to questions being concise and relevant is not up there with quantum theory. Making parliamentary committees work, releasing information to the public, a debates commission, a fair go for private members, a parliamentary budget committee, a review of the rules governing political funding and advertising, an independent speaker — the proposals coming from the Greens and the Independents were all closer to the bleeding obvious than the truly visionary.
And, of course, both sides of politics have had plenty of opportunities to implement them while in government. But somehow the only times they have realised their importance was when they have been in opposition. While in government they took turns at using their incumbency to abuse the process as far as they were able, and each successive government pushed the boundaries back further. Rudd was worse than Howard was worse than Keating was worse than Hawke was worse than Fraser was worse than Whitlam … even when you follow the line back to federation you still find evidence of the old axiom that power corrupts; the sainted Alfred Deakin was no slouch at steamrolling the opposition when he felt the occasion demanded it.
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The golden rule has always been: if you see a head, kick it, and the current embrace of consensus and co-operation, of peace, love and brown rice is the sheerest hypocrisy. Politicians are by their very nature authoritarian; the only time they will give up power, even at the pettiest level, is when they are compelled to. Which does not bode well for Oakeshott’s new paradigm. While the independents are there to enforce it, it will probably work — well, up to a point. But once majority rule returns, whichever of the big parties is in the chair can be guaranteed to reinstate business as usual as soon as possible. Any idealist who doubts this need only glance at the NSW state parliament, which went through its own period of reform under the sway of independents as recently as 1991. Less than 20 years later the place is a by-word for sleaze, scandal and brutality; the only reform that survives is the one guaranteeing fixed four year terms of office and a lot of people wish it hadn’t.
And this is the problem reformers such as Oakeshott in particular find difficult to face. Australian politics is inherently antagonistic. It is not a cosy club in which all the members come together to philosophise about the common good. It is an ongoing contest between competing interests for the advantage of one over the other, and it is fantasy to pretend otherwise. The two sides may go by different names; they can be called upper and lower class, pro- and anti-Labor, progressive and conservative, red and blue. They are natural enemies and while at times of national emergency they may make a temporary truce, their natural condition is conflict. And when the crunch comes, as it did in this parliament, even the staunchest independents have to choose their sides.
It is, of course, hardly a democratic outcome; in the end three men elected by a little over one percent of the national vote chose the government. But at least they were elected. This time the political warlords, the lobbyists and agents of influence had little say in the process. This doesn’t mean they didn’t try. Incomprehensibly, the tobacco companies kept up their campaign against plain packaging throughout the interregnum, and right at the death the miners resurrected their own advertising against a resource rental tax.
And then, of course, there were the media, with the Murdoch press as always the most poisonous. At the weekend The Australian ran the screaming front-page headline: “Greens push same s-x laws”. Yes, the Green-Labor (in that order) coalition was poised to deliver the most radical left-wing government in history. The paper stopped short of saying that the Greens planned to make heroin, s-domy and vegetarianism compulsory on every school, but then, it was to be assumed that all regular readers knew that already.
Much further down the page the national daily reported in just two paragraphs that its own Newspoll, like another survey conducted by the Fairfax press, showed a significant majority wanted the Independents to side with Labor. This may have been a result of the revelations of the opposition’s $10.6 billion costing fiasco, dismissed by The Australian’s economic apologist Michael Stutchbury as “not a black hole, just a few potholes” — some potholes. The Australian chose to emphasise its earlier poll showing most voters in the Independents own electorates preferred the coalition — this poll was, of course, taken before the revelation about costings.
It seemed an entirely fitting note on which to wrap up its election coverage — self-seeking, trivial, misleading and above all very, very dumb. There have been many losers in the 2010 election, but none more to be pitied than those who relied on News Limited for their political information. If only we had enough independents to force a reform agenda on the monopolists of the media …