And so, the triennial debate over mandates has inevitably erupted again, with the Greens holding the balance of power in the Senate until June 30, after which the balance of power will be held by the Greens, Nick Xenophon, Clive Palmer’s party and whatever other individuals the Senate election lottery throws up.

Oddly, politicians tend to take a different view of mandates whether they’re in government or in opposition. Then-opposition leader John Howard dismissed the concept of a comprehensive mandate in 1987 but demanded his mandate be respected after he won in 1996, 1998 and 2001. Tony Abbott decided that the Rudd government’s mandate to introduce an emissions trading scheme, which had also been the Howard government’s policy, was no longer operative in 2009.

Labor politicians will doubtless now go through the same backflips, as will conservative commentators, who will now be all for the notion that an incoming government has a democratic imprimatur for every policy.

Some elections do indeed yield mandates. Howard made the 1998 election a referendum on his revived proposal for a GST and secured government (albeit with a minority of the vote). But Labor, to its great discredit, refused to acknowledge that clear mandate, with the consequence that we ended up with a significantly poorer GST after the meddling of Democrat Meg Lees.

And the Rudd government had a clear mandate to dump WorkChoices in 2007 — one the Coalition, after some internal debate, accepted, if only for political reasons.

This year wasn’t one of those elections. Abbott tried to make the carbon price a campaign theme, but he struggled given its minimal impact. The closest thing to a mandate is for his paid parental leave scheme, to which four or five days of the campaign was devoted. Oddly enough, polls suggested it continues to attract less support from voters than the scheme bequeathed to Abbott by Labor, and the only party likely to back it is the Greens.

Peculiar things, mandates.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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