So it begins. “Malcolm Turnbull is claiming a full mandate …” on the front pages, and “Tony Abbott should be returned to the cabinet” in the op-ed section (two separate articles in the Oz!). With the count down to one seat, Herbert — barring any bizarre late-reversals elsewhere — and the Coalition eyeing the prospect of 77 seats in the house, the claims to total dominance begin again.

They always do, and they’re always pretty thin. This time, vanishingly so. A one- or two-seat margin over all other comers, and a 50.2% two-party preferred result overall. The pre-emptive confidence-and-supply deal with Cathy McGowan is a statement of intent, given certain conditions apply. The agreement with Bob Katter is like signing a timeshare resort agreement with the Tasmanian Devil (“now your payments are in arrears …” “GNASGSGsahhhfggghaaahAHHSGGHG”). Even now half-a-dozen Nats are brushing off their boondoggle schemes and preparing to become the new Barnaby Joyce.

Faced with these melancholy facts, the Coalition has resorted to pointing to the first preference vote, where it leads the ALP by about 700,000 votes. But of course that’s only as a Coalition; Labor remains the single largest vote-getter with 4.3 million first preferences. Add the first preferences of all the non-Coalition parties and MPs, and it outdistances the Coalition. And of course, first preferences are irrelevant. The whole point of an exhaustive preferential system is to allow voters the luxury of making a ticket; voters don’t vote with a “veil of ignorance” as to how their votes will be counted, they vote oriented to it.

But, as always, the manifestly undemocratic nature of the lower house will be ignored, and the originating pretence inserted — that 150 good and true men and women have come to Canberra from their backblock electorates, brass band at the station waving handkerchiefs etc, to, without preconceptions, form a government. The Nationals have about a million votes (the Nats plus half the LNP) and 23 seats. NXT has a quarter of that — and one seat. The Greens have more — 1.2 million votes — and one seat. One Nation have about 160,000 votes and are locked out entirely.

[Rundle: how the minors can hijack Parliament and bring on the revolution]

They do not, of course, control the Senate, which once again takes its place as a house of review — indeed, increasingly as the states’ house it was intended to be. But now the game becomes more complicated. Even though the Senate has a proportional-preferential system in place to put a brake on small-majority governments, its legitimacy will now be questioned in the name of a m-m-m-m-andate.

We have a system that is now a shell-game, one in which legitimacy is always under the other card. Our system is hybrid; like the UK and the US it has never been reformed as has those of Europe and New Zealand, so that the parliament reflects the vote. Unlike the UK and the US, it has been repeatedly tinkered with, so that its process of determination has been rendered obscure. In the Australian system, there is no clear answer as to where legitimacy lies. Single-member parliaments are really a form of imposed sovereignty by election; they carry enough of the mystique of hereditary authority with them, to acquire sovereignty by fiat.

With the resolution of the result, mainstream political commentary goes back to the manner it prefers: that of sports journalism by other means, handicapping the runners. What will Turnbull have to do to get his nose in front in the early parts of the race, how will he handle the turn, etc, etc. On the one hand, the MSM commentariat howl endlessly about the lack of “budget repair”, and imply that some sort of ubermensch is required to sort it all — someone who will rise above “politics” to deliver the pure and unquestioned program.

[Rundle: it’s not our country that’s unstable, it’s our political system]

On the other, they never bother to question whether the structure of the system itself is designed in such a way that it will now deliver that sort of result repeatedly from now on. In other words, they never consider the degree to which an electoral result is not a product of the public will mediated by an electoral system, but the autonomous product of a system that consumes the vote as raw material and spits out a result. When the raw vote is scattered among multiple parties, but the system was designed to reconcile three-party contests into a simple majority, the result will — barring genuine landslides — always be indeterminate.

Indeed we would now have more stability from a proportional multi-member lower house system than we do now, with Bob Katter, ageing boy-king of a Queensland fiefdom, crouched in the hold with a lit bomb labelled “B-O-M-B”. Talk about a fizzer. A lower house that forced parties into stable coalitions is exactly what would make a long-term plan for budget repair — and foreign affairs, and infrastructure and much else — a feasible proposition.

Of course, that has an anti-democratic dimension, too: the centre locking out the margins. And one of the virtues of our current mess of a system is to let randomness and other voices into the process via the Senate. That’s fine by me, but I suspect it’s the opposite of what many people want, or believe was intended by the Westminster system.

But one thing is for sure: it will be the absolute making or breaking of Malcolm Turnbull. He will either be able to bring his negotiating skills to bear, put his first bad year behind him and re-cement his reputation — or he’ll go down in flames again, and be the joke of history, judged as the worst of the post-Howard prime ministers, and with the enormous resources of News Corp devoted to a second time for Tone.

So it begins.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey