The spoils of an election
Professor Dennis Altman
First published in The Age on 24 August, 2010
On election night, we were with friends for dinner, and the lamb stubbornly refused to cook. We ate pizza, which seemed as good a metaphor for the bizarre nature of the results that are still unfolding.
Australians will debate the meaning of this election for many years. A loss for Labor, yes, but also an erosion of traditional party loyalties. Government will now be determined by up to six men elected against the major parties from northern New South Wales, outback Queensland, inner Melbourne, Hobart and rural Western Australia, where the National who defeated Wilson Tuckey has declared himself an independent.
It has not been a good year for incumbent governments. In Britain, Labour suffered a humiliating loss, in Japan the recently elected prime minister was forced to resign and in the US, Germany, France and Italy leaders are deeply unpopular.
Were our political commentariat less parochial, they might have reflected on what appears to be a growing impatience with governments, rather than constantly stressing that Australians tend to re-elect first-term governments.
They might also have noted the tendency towards coalitions between unexpected partners, as has happened in Britain.
Australia is becoming more complex, and political loyalties are stretched across economic, social and cultural issues. If there is a lesson from this election it may be that we can no longer expect one party (or a tight Coalition) to speak for a clear majority. Tasmania already has an ALP/Green government, which may be the harbinger of shifts federally.
The failure of either side to articulate an engaging vision of the future cost them dearly. Except for some Liberal true believers and the Greens, the campaign aroused little real excitement. Arguably the best-performing politician, past or present, was John Hewson on The Gruen Transfer. The debate between competence (Tony Abbott) and economic management (Julia Gillard) hardly matched the divide around Iraq and climate change three years ago.
As elections become more presidential in style, with the focus almost exclusively on leaders, they need to do more than attack each other and repeat sound bites evoking fear. Only a larger and more positive story about Australia's future will be able to build support across an increasingly diverse electorate.
The obsession with courting the aspirational voters of western Sydney meant the election seemed to be conducted at the level of a state campaign, as if major national and global issues were irrelevant. Yet a poll of young voters for ABC radio 774 showed three issues dominated: climate change, gay marriage and internet filters.
Neither Abbott nor Gillard seemed to acknowledge those concerns.
Leaders who win big - Bob Hawke in 1983, John Howard in 1996, and Kevin Rudd in 2007 - found ways of telling a story about Australia that was able to bring together voters with very different interests and prejudices. This becomes more difficult with the 24-hour media cycle and the increasing pressure for instant responses.
But this election suggests that extravagant promises aimed at holding marginal seats do little to sway many votes, although Queensland coastal towns are now overloaded with new sports facilities. Overall, there are fewer seats that are reliable for either party, and more where either Greens or independents (usually disgruntled Nationals) can win.
The facile comparison with American ''red'' and ''blue'' states is too easy: even though there is a huge gap between Labor's seats in the south-east and in the two outer states, the actual gap in votes is small. Queensland has traditionally been a state of major swings, in part because of the number of provincial seats. In NSW, Labor's vote held up better than expected outside Sydney.
That said, the Liberals have real cause for concern in Victoria. While the pending federal redistribution will change the composition of seats, their vote fell to little more than a third in the regional centres of Bendigo and Ballarat, which is a bad omen for the state election.
Australians do distinguish between state and federal governments, but unpopular state governments hurt Labor in Queensland and NSW, and Gillard's belated promise to fund a rail line in western Sydney just blurred the line between Sydney and Canberra.
Some claim that the results reveal a strong feeling that Labor did not deserve to be re-elected but that the Liberals were not yet ready to return. I doubt if many people voted with this in mind, nor do I think the result would have been very different had Rudd not been deposed.
The two victors on Saturday night were Tony Abbott and the Greens. But this does not mean it is either impossible or improper for Labor to seek to form a government. Governments are formed through their capacity to control a majority on the floor of the House of Representatives, and it's ironic to hear Liberal spokesmen, who usually trumpet the virtues of parliamentary government, suggesting otherwise.