Mark Bennister – Canterbury Christ Church University
The Australian election held on Saturday 7 September delivered the outcome largely predicted by the pollsters, commentators and media. Tony Abbott’s Liberal National Coalition (LNC) defeat of Kevin Rudd’s Labor party ended a traumatic six years in power for the ALP. Under first Rudd, then Julia Gillard and Rudd again the Labor years were characterised by a whirlwind of leadership churn, scandal and mismanagement. The election itself did not prove to be the Labor meltdown, predicted in some quarters. With Gillard having led a minority government after the 2010 election, Labor were always going to struggle to hold on with the LNC needing only to pick up 3 seats to gain a working majority. In the event Labor dropped from 72 seats to 56 seats while the Coalition was predicted to settle on 88 seats in the 150 member lower house with a couple of seats still to be formally declared. The election saw a 1.8 per cent swing to the Coalition and a 4.8% swing against the ALP. Although compulsory voting (actually compulsory registration and attendance) boosts turnout, when you look closely around 10% of the population were not registered to vote and nearly 6 per cent of ballots cast were ‘informal’ or spoilt. A turnout figure of 82% is low for Australia with a 5% fall on the 2010 figure. Under the alternative vote system for the House of Representatives, Labor’s primary vote slumped to 33.7% against the Liberal party’s 45.6%. In an indication of the growing strength of other parties, the remaining 20.5% was divided between the Liberal party’s coalition partners and a smattering of independents. The Green’s primary vote fell to 8.6% though in the face of intense pressure from the big two they managed to hold on to their single MP in Melbourne. On a two party preference basis, the Coalition won the election 53.29% to 46.71%, a 3.5% swing.
The electoral picture is one whereby Labor avoided total annihilation, retaining most of their seats in Queensland and NSW. High profile MP’s such as former Treasurer Chris Bowen managed to hang on. Rudd himself saw off a strong ‘decapitation’ campaign in Griffith, Brisbane. Yet it still represents Labor’s worst primary vote since before the Second World War and the lowest two party preference vote since 2004. Labor is likely to end up with the least number of lower house seats since John Howard’s victory in 1996 ushered in 11 years of Coalition government. In the aftermath Kevin Rudd resigned from the party leadership and having changed the selection mechanism for the leadership left the ALP leaderless until a ballot of the parliamentary caucus and membership can be conducted. Bowen has become caretaker leader while Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese battle it out for the party leadership. Liberal leader Tony Abbott has become prime minister with only the seventh change of government. Even if party leaders rotate regularly, electorates tend to favour stable incumbents. Abbott, a minister under the Howard government will be interesting to watch. Labelled by the media as the ‘mad monk’ his Catholic background is unusual in the Liberal party. A staunch monarchist and cycling fanatic he has made a journey from gaff-prone political bruiser of the right to a unifying figure for the Liberal party. Branded a misogynist by Julia Gillard, he committed his party to a state sponsored parental leave scheme in the campaign to woo middle class ‘aspirationals’ and has shown signs of a shift to the centre ground. Yet most of the Liberal party campaign was oppositional rather than visionary: no to the Carbon tax; no to boat people; no to three more years of Labor. It is fair to say the Australian electorate rejected the squabbling ALP more than they ran back to the Liberals under Abbott’s brand of leadership.
However Australian elections are about more than just the House of Representatives. The Senate with comparable powers and a complex version of STV has thrown up a hotch potch result. The make up of the Senate determines how easy of otherwise it will be for the government to get its legislative programme passed. In 2010 the Greens held the balance of power, now a range of independents, right wing mavericks and small parties will hold sway. It remains to be seen if they will work together. The ALP may have returned the first indigenous women Senator, but a series of preference deals could see the Senate end up with an American footballer from WA returned on 0.22% of the primary vote. In the new Senate from July 2014 billionaire businessman Bob Palmer’s new party may end up with two Senators and there may also be an Australian Motor Enthusiasts party candidate elected in Victoria.
Most commentators reflected that the result was all about kicking out an unpopular and dysfunction Labor government. Certainly the leadership churn did not help; divided parties do not win elections. Abbott, having stabilised the Liberal party after its own leadership churn, mercilessly played on the ALP’s internal battles. Yet the ALP had come to power with such high hopes in 2007. It had made an historic apology to the stolen generations of aborigines and rode out the financial crisis with a stimulus package. Indeed Australia maintained a healthy growth rate throughout still buoyed by the mineral boom in the WA. Unemployment stayed comparatively low and Australians, still looked a good place to be with higher than average living standards. The Gillard government, despite its unusual minority government status, passed a raft of legislation including on disability insurance and education. Broader analysis has suggested that the ALP went the way of other left of centre parties, such as in Norway where the electorate recently ousted a party that had overseen relative economic stability. Whether or not the ALP is suffering a malaise afflicting other left parties, the ALP did err in promising then not delivering when in office (particularly on climate change and taxation). The electorate tends to punish such approaches.
Underlying all this are the fault lines in Australia’s democracy. Unlike in the UK, the parties do not publish manifestos, letting policy drip out in the campaign so it is hard to see what they stand for or scrutinise the proposals over the course of the campaign. In fact the formal launches come in the final campaign week, an odd convention to get around electoral funding rules. The media exert undue influence as shown by the Murdoch press lampooning of Rudd throughout. The Senate electoral system is in dire need of reform with a giant ballot paper ensuring over 90 per cent of voters vote above the line and allow the shady preference deals between the parties to take hold.
The result, as bemoaned by former ALP National President now academic Barry Jones, is that much policy debate is obscured and if drowned out. The record of the party in power largely unscrutinised and the opposition not exposed to detailed analysis. Rudd in his strangely triumphalist concession speech did not mention Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female prime minister, or her record at all even though he ousted her only a few months earlier. Abbott wasted no time in trashing the ALP at the start of his acceptance speech. The portents for better politics are not good. As I write I note that one of Rudd’s associates is not ruling out his return as prime minister.