"New politics” where Independents pretend there is no conflict: an undemocratic sham #AusVotes #AusWaits

Australia’s Federal Election last weekend has led to a hung Parliament. Three rural Independent candidates seem likely to decide whether Julia Gillard’s Labor Party will stay in Government, or whether Tony Abbott’s Liberal Party-led coalition will take over, only three years after former Prime Minister John Howard led it to defeat after thirteen years in office. While one Independent is already fantasising about a unity Government in which Labor and Liberal MPs sit in the Cabinet, the current rejection of parties and fetishisation of Independents is a rejection of real politics, and a backwards step for Australia.

There is no doubt that Australians, like many people in the Western world, have been badly served by their politicians, and this has led to the power vacuum which allows the Independents to pretend that what they offer us is politics. Gillard overthrew the elected Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, in an internal ALP coup in June, and called the early election a few weeks afterwards. When people complained that the elected Prime Minister had been dumped in an undemocratic manner, they were met with the scornful response that “We have the Westminster System, stupid!”. Such a reply ignores the undemocratic nature of that system, especially in the modern style of politics where presidential-style campaigns replace parties standing on platforms designed to advance to interests of their supporters.

Rudd shouldn’t be mourned as a lost democrat, however. He is a bland bureaucrat who has been expertly removing politics from government, whose previously high popularity ratings plummeted after he backed down on an emissions trading scheme, after labelling global warming as the “great moral challenge of our generation” (pdf file) while in Opposition. He had appeared to stand for something after attempting to change the way Australia’s miners were taxed; a proposal no-one in Australia had heard of until it was a recommendation of a tax review released in May. While the opposition of miners and right-wing media allowed Rudd to pose as a man of the people who merely wanted Australians to have a fair share of the riches generated by Australia’s mining boom, it’s interesting to note that this was a top-down proposal, not one demanded by the Australian people and certainly not one arising from the clash of ideas in political debate. It was a technocratic solution to a technocratic problem, and the disconnection between government and people was demonstrated when the government planned a $38 million TV ad campaign – the idea that a network of political activists in the Labor Party should use their community connections to sell the idea of a major new government  policy was never even considered, because such networks don’t exist any more.

Rudd was dumped when the Labor Party panicked as his approval ratings dropped to merely comfortably ahead of the Liberals’ Tony Abbott. Gillard took over in June and immediately announced changes to the mining tax, called an election in July, and Australians voted in August.

This brings us to our hung parliament. Since it’s been clear that the three rural Independents will decide who takes power, a barrage of anti-political sentimentalism has erupted. Earlier this week on the ABC TV network’s Q and A program, one of the Independents, Tony Windsor said “one of the good things that will come out of a hung parliament is that a private member will be able to introduce legislation and not be shut down by the government of the day using their numbers”. No-one challenged him with the idea that a government has been elected and has a right to govern because of people’s votes.

Tony Oakeshott is another of the three Independents. His ridiculous idea of a unity government has already been mentioned. His anti-political “unity” ideas go further than that though. Today he told the “AM” program on ABC radio he wanted to talk “less about sides, I mean if we can get rid of this red and blue language, it’s more about what do we want from this Parliament and engaging the communities of Australia in public policy”. The idea that people want different things from Parliament, that politics is about the clash of those interests and desires, and that public policy isn’t simply a place for experts to work out the “best” solution, but about deciding who wins and who loses, seems to have escaped him.

Of course it would be naive to blame these Independents for the way in which their anti-political message is received. Ever since the ALP government of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating gutted the union movement, cut real wages and destroyed the ALP as a mass party in the 1980s, politics in Australia has been a game of pretending that all Australians share the same interests, and that conflict is divisive and unnecessary. Indeed, Hawke won power on the idea of “consensus” and the slogan “Bringing Australia Together” (which was cribbed from Richard Nixon). Consensus sounds pretty, but the trouble is, of course, that anyone who decides to fight for their rights can be painted as disruptive, rather than legitimately advancing their own interests. This gives those who already have power a huge advantage in hanging on to it.

What the Independents propose is not politics, but an undemocratic sham. Democracy isn’t pretty, it isn’t clean and it isn’t anything to do with pretending that sides don’t exist. Politics in Australia won’t be healthy again until people realise their needs and wants clash with the needs and wants of others, and we need to compete to work out who gets what they want. Until people grasp this most basic fact, we’ll be left in the hands of bland technocrats who resent the demands of ordinary people, occasionally tempered with pious witterings about how fighting is really nasty.

6 Responses to “"New politics” where Independents pretend there is no conflict: an undemocratic sham #AusVotes #AusWaits”

  1. 1 Bill Kerr

    The good thing about the election was that Labour was punished for its systematic adoption of opinion poll based policies and leaders, more or less total abandonment of any principles at all, as exemplified by national party secretary Karl Bitar and former former NSW party secretary Mark Arbib (Rage against the machine)

    The Independents are no doubt mavericks and will seize this opportunity to elevate their importance but on the other hand the election result in a real way does reflect the will of the people, that neither major party deserves to win. I don’t see much wrong with the demands of the independents (pdf), such as:

    We seek a commitment to explore all options from both sides in regard “consensus options” for the next three years, and a willingness to at least explore all options to reach a majority greater than 76 for the next three years. Included in these considerations is advice on how relationships between the House of Representatives and the Senate can be improved, and a proposed timetable for this to happen

    I don’t think the public wants another election right now. Apparently hung parliaments can work and they have recently in State politics and overseas (Cananda). Given, as your article says, that there is no real difference between tweedle-dum and tweedle-dee anyway then consensus politics ought to be possible, only a change in style would be required, since there is no substantial differences in policies b/w the major parties. The political class has run out of ideas.

    It also seems to me that the election result creates a favourable environment for the further promotion of proportional representation reform of our electoral system and ought to be welcomed from that perspective.

    Your article talks about the need for political struggle in general terms without identifying the issues about which struggle will occur over the next three years and about which real discussion has to be had:
    – economic crisis
    – climate change

    It is upon issues that the consensus, if it is formed in the first place, will unravel.

  2. 2 informally yours

    Re; climate change Tony windsor supports ETS only on the precautionmary principle. I think that recent events in ‘the Science’ show (Climate gate etc)that the neeed for dramatic action which threatens to increase consumer energy prices etc., in order to mitigate against the “greatest threat of our age”, is wrong policy.

    Post Climategate I don’t think action for the sake of the “Precautionary Principle” is legitimate, but definitely requires further investigation as the Science had obviously become politicised. I think cheaper power and not having to pay for shopping bags (as we do in SA 5-15c extra) is preferable to the average “grunt/ess”, (punter), and if in a position to make such a decision would pursue a strategy that developed better value energy.

    Oakeshott obviously relishes his latest position in the limelight, more so than Tony Windsor, or Bob Katter; or maybe they are just better at disguising it? Wilkie is being courted as almost confirmed Ind 4; and now the WA non-Coalition National member (Crook), makes Ind 5. There are definitely new groupings developing.

    I think the ALP is beginning to reap what it has sown in jumping on board green agenda in last 2 decades for electoral gain, and they have suceeded in generating and fuelling their electoral opposition. Many in party regret that no doubt. Greens in lower House representation does represent a break through in minor party influence such as the Dems did not achieve.

    As I see it, the ‘treiarch’ agenda on climate change is irreconcilable, so consensus is problematic however their position on the economy is similar so who knows?

    I tend to agree with YM on the apolitical nature of the Independent. Hasn’t Oakeshott caught up with the fact that Karlene Maywald the Nat. member who was coopted into Labor Cabinet as Minister for water was one of the few to lose their seat in the last SA election and this was because her electorate thought she was compromised by her inclusion in this way?

    The other Independent story of note is of Peter Lewis the ex Lib Ind. who traded his vote to the ALP for forming government (Rann for Premier)for the Speaker position and ‘Parliamentary reform’. There was no reform and it wasn’t long until his more whimsical ideas came unstuck and so did he.

    IMV this SA experience must be a salutory tale for so-called Independent members. Members of parliament who become Independent do so for varying reasons, and I think one needs to appraise these circumstances to ascertain if they represent a negative or positive force at the time. Overall, I agree that there is something disturbing about “Independent” political forces that I’ve had experience of.

  3. 3 steve owens

    Informally yours I think the Karlene Maywald example needs a bit more information.
    Karlene was elected in 1997 with a 2.6% margin.
    In 2002 she was re elected with a 14% margin.
    In 2004 she entered the Rann labor government.
    In 2006 she was elected by a margin of 17%
    In 2010 she suffered a swing of 20% and lost her seat.
    Considering that she was the Water Minister in an electorate that depends on irrigation its not hard to attribute her defeat to the years of drought and the hardships suffered in her electorate.
    As to people not appreciating her compromise with Rann, I think the best indicator is the 2006 election.
    From memory the other liberal independent to do a deal with Rann was Rory Mcewen who was also returned by the electors in the 2006 election.

  4. 4 Bill Kerr

    What the Independents think about climate change is not important for consensus.

    The issue with climate change is the public does want some action but not to the extent where standard of living (SOL) is effected. The major parties will not cut carbon if it influences SOL because that is election disaster. Since it is has become a significant public issue then it is important to think it through IMO.

    The Greens opposed the ETS because it would not deliver significant Carbon reduction. They don’t have the problem of being the government so can advocate reduced SOL without losing votes – in fact they gain votes due to their “principled” position. On the strength of that nothing will change wrt climate change policy because the major parties don’t support dramatic change or even moderate change after the demise of Turnbull and Rudd. So, there is no underlying basis on the climate change issue against a consensus, except the need for Labour and Libs to keep up appearances by shouting their respective messages, whatever those messages happen to be at the time, based on their latest polling in marginal seats or whatever.

    The reason I draw attention to the Pielke book and blog is that he claims to have a political solution in real time to this issue. Conceivably climate change can be dealt with by our politicians if they grow a brain (unlikely though). On the other hand, economic crisis will undo them all.

  5. 5 Arthur

    My eyes still glaze over when trying to read about Australian politics. (Plus I feel really down about still being stuck during an election that was so close a “Neither” campaign could have actually taken credit for making a difference).

    Perhaps I’ve misunderstood, but I would assume the media discussion of “independents” is just a beat up, like earlier attempts to make the election itself look interesting despite even more identical policies than usual.1

    Wouldn’t three ex-Nationals surely align with coalition, outnumbering 1 Green 1 Wilkie aligned with ALP?

    If so, then Tony Abbott gets to be PM and there will be even more hostility to a “Neither” campaign next time when the pseudos are desperate to get rid of Abbott.

  6. 6 Bill Kerr

    This article is worth reading in full:
    Right crucial to Aboriginal reforms
    Noel Pearson does better job than Piping Shrike in his analysis of the new parliament:

    The recent parliamentary reforms mean that private members’ bills will be given a fair chance.

    Among the independents, in the Coalition, in the Labor Party and in the Greens, there are many MPs with a strong commitment to indigenous Australians. There is every chance for good policy based on personal conviction to be put to parliament, debated, judged on merit and transformed into law.

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