Tuesday, August 24, 2010
For the first time since 1940, Australians woke the day after polling day to find that they had no government.
Which was probably a relief to lots of them. A goodly number wouldn't vote unless they were forced to by our constitution, and an even larger number try and have as little to do with politics and politicians as possible. Three quarters of a million of the electorate voted informally, and about the same number lodged a 'donkey vote,' numbering the boxes in sequential order from the top of the page to the bottom, without and consideration of who they were actually voting for. So a day after polling day newspaper headline that read:
Would disappoint surprisingly few.
But, of course, this is not the case. We still have a government and it's the same government that we had before Saturday's inconclusive poll.
As neither major party was able to win 76 seats in the House of Representatives, to garner a majority in their own right, Australian politics has entered a kind of limbo state. The Labor Party will remain in office, with Julia Gillard as Prime Minister, at least for the next week or so while things sort themselves out. And by 'sort themselves out' I mean while the two major parties offer the tie breaking Parliamentary independents their own ministries, choice of parliamentary jobs, dump trucks full of cash for their electorates, flat screen TV's, iPhone 4's and anything else that might tickle their fancy in order to get their vote.
A minority government, which is what the eventual winner of this combined lottery/raffle will be, is a tough gig, but in comparison to not getting a gig at all, it's the only gig worth gigging.
In the mean time, while this barter between Labor, Liberal and the Independents continues, the two leaders both have to try and keep their party's well behaved and united. Which will be no mean feat and will require different skills from both Gillard and Abbott.
The Labor Party has emerged from the election blinking and disorientated, like someone who's just been in a plane crash and is amazed to find that they've somehow survived... And who then grabs a microphone off one of the TV news crews reporting the crash and starts slagging off the entire country on National TV. Really, the National ALP leadership doesn't seem to know whether to be happy, sad, puzzled, disappointed, angry, patient or philosophical. It's been a dizzying two months for them, in which they've dumped a first term Prime Minister, installed the country's first female PM in his stead, soared in the polls, crashed in the polls and then fought a thoroughly inept election campaign that ended in a deadlock. You have to pity Julia Gillard having to try and present this lot as a united team, 'ready to govern.'
The Liberal Party, on the other hand, have come out of the election like someone who's just seen their numbers come up on Powerball... and then realised that they forgot to put their ticket in. Somehow, they've managed to simultaneously win and lose the election, which is undoubtedly bothering them all very badly. They comfortably beat the Labor Party on primary vote figures - 44% to 38% - and won a host of seats and really, if you'd told them that that would be the outcome 12 months ago they would have laughed in your face and then probably installed you as leader. Nevertheless, despite these successes, their relentlessly negative, policy free election campaign was not enough to win the count outright. The biggest challenge for them then, is going to be trying not to sound like they did win the campaign outright and that they deserve to be installed in government without any debate. A tough ask for someone like Tony Abbott, who has 'Born to Rule' tattooed on his shoulder.
And so, for different reasons and from different starting points, both major parties find themselves in a similar position, one that neither one would want to be in. They're both of them stuck trying to woo a handful of independents from the cross-benches that they've both aggressively ignored these past ten years or so. I imagine both leaders are practicing their pitch right now:
'You know how I've never returned your phone calls or agreed to any meetings or allowed you to introduce any legislation into Parliament... well, let me just say, it was all a big misunderstanding! Are you comfortable? Would you like some water? You can have it with a twist of lime if you like. Very refreshing! Well let me know. We can always get you a lime.'
The independents themselves are a mixed bunch. Three of them - Bob Katter, Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor - represent former safe National seats (Katter and Windsor are former members of the National Party) and so are considered more likely to side with the coalition. Although, The Man in the Hat, Bob 'The Mad' Katter:
Had this to say about the Howard Goverment:
If they were good for the bush, then I'm a Martian astronaut.'
Which paints an interesting mental picture, as well as indicating no particular love for the conservative side of politics. The other two independents are newly elected Greens member for Melbourne Adam Bandt and former Greens Candidate and army intelligence whistle blower Andrew Wilkie, who are both on or thought to be on the left side of politics.
A diverse group, all of them playing their cards fairly close to their chest, as smart people on the make are wont to do.
And so the limbo period looks set to continue for some time longer. There'll be a lot of meetings and talks and discussions and canvassing of opinion, and probably no definite results for at least a week, and maybe three or four. There will be much debate and speculation and almost nothing will be certain until the very end.
One thing we can be sure of, though, is that the two major party leaders would much rather be watching John Sayles' 'Limbo':
Then living through their current limbo experience.