Australia is headed for a hung parliament after the most appalling election campaign in history culminated in the most perverted election result in history.
A first-term government that has delivered low inflation, low unemployment and massive infrastructure investment while deftly managing the greatest economic crisis of recent years has been rejected at the polls, and an opposition composed of a ragged band of right-wing reactionaries, Christian fundamentalists and a peppering of downright loonies has come within a hair’s breadth of winning government. It takes a very special brand of stupid for a political party to squander opportunity the way the Labor Party have done over the last 12 months.
As it stands, the ABC election computer suggests that Labor have won 70 seats, the Coalition 72 seats, and the Greens 1 seat in the new parliament. There are four independents – including Andrew Wilkie, a former whistleblower who previously stood for election in Bennelong (2004) and for the Tasmania Senate (2007) as a Green. That leaves three seats in doubt – Brisbane (Coalition ahead), Corangamite (ALP), and Lindsay (ALP). Many seats have be won with very slim margins, which means they could slip from one column to the other over the next week, but the upshot is that no party is going to have the numbers to govern in its own right.
How could this happen? Twelve months ago, Labor was riding high – they’d dodged the global financial crisis, apologised to the Stolen Generations, and were gradually rolling out positive policy reforms in health, education, welfare and a whole lot more. They had a leader in Kevin Rudd who was enjoying near-stratospheric approval ratings, and an opposition that was tearing itself apart over climate change and mired in scandal following the Godwin Grech affair. When Tony Abbott became leader on 1 December last year, the event was dismissed by most people as the latest in a long series of missteps by a futile and disunited opposition. That was just eight and a half months ago.
The decision to depose Kevin Rudd in a party-room coup, engineered (or so the media narrative tells us) by “faceless faction leaders” using an ambitious woman – Julia Gillard – as their puppet, will go down as one of the ALP’s greatest tactical errors, but it also shows how deeply lost the ALP has become. A party made up of career politicians and factional warlords, where only the grittiest and most ambitious can rise to the leadership, where policies and ideals take a second place behind a cynical pitch for votes that has only one aim: keeping yourself in power at any cost. Yes, it’s true of both parties and both leaders, as I wrote yesterday, but in Labor this form of cynical antipolitics has reached its apotheosis.
There is an old saying that oppositions don’t win elections; governments lose them. This is an election that the government emphatically lost, but the opposition did not win. The only winners are the Greens, who have attracted droves of disaffected Labor voters and who have run a principled campaign backed by a comprehensive policy platform. As well as winning a lower-house seat for the first time in a general election, the Greens will likely have nine senators from 1 July next year, and I expect will have a close working relationship with Wilkie. That’s a huge win for the Greens and an impressive vote for change.
Of course, it’s easy to have a great policy platform when you don’t have the nuisance of having to implement it. Now the Greens will hold real political power for the first time, possibly in support of a minority Labor government, and certainly holding the balance of power in the Senate (but not until 1 July). The way they exercise that power will be keenly watched, and will test the party. The downfall of the Australian Democrats was ultimately in how they exercised power when they had it, and the Greens will need to find a balance between idealism and pragmatism if they are to succeed.
As for the Labor Party, the recriminations over today’s failure are already starting. The Greens will be blamed, for taking votes and seats away from Labor, even though most of those votes were returned through the preference system, and the two seats lost due to Greens influence, Melbourne and Denison, will back Labor ahead of the Coalition in parliament. The media will be blamed, and rightly so, for its failure to look beyond the intra-party squabbles and personalty issues and its abysmal failure of policy analysis. Kevin Rudd will be blamed, for his (assumed) rearguard spoiler action against Gillard. Mark Latham will be blamed. Queensland and NSW state Labor will be blamed.
But will anyone take the blame within the Labor Party machine that orchestrated this catastrophe? I doubt it.
You have to blame someone, and you can’t blame yourself – that would require a level of humility and introspection that is beyond the ALP.
UPDATE, 1PM: Karl Bitar and Bill Shorten have both been on TV this morning arguing that it was the cabinet leaks in the early days of the campaign that led to the loss. Not their decision to dump Kevin Rudd, not their decision to go to an election too early with no narrative and no coherent message, not the appalling way they conducted the campaign. No, it’s somebody else’s fault.
With ‘strategists’ like Bitar and Shorten, the ALP is doomed.