I could add my outrage, disappointment and weariness to the collective gnashing of left-wing teeth across Australia today, but we don’t need to see any more than that. What I do want to do is address the perception of “stable government,” since Australia’s perceived lack thereof is partly what led to Labor being ousted from office despite keeping us out of recession in 2008 and continuing to deliver an economy that Europe and the United States can only dream about. (I also believe, by the way, that we live in a society and not an economy – but this is how the debate is framed these days, for better or worse. Well, worse, obviously.)
Tony Abbott’s promise to bring us “stable government” and his attacks on Labor as being a government of “chaos” and “mismanagement” stem from two things: Labor’s leadership changes and the hung parliament of 2010. The leadership knifings were absolutely Labor’s own fault, but arguing that two leadership changes in six years of government constitutes “chaos” is ridiculous. Gillard knifing Rudd and Rudd knifing Gillard did not make us lose our life savings, did not dramatically increase the rate of soldiers’ deaths in Afghanistan, did not result in the rolling blackouts across major cities. It made us roll our eyes. That’s all. If you want an insight into chaos and mismanagement, go speak to the people of Greece or Spain or Ireland.
The notion that a hung parliament resulted in an unstable government is even more irritating, given that it reveals the extent of Australians’ misunderstanding of our political system. Although the papers and nightly news bulletins treat us to unlimited images of our glorious Prime Minister and Opposition Leader under the barrage of photo flash bulbs, arriving or departing from endless photo opportunities at small businesses, this is not America – and no matter how much the press wants it to be, this isn’t a presidential campaign. The Office of Prime Minister is mentioned nowhere in the Constitution; neither are any of the Cabinet positions. This is why there was a lot of sneering in certain circles at the widespread outrage after the first knifing, when Australians believed the faceless men of the Labor Party had robbed them of their democratic right. This sneering was misplaced, because while we may not directly elect a prime minister, we walk into the booth knowing full well that whether we vote for a Liberal or Labor candidate will determine who becomes prime minister, and that’s what most people are really thinking about when they put a number next to a box, regardless of whose name is next to it.
So, yes, your vote does elect a prime minister. But more importantly, what it does is determine which party will control the House – a democratic body of representatives who vote on the passage of legislation. An insistence on “stable government,” and distaste at a hung parliament, suggests that Australians have been bewitched by American elections into thinking that individual candidates matter more than a party’s policies. Labor received a bounce in opinion polls of almsot 10% after reinstalling Rudd in June. That’s a big number. 1 in every 10 Australians apparently decided to change their vote based purely on a personality. There was not a single policy difference between either leader; whereas the differences between Labor and Liberal, despite narrowing under Rudd and Gillard’s stewardship, remain stark.
In a hung parliament, the balance of power is controlled by minor parties and independents, and the passage of legislation is dependent on debate, discussion and compromise. In a majority government parliament, the ruling party will rubber-stamp whatever legislation they want through the House. Which sounds more democratic to you?
Australians seem to understand the concept of checks and balance, and why it can be a good, tempering influence for a minor party to hold the balance of power – that’s why the Greens historically do much better in the Senate, and have held the balance of power there for the past decade. When it comes to the House, though, Australians don’t like that, because the make-up of the House determines who’ll be the faux-presidential figure to “lead the country” – and never mind something as boring and trivial as, you know, legislation.
The House of Representatives is the heart of our democracy, not the office down the hallway where the Prime Minister sits. We are not at war. We do not require a figurehead to make critical, immediate decisions for us. Belgium went 18 months without a government a few years ago, and the earth did not open up and swallow the nation. The trains still ran, the grocery shops were still open, you could still apply for a passport and you still had to pay your taxes. The Labor government of the past six years was no more “unstable” than John Howard’s was or Tony Abbott’s will be. If you want to see instability, go to the Middle East.
What it ultimately comes down to, beyond ignorance, is that Australians don’t like change. We hadn’t had a hung parliament in living memory, and the populace recoiled from this new experience like a vampire emerging into daylight. Australia is a deeply conservative country that wants things to stay just as they always have been – which is why we now have a prime minister who is going to halt any efforts at stopping climate change, dismantle the work that had begun on a badly-needed national broadband network, and continue the deeply racist immigration policies of his forebears.