The Politics    Monday, July 11, 2016

Back to business

By Michael Lucy

Malcolm Turnbull has his work cut out for him in a fractious parliament

The dark chaos of the eight-day interregnum has at last drawn to a close. To the casual observer it might have seemed like the life of the nation continued, but Bill Shorten assured us that the delayed election result had “let Australia drift”.

Shorten heroically ended this drift himself yesterday, by conceding defeat. Malcolm Turnbull then declared victory, and Australia had a prime minister once more. Or maybe we won’t really have one until the Governor General comes back from France, but, look, the uncertainty is over and we can all get back to business.

A handful of seats are still in doubt, but it seems the Coalition will hold on with the slimmest of margins on 76 seats. Labor will likely have 69, and the remaining 5 will be one each for the Greens, Katter, Xenophon, Andrew Wilkie and Cathy McGowan.

Firm senate results are still a couple of weeks away, but it seems the double dissolution will result in a crossbench even wilder than the last, filled by more Greens and more of the Xenophon team, plus Pauline Hanson and Jacquie Lambie and Derryn Hinch.

On the face of it, a fairly fractious parliament.

Turnbull put an optimistic spin on things in his press conference yesterday:

It is vital that this Parliament works. It is vital that we work together and as far as we can, find ways upon which we can all agree, consistent with our policies that we have taken to the election, consistent with our political principles, that we meet the great challenges Australia faces.

He stopped short of claiming a mandate that other parties must respect, though he did mention that the Coalition had received some 800,000 more first preference votes than Labor.

(A small enough claim to authority, when you consider that the Coalition’s primary vote was a little less than 42% of the total, even though Labor’s was an even more dismal 35%. A big chunk of that discrepancy comes from the 10% Greens vote, most of which comes back to Labor via preferences, while the Coalition figure includes the 13% or so of votes received by Nationals and LNP candidates.)

Still, Turnbull may have a partner in Bill Shorten, who has said he will be constructive in opposition. The real problems may be on his own side of the floor.

There is no promise of constructive behaviour from Turnbull’s internal opposition: an unnamed conservative Liberal MP told a News journalist that the close result means Turnbull “will be kneeling at the conservative altar now”.

And the Nationals could be troublesome, too: the junior symbiote in the Coalition, whose agrarian socialism is untroubled by the free-market tendencies of their partner as long as they can extract concessions for the double handful of seats they chip in to help the Liberals (who have never held a majority in their own right) form government, is ready to negotiate a new deal and leader Barnaby Joyce senses opportunity.

So Turnbull will be strung between several forces – his own soft-liberal tendencies, the conservatives in his party, the Nationals, the crossbenchers and even perhaps Labor from time to time – whenever he tries to move. Brute force won’t do the job; it’ll call for agility.

And what about the voters? What do they want? Do we know any more about that than we did before the election? I’m not convinced we do.

It’s a mistake to think that there is such a thing as the national will or the voice of the people that is somehow expressed through the electoral process, or that an election result can be construed strictly as approval or disapproval of a set of policies. People vote in all sorts of ways for all sorts of reasons – personal benefit, an attempt at dispassionate policy assessment, preference for individual politicians, habit – and the number of votes that decide any given election is always a small fraction of the population.

If there’s one thing this election result has told us, it’s that the appeal of both major parties is still on the decline. Twenty-five percent of voters put neither Liberal nor Labor first; yet collectively they are only represented by 3% of the lower house and perhaps 11% of the senate. (Whether it makes sense to think of them collectively is a separate question.) That’s a quarter of the country who look at parliament and don’t see themselves represented.

Can Turnbull find a way to implement his policies, engage constructively with opponents internal and external, and address the growing alienation of the body politic? Probably not, but there’s no harm in trying.


Today’s links

Michael Lucy

Michael Lucy is a writer based in Melbourne.


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