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Be Careful What You Wish For (Part 2)

July 1, 2016

The Hitchhikers’ Guide to – #AusVotes2016


LauraNotTingling                                                               Image – Mike Bowers – Guardian Australia

Well, it’s over. The longest and most boring Australian election campaign I can remember. The polls are open. All that remains is to go and vote, and await the results.  The last poll has come in at 50:50, but all the pundits and the bookies think Malcolm Turnbull and the LNP will be re-elected, but with a reduced majority. Of course it’s impossible not to add the proviso that the pollsters, the pundits and the bookies all had a very bad week last week in the Brexit referendum. Well, actually the bookies would have done well out of it, but that’s because they mis-priced it and the favourite lost. What can Australia learn from that? I’ll be coming to that in a minute, but first that decision to bring on a double dissolution, and to telegraph the decision months ahead of time. Bear with me while I answer the question most non-Australian readers are asking right now:

What’s A Double Dissolution?

Australia has a bicameral (two chambers) ‘Westminster system’ parliament with the lower house, the House of Representatives, having a three year term. However, members of the upper house, the Senate, serve a six year term. This is managed by holding a half Senate election with every House of Reps election. In certain circumstances though the government can call a full election of both houses, a double dissolution. If a piece of government legislation is rejected twice by the Senate, that is known as a double dissolution ‘trigger.’ Governments are not obliged to pull that trigger, and they rarely do, but that’s what Malcolm Turnbull has chosen to do this time.

A Palace Coup

Turnbull took over from Tony Abbott, who had become extremely unpopular, in a party room coup before he had completed his first term. He became so unpopular because he was by any objective standard a terrible Prime Minister. He was deeply misguided, and his only redeeming feature was that he was also ineffectual. He retains a rump of bitter support on the hard right. When Turnbull took over last September most of the country was just relieved, and his popularity soared. But ever since them it has been slowly eroded. It should be noted that both major party leaders are fighting their first federal election campaigns. ALP leader Bill Shorten has run plenty of campaigns in the trade union movement though. Turnbull’s only previous campaign was the unsuccessful referendum campaign for a republic, before he entered parliament. He has always been seen as a winner though, ever since he first came to public notice by winning the ‘Spycatcher‘ case, against the Thatcher government, in an Australian court.

His management of this campaign has not been impressive. Letting it be understood that it was his intention to bring on a DD (it’s too long to keep typing it out) was a courageous decision, in the Sir Humphrey sense. It allowed pundits to work out the only practical date for such an election months ahead of time. The more time, the more opportunities for gaffes, cock ups and controversies. So how did he start out this interminable campaign? By flying a succession of policy kites, proposing ‘big ideas’ which were all withdrawn, some with startling rapidity. By the time we got to the budget all that remained was a few minor adjustments to superannuation concessions and a modest company tax cut by stealth. So modest that it is forecast to increase GDP growth by just 0.1% after 10 years, but at a cost to the budget of some $50 billion. None of this has deterred Malcolm from declaring that he has an economic plan for ‘jobs and growth,’ his slogan. I wouldn’t call that a plan though, would you? So logically there are two possibilities. Either he just has a plan to say he has a plan, or he has another plan that he’s not sharing with us.

Now by this point in the campaign, which is a good couple of months ago by now, I was starting to feel a rising sense of deja vu. This was starting to bear a striking resemblance to last year’s UK election campaign. As I said in a blog at the time, the major parties seemed to have decided that voters were too stupid to think about more than one idea at a time, so they went with one policy each. Not so much of a policy even as a sort of vague general feeling. The vibe. Last year we saw the Tories say they’d be better at managing the economy, Labour said they’d be better at protecting the NHS. This year we’ve got the coalition with jobs and growth, and the ALP with protecting Medicare. So pretty much exactly the same!

Then Something Happened

So this banal, superficial campaign dragged on and on. And on. Until suddenly, unexpectedly, just over a week ago something happened. The Brexit vote. Australian political commentators seized on it, firstly because it was something, anything, to break the mindless tedium. Something we weren’t expecting. This campaign has not contained a whole lot of stuff we weren’t expecting, so the media gave it blanket coverage. Then of course some people started to wonder what it might mean for us. Economically? Probably not that much. The UK is not China. It’s just not that important to us in that way (sorry Boris). Nonetheless, our stock market took a tumble, on fears that it could be the straw that broke the camel of the world economy’s back. It shouldn’t be that big a deal, but the austerity policies pursued by most of the world’s developed economies have left things in such a fragile state that it might not take much. But we don’t really know, that process has a long time to play out, so speculation inevitably turned to the possible parallels with Australia’s situation. Malcolm was quick to claim it was an argument against change. Stability, he cried. Firm hand on the tiller, that sort of thing. But is that really the lesson we should be learning?

The Significance

There are actually a surprising amount of similarities here, and it’s not a good story for Malcolm. He and David Cameron are quite politically similar for a start. They are both economically right wing neoliberals who are fairly socially progressive. This is because neoliberals really don’t care much about social issues. Remember Thatcher’s infamous quote, “There’s no such thing as society?” However, both their parties have large numbers of socially conservative members who have had to be managed and placated. Now this is where it really starts to get spooky, because they’ve ended up, for different reasons, with the same strategy for placating them. David Cameron really only has himself to blame. He clearly thought that holding a referendum was a cute way of allowing some disaffected voters to let off some steam. He agreed in 2012 to the Scottish independence referendum with an alacrity which surprised many of us, and even acceded to First Minister Alex Salmond’s timetable, which called for a two year campaign. He thought he’d get a crushing victory, particularly as he had the support of the Labour Party which had dominated Scottish politics for generations, and bury the issue for the foreseeable future. As we now know, it didn’t work out that way.

In 2013, while that campaign was just getting into swing, he used the tactic again. He decided to placate his backbench by promising them a referendum on EU membership. This, he thought, would also help resist the challenge of Nigel Farage’s UKIP, which was eating alarmingly into the Tory vote at that time. There is a very high probability however that he never thought he’d have to hold it. When he promised it in 2013 he couldn’t deliver it, because the 2010 parliament was a hung parliament, and he was in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. So he said he’d do it in the next parliament, if he got a majority. At no time during the next two years did any of the polls suggest he’d get one. Turned out that was also one the pollsters got wrong, and he did. Even so, and even after getting the fright of his political life in 2014 when he very nearly ended up presiding over the break up of the UK, there was no apparent sense that ‘Remain’ might lose.

Cockhead Cameron

Now, just to explain, a referendum in the UK is like a plebiscite in Australia. It has no constitutional status, because there’s no written constitution, so it is advisory. It requires only a simple majority. They are not held very often, because technically they don’t need to be held at all. If their outcomes are to be implemented it’s parliament that has to implement them anyway. So in fact, exactly like a plebiscite in Australia. Even so, they tend only to happen when a matter of major constitutional significance is at stake. Issues like Scottish independence and whether not to leave the EU are, it must be conceded, major existential questions. Marriage equality is not such an issue. Both the Scottish and UK parliaments just went ahead and passed that. But it’s Liberal policy for essentially the same reason – Malcolm’s made a Faustian bargain. Come on, we all know it. The party room didn’t dump Tony in favour of him because they really wanted him more. Just like the English Tories, they love a bastard, and they loved Tony. But when it comes right down to it, there is nothing for a politician that trumps saving their own seat, and they could see that Tony would drive them off an electoral cliff. So, sorrowing, they dispatched him.

Now, all the polling showed that most voters thought Malcolm should be their leader, so they went to him. They made it clear to him that they would support him on the condition that he left most of Abbott’s eclectic, right wing, socially conservative policies in place. Including the plebiscite. Now it’s not my intention to suggest the result of that is seriously in question. We all know what the outcome will be, it’s not close. Abbott put it in place because he knew that pressure for the change was mounting, but he just couldn’t bring himself to do it. So like the Brexit vote, it was a stalling tactic. The problem with deals like that is, when you’re dealing with hard line social conservatives, sometimes the attitudes which are brought to the surface and legitimised can be very ugly indeed. The Brexit vote has encouraged a disturbing amount of racism and bigotry. Reports of hate crimes are up dramatically. You are playing with fire when you tell people whose attitudes were formed, and belong in, a different era to speak up, get it all off their chests and say all the things we’ve been trying to tell them for years not to say. They call it political correctness. I call it progress.

So what’s the real lesson for Australia from Brexit? Beware of conservative leaders, beholden to their lunatic fringe backbenchers, bearing poisonous plebiscites. Look at it this way: Malcolm is David Cameron, Tony is Boris and Cory Bernardi is Nigel Farage. My outlier prediction, if Malcolm gets back with a reduced majority, as seems not unlikely, he will be weakened. The issue on which he called the election, all those weeks ago (a terrible issue to pick, as few voters understand or care about it) may yet wound him further, as there is a good chance he still won’t have the numbers to pass it in a joint sitting. The plebiscite will bring all the homophobes and religious weirdos out of the woodwork, probably to make common cause with the ‘Reclaim’ neo-nazis, the Hansonites, the bizarre anti-halal people, Family First and the shooters and fishers. The standard of political discourse in this country will be set back decades. The LNP old guard will use the whole business as a wedge to further weaken Turnbull, and Abbott will be PM again by this time next year. Trust me, that’s what he thinks.

Time to get ready to go and do my civic duty. I’ll be back to comment on the results, and to pick a few bones with whoever comes out on top. There have been issues in this election which both major parties refused to address, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to let them off the hook. Watch this space.

Right, polls closed. Now we wait. I can’t remember when I’ve taken less joy in voting. There was at least one voluble argument at my local polling station, with Liberal canvassers on the receiving end. Not sure what sparked it, but there’s a lot of frustration out there. I’m in Melbourne Ports, where it’s thought the Greens have an outside chance of knocking off one of the most right wing old dinosaurs in the ALP, Michael Danby. Let’s hope so.

By the way, for those wondering why this is Part 2, Part 1 is my look at the wash up from the Brexit vote, which isn’t finished yet. This one seemed to follow logically from that, but obviously I was on a deadline. 🙂


Update – 9.30pm AEST: The ABC’s psephologist Antony Green just predicted that we won’t see a result tonight. It’s very close, and there is a strong possibility of a hung parliament.

9.45pm: Apparently Collingwood have won more games on election day than any other AFL club, at 6. It’s about to be 7 as they are 18 points ahead of Carlton with a couple of minutes remaining.

11pm: And we don’t seem to be getting much closer to a result yet. Four or five seats are stubbornly undecided, and the govt. is still a couple short of a majority. (non-Aus readers – we have an STV system, so we are waiting on the distribution of preferences).

11.30pm: Bill Shorten is on his feet, sounding like he’s won, without actually saying so. In campaigning terms he has. My money’s still on a hung parliament.

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