Monday, 11 July 2016

That feeling when you win an election but the elation feels marginal

Extract from The Guardian

The election is finally over, hip hip hooray – except, of course, it isn’t really. The count is continuing to establish precisely the final margin Malcolm Turnbull will be able to claim as prime minister, and the character of the Senate his government will ultimately have to deal with.
But Sunday did bring the following developments: Bill Shorten was finally ready to stop campaigning, and draw a line over a period he’d probably regard as the best couple of months of his life in politics, despite the fact the scoreboard shows a loss – and Turnbull was glad to take the concession as it means he can get on with attempting to manage the incredible complexities associated with the election result. Caretaker ends, normal transmission begins. It is possible to get the wheels of government turning again.
Turnbull’s relief on Sunday was palpable.

A win’s a win, and a man who has been through as big a fright as Turnbull has over the past few days will take a win, any way it comes. “It’s always a good time to deliver a victory speech,” he said Sunday, smile wide, sweat beading on the prime ministerial brow, sentiment brimming, as it always does.
But Sunday’s euphoria is a transitory condition. I’ve noted already Turnbull’s challenge is enormous.For the moment at least, he has a former prime minister, Tony Abbott, still in the parliament. He has a rump of hostile conservatives who won’t sue for peace.
He has another more pragmatic group of conservatives who will sue for peace (at least temporarily) because there isn’t a viable leadership alternative right at the moment and their interests are best served by a prime minister who will have to be something of a captive to their interests (read, promote Peter Dutton, the most important figure in that faction, bring in a couple of up-and-comers to the ministry, perhaps a brief pause then before moving on to the next set of demands.)
Turnbull is doubtless hoping that the Coalition’s delicate grip on government will promote good behaviour among colleagues, and perhaps it will, but Australians have been to this rodeo before, and we know great challenges don’t always result in self-protecting behaviour. He has a backbench that will be emboldened by the tight margin of the new parliament and inclined to flex their muscle, either internally, or perhaps, on the floor of the chamber.
He will also owe the National party big time, increasing the internal clout of Barnaby Joyce, who is no shrinking violet when it comes to advancing the junior coalition partner’s interests. There will have to be a new coalition agreement negotiated between the leaders. The National party will meet this Tuesday or Wednesday to establish their list of demands beyond the number of ministries that are determined by a representational formula. If you are a betting person, put a bet on the demands being expansive.
Turnbull’s precise margin in the House is unclear but even if it’s best-case scenario, which hard heads would say at the moment is 77 seats, that’s tight enough to require good working relationships with parliament’s two wiliest independents: Bob Katter, who wants billions for infrastructure in north Queensland, and Nick Xenophon, who right now wants to save the trouble steel maker Arrium and after that is concluded, will want a bunch of other things, and is in a position to structure some demands given he’ll control one of the new Senate blocs.

Speaking of the Senate, we really have to see how the numbers ultimately fall, but it is certain there will be a new dynamic in the red chamber. Rather than a fragmented crossbench of individuals, there will be a bunch of competing power blocs, including the return of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation. In an odd way competing power blocs could be easier to deal with managerially than the last Senate of feisty individuals, but again, I wouldn’t be making any Pollyanna-ish predictions.
Outside those difficulties there’s the various policy conundrums. The disposition of a healthy rump of the new chamber, reflecting a distinct contemporary mood in the Australian electorate, is populist and and protectionist. The bruised political fortunes of the Coalition demand one thing, and that’s rapprochement with the voters, and pronto – but fiscal reality demands the government pursue a measured course on policy recalibration.
Then there will be Labor’s disposition in the new chamber. Given the sheer weight of complexities weighing on the prime minister, Labor has every incentive to smile genially while putting its collective boot on Turnbull’s throat. For all the fine words about collaboration from Bill Shorten on Sunday, there will be a temptation to maximise the Coalition’s discomfort over issues like same-sex marriage.
If Labor can manage to maintain the unity it has carefully developed and exhibited over the past three years, and right now I’d rate that no higher than an if, the ALP knows they are now within striking distance of taking government. Being within striking distance does tend to load the tactical incentives in favour of war with your opponent, rather than noble pursuit of tranquility and parliamentary zen.
Pulling back from these nuts and bolts, let’s consider the redrawn political landscape not from the insider considerations of Canberra, all the minute strategic calculations of the next days, weeks and months, the exhausting, whispered corridor calculations – but from the point of view of the voters.
Novel I know, but let’s give that change of perspective a go for a moment out of respect for the people who just cast their votes and would like, perhaps for once, to be part of the set of calculations influencing future behaviour.
Australian voters want their politics to change. They despise the entrenched culture of self-interest, the rampant tantrums about entitlement, the court intrigues, gruesomely negative campaigns, and the zero sum game politics that have, too often, been the order of the day.

The voters are in sullen retreat from the bad habits of major party politics, and they are sick of being promised new dawns that fail to materialise.
I’m with independent MP Cathy McGowan when she says a competitive parliament is a good parliament. I thought the minority parliament in 2010 was exceptionally effective when you look at the legislation it produced.
If our parliamentarians had any brains, they would use the coming parliament as an opportunity to reset the rules of the game, to try and respond to the message from the voters, which is a simple one in the 2016 election: do better, be better, understand our concerns, be more inclusive, work in the national interest, explain why reform matters and have a program to look after people who find themselves on the losing end of economic transition.
The parliament of Australia, which will actually be very representative over the next three years, exhibiting the full spectrum from progressive left to hard right, has an opportunity to clean up its collective act, and turn a page.
But the thing about frights is they can have two distinct behavioural consequences. They can galvanise people into beneficial action, or they can reinforce old habits, old comforts, old rituals, even the self-defeating ones.
I think the coming 45th parliament will be a fascinating beast, I just wish I was more optimistic going into this next phase that our elected representatives had truly heeded the message they were given last Saturday night.

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