On the voluminous yet inconclusive evidence available, Malcolm Turnbull will be returned as Prime Minister either by the slenderest of majorities or with the support of conservative crossbenchers. Labor have made impressive inroads into the Coalition vote but it is difficult to envision a situation where Labor could command a majority on the floor of the house. Such an arrangement would involve a complex and unstable alliance with The Greens, Andrew Wilkie, Cathy McGowan and the Nick Xenophon Team. For Turnbull the situation in the senate however makes for even worse reading.

The present indicators suggest that  a bloc vote of Labor/Green/Xenophon in the senate will be sufficient to block any legislation. And on recent evidence this block remains the most likely to try and scuttle conservative legislation. In May 2015 James Massola in the Sydney Morning Herald found that that the Australian Labor Party voted with the government on  35% of legislation, Nick Xenophon 30% and The Greens just 3%. If this trend continues in the new parliament we will have a parliament in paralysis.  Labor and the Greens must now decide whether they want to do to this parliament what Tony Abbott did to the 43rd parliament. With the Senate numbers so heavily in their favour and the house balanced so delicately, Labor and the Greens are in a position to destroy Malcolm Turnbull. If they erect the legislative barricades and blockade the senate they can frustrate and thwart Turnbull at every opportunity. They can paint the government as incompetent and ineffectual. Even if Xenophon breaks from the Troika and works with the government they will force Turnbull into negotiations and concessions with the extremists Pauline Hanson and Fred Nile which will only degrade and reduce Turnbull further in the eyes of the electorate.

Bit-by-bit they would chip away at Turnbull’s authority until, in an all too familiar situation, a desperate and despondent party would be forced to install a new leader to save the furniture. A Labor government would likely be elected three years down the track and Turnbull would join the likes of Rudd, Gillard and Abbott in the history books under the term “failed experiments.” The cost to the Australian people would however be enormous. For two, perhaps three years Australia would be subject to a paralysis. Worse it would crystalize the pugilistic culture of Australian parliament. Perhaps the newly elected Shorten government would have a better parliament to work with than any of the post Howard governments have. But if it doesn’t, and if they attempt to wreck this government in the same way that Abbott wrecked theirs they can be sure that the new opposition will respond in kind. And so the depressing cycle will perpetuate, the cycle which has seen faith in the Australian political class, so high during the early months of the Rudd government, continue to plunge hitherto unrealised depths.

There is another option available to Shorten, Di Natale and their respective leadership teams. Together they are uniquely placed to affect a change in the Australian political culture, to stare down their barrackers calling upon them to destroy Turnbull and to extend the arm of bipartisanship. To show real leadership, as Turnbull did in 2009 when he defied his parliamentary party to work positively and constructively with the Rudd government to formulate an Emissions Trading Scheme. If Bill Shorten and Richard Di Natale show a genuine preparedness to negotiate policy compromises with the government in good faith they could restore the confidence of the Australian people in their political institutions. Fred Nile and Pauline Hanson would become irrelevances, their votes in the senate having no impact. And in time, as voters observed our political class working constructively for them rather than the destructive kabuki play they’ve witnessed for the last seven years then maybe, just maybe, we might see the shift to extreme antiestablishment political groups like One Nation and the Palmer United Party finally begin to reverse.

There is no doubt in my mind that if Shorten chooses to press the attack he can be Prime Minister in three years, but if he doesn’t he may be able to affect a lasting change in the very Australia conducts its politics.  Seven years ago Malcolm Turnbull took a huge risk, he put his leadership on the line to offer bipartisan support for the keystone of their legislative agenda and Labor hung him out to dry. Perhaps now Labor has the chance to repay this debt.


2 thoughts on “Decisions

  1. Nicely considered piece. I agree with all of it as far as it goes. However for Hanson et al to be truly irrelevant there needs to be more than just a shift from the current hostility and refusal to compromise that characterises our current political culture. It’s glib/snide Q&A vs snide/glib The Australian. Political compromise is underrated. I consider Meg Lees’ work on the GST (which I was initially against) to have been instrumental in turning what is a regressive tax into something fair and effective.

    But the pugilistic political culture we have is a symptom (like Trump/Brexit/Greens) of a bigger problem with Western democratic society. I trace the problem back to the failure of post war Britain break out of a deep social and economic malaise. Things were so bad that by the late 1970s just about any kind of jolt would bring about positive change. Unfortunately for the West that jolt was the neo liberalism of Thatcher. The positive social and economic change Thatcher bought to Britain had the unfortunate side effect of making neoliberalism look like the only game in Town. Reagan and Hawke/Keating cemented a Western consensus that remains in place today.

    in Australia that consensus means that we have two parties vying for electoral favour with a shrinking revenue base. It’s worse than that. The failure of neoliberalism to deliver local jobs means that social problems increase, requiring government intervention. That means making cuts in one area to spend in another and deficits. The parties desperately try to do this in a way that only offends 49 % of the electorate. The requirement to persuade the electorate that they are different from the alternative and more ‘responsible’ means that they must be hostile to each other.

    Border security means racism. Social spending means profligacy. Spending cuts on health means war on the poor. Adjusting negative gearing mean class warfare. And so on.

    Until a party – and my belief is that it will be Labor, though I’d vote for either party if they do it – proposes a structural shift in our economy that favours high employment and fair pay and does something about the cost of housing (not related to employment given the nexus of the cost of living and wage stability) we’ll be stuck right where we are. The only winners are election junkies because we’re in for a lot more of the same as far as I can see.

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