Commentators are quickly starting new theories about the meaning of this tight election result, a lot is focussing on the obvious – we are sick of the two-party system and right to rule politics, have rejected a Labor Government but are not ready to embrace Abbott, are moving support to the Greens…
With September approaching, it is easy to look at the problem in terms of tweaking next season’s rules, adding a new team and possibly issuing new uniforms.
But politics is not, as we too often assume to the detriment of meaningful analysis, simply a team sport.
It is now the third Australian election in since Kevin07 that has led to deadlock. Western Australia, Tasmania, and now the Federal election have all landed a draw between the traditional power bases, we have seen many new Green MPs elected to the lower houses and political alliances tested and reformed, including an increasingly self assured and independent National party in WA.
To understand this better we need to look beyond campaign tactics, the policies of the major parties, or the system. It’s not the team, or the rules that are at the heart of the situation. Rather, the field is changing around the game.
Most of the population is very aware of a number of increasingly acute problems facing Australia and the world, and is equally as confused by the consequences of a multitude of new opportunities and solutions presented by the modern world. Our environment, climate, population and society are changing at an unprecedented rate. Technology has connected the world and is opening possibilities faster than we can possibly consider the moral, ethical, societal and environmental consequences. Standing still is simply no longer an option.
There is a feeling that the party is going to end soon, but there no consensus on exactly why, when, or what we will all do in the morning.
This isn’t as many would paint it necessarily a negative situation, some of the best days are start the morning after a great party, but they are never the same as the night before.
Looking more closely at the short history of Kevin07 followed by our now hung Parliament and the Green slide in the senate, gives us some insight to what is really going on in Australia.
Kevin Rudd tapped this mood of a nation looking for change but not knowing where to go. He soared on record levels of popularity as he apologised to the stolen generation and drafted Australia’s first attempt at comprehensive climate change legislation. But then he failed.
First he failed to properly explain why and how his climate solution would work, which opened him up to the negative attacks from Tony Abbott, and then, when he backed away from it altogether, it bought an end to his Prime Ministership. The dropping of the climate legislation, ‘the greatest moral challenge’ of our time, was always going to be the death knell of the Kevin07 movement. The fact that he failed to notice this is instructive to what happened next.
What he missed is the fundamental challenge of progressivism. People naturally support positive change, after all we are no longer driving slave carts and worshiping the King, but it has to be well articulated and explained to the supporters. And when progressives start backing away from that argument and thus the values that got them elected, conservatives win.
Then Julia Gillard got the Government a second chance, and made the same mistake again.
Historically, this should have led to a straight change in Government. But it hasn’t. This time there was another force in politics rising to take the progressive mantle. Most of the swing on Saturday didn’t go conservative, but swung its hardest to the Greens.
The Greens have been handled an historic opportunity. But the challenge for the Greens will be the same as for Kevin07 and Julia Gillard.
Bob Brown’s challenge will be framed by many in the media as showing the Greens can be taking seriously by cooperating with the Government on national priorities. This is to an extent true, but it is also something he needs to resist. His biggest challenge will be to keep his diverse party united under a number of core issues, explain them well to the electorate, and deliver; to avoid the mistakes of Kevin07.
It will take considerable strength of character for a team new to this level of power. The Greens will come under intense pressure from the media and conservatives, as Kevin07 did, and the temptation will be to cave in to calls to be more ‘sensible’ and ‘balanced’. These are important concepts, but the challenge of progressivism is to reinterpret these mainstream principles in favour of the cause.
For example, there is nothing sensible about risking the long term costs of climate change for short term profits. Science says a balanced approach to marine conservation means much higher levels of protection that we currently have. Gay marriage makes sense. The Greens will need to articulate and explain the benefits of these changes very well. If they start back tracking instead of arguing their case, their rise to power will be as short as the Kevin07 movement.
Saturday also delivered another new force in Australian politics, the three ex-national independents. It is tempting to assume they will simply fall into line with their assumed ideology, which leaves them aligned with the conservative agenda of the Coalition under Abbott. But they have all already left the National party, and made it clear in this instance that they should not be taken for granted.
It makes sense. Regional Australia needs change in a way the city doesn’t and conservatives can be progressive too. Other than the mining centres, which are not the power base of the current independents, regional Australia faces problems of its own such as depopulation, isolation and the accompanied loss of services. With water shortages, drought and fire, rural Australia is the front line for climate change. Additionally, farmers have already shouldered virtually the entire burden of contribution to reaching Australia’s current Kyoto goals, admittedly largely forced on them, through land clearing bans.
Rural Australia is faced with its own challenges very much of the modern era. For a long time technology has been the primary cause of depopulation as less people can work more land. And now technology is increasingly important, including dealing with isolation, increasing automation, conflict over genetically modified crops and conflict for land with mining, conservation and urban expansion.
So after carrying early Australia on the sheep’s back, rural Australia also finds itself with dawn approaching on the party and no-one putting their hand up with a plan for tomorrow. Rural regional Australia too needs its own progressive leadership that acknowledges the problems of the day, and articulates solutions.
Perhaps this explains Bob Brown’s deliberate mention of working with farmers twice in his victory speech on Saturday night and Julia Gillard’s highlighting of online medical consultations delivered by the National Broadband Network. The NBN will certainly be attractive to rural Australia.
The ABC’s computers show it is likely that the Coalition will win enough seats to form a traditional conservative centre right coalition with the independents. A Royalties for Regions style deal similar to the one struck between the Nationals and Liberals in WA could be on the cards.
But it is also possible in this weeks talks between the Independents, the Greens, Labor and the Liberals that some of our politicians in Canberra, most of whom are smarter than we generally give them credit for, will realise this moment in history, and find a way to give Australia the leadership it is crying out for – a leadership that will start solving some of these big problems we face.
Maybe it will only be half this good, but it is exciting that the electorate has rejected the right to rule rather than issues based campaigning of the major parties and given our MPs this chance to shake things up in Canberra.
The worst outcome is that the hope of 2007 now degenerates into another three to six years of centrist wheel spinning, continuing the trend to an increasingly cynical and disillusioned electorate. The best outcome is far better.
We could still wake up to a bright new day after, but the possibility of a long hangover is still very real.