That is the sort of advice that cartoonists might offer to the independents that now seem to hold the future of the Federal parliament in their hands. The outlook for both major parties is uncertain, equally so.
So what can we deduce one day after the election? This is the first in a series. This piece addresses the exigencies of minority government. Later pieces will address what went wrong for Labor and the role of the media.
Labor has sustained a significant loss of seats, declining from 83 to somewhere between 70 and 74, as far as one can tell. If the ‘doubtfuls’ all fell Labor’s way and some seats previously assigned to the Coalition changed to Labor, it is very remotely possible that Labor might get to the magic 76 where it can form government.
The Coalition has gained seats – from 64 previously to between 72 and 74, and again if all the cards fell its way it might get to 76. It is better placed seat-wise than Labor, but is highly unlikely to get to that figure.
The proportion of votes flowing to the parties at present shows that Labor has suffered a swing against it of 5.5%, the Coalition a swing to it of 1.8% and the Greens a swing to them of 3.7%. Proportionately speaking, most of Labor’s bleeding was to the Greens, not the Coalition. But because those figures are applied against different absolute numbers, more votes actually flowed from Labor to the Coalition than to the Greens. The swings are uneven. At present the swings against Labor seem confined to Queensland, NSW, WA and NT, with swings to Labor in the other states. This has not translated into many extra seats in those states, but the contrast is striking and points to the underlying reasons..
So what has happened is that many of the seats that Labor won in 2007, especially in Queensland, have reverted to the Coalition, but not in sufficient numbers to enable it to form government. Remember that at the 2007 election there was a 5.4% swing against the Howard Government nationwide, with a much stronger swing in Queensland of 7.5%. John Howard, three of his ministers and 17 other Coalition MPs lost their seats, although the Liberals gained two marginal Labor seats in WA, a net loss of 19 seats, leaving it with 64 seats. This time the Coalition has regained only 8 of these if we take the current count as 72.
Although yesterday was clearly a great day for the Coalition, it was not in the same category as Labor’s win in 2007. On 24 November 2007 the Coalition slipped from 83 seats to 64, a loss of 19 seats, but on 21 August 2010 it moved from 64 to around 72, a gain of 8, and even with the very best case scenario of, say, 76, a gain of 12, well short of what Labor achieved in 2007.
While Tony Abbott and his Coalition team are justifiably delighted that what looked like a ‘saving the furniture’ exercise six months ago has turned out to be much better than that, their delight needs it be tempered with the reality that unless Julia Gillard is unable to form a minority government with the independents, and Tony Abbott is, he has gained seats but not power. He sensed this when he warned in his speech to the party faithful against triumphalism. His triumph is limited. Nick Minchin and George Brandis were arguing last night that if the Coalition obtained the most seats and the popular vote, it should be ‘entitled’ to attempt first to form a minority government. That is not the way it works. Julia Gillard is PM in caretaker mode and has first option to present a minority government arrangement to the Governor General. If she can’t, Tony Abbott gets his turn, something he seemed to understand when he spoke last night.
What then might we expect? If we accept that neither party will reach 76 and will probably reach only 74, minority government is only possible with the cooperation of the new Greens member for Melbourne, Adam Bandt, who has already said he will support Labor, effectively increasing its tally by one, possibly Andrew Wilkie, the whistleblower on the Iraq War whom the Coalition labelled as unbalanced, and who subsequently became an unsuccessful Greens candidate, but looks likely to take Dennison in Tasmania, and three ex-Nationals who left that party because they were dissatisfied and still seem upset with it. Bob Katter of Kennedy in far north Queensland is still angry about the reduction of milk prices for dairy farmers following the Coalition’s deregulation of the industry, the way in which he believes rural Australia is being neglected by government, and last night revealed he had had an abusive call from Warren Truss. Bob does not seem enamoured of the Coalition. Tony Windsor of New England sounds a very reasonable and sensible person who wants to contribute to stable government and support rural people, and Rob Oakeshott of Lyne on the northern NSW coast, who has had experience as an independent in the Greiner Coalition government in NSW, also sounds balanced, stating his decision about which party to support would revolve around which one could provide the most stable government. None of the independents indicated any alignment to the Coalition, but Adam Bandt would align with Labor and Andrew Wilkie might, while still retaining independence. In summary there is not much joy for Tony Abbott there in terms of ideological alignment.
Add to that the fact that there will be nine Greens in the Senate, and a DLP member. Stephen Fielding seems unlikely to retain his seat, but we will have to endure him until the end of next June.
What issues might sway their alignment?
Perhaps the most important might be the NBN which the Greens support and rural members strongly support, in fact complaining on ABC TV last night about poor communications in the bush, such that only a still image could be projected while they spoke to Kerry O’Brien on their mobiles. They say this would enable rural businesses to become more competitive on the world stage. Also contemplate how difficult it would be for Tony Abbott as PM to scuttle the NBN in the Senate, while it is already being rolled out? How would he handle that? Would he be forced to renege on his intention to trash the NBN?
What about global warming? Leaving aside the fact that Bob Katter is a sceptic, and that we don’t know what the other ex-Nationals independents think, we certainly know that Greens want action and are unlikely to go along with Tony Abbott’s ‘action plan’ without a price on carbon. How will Tony handle that?
What about the MRRT? The Greens want an even bigger tax. With them with the balance of power in the Senate, how will Tony cope with their insistence?
What about Abbott’s intention to scrap GP Super Clinics and reduce primary care funding? Would the rural independents support that? Would the Greens? They would applaud the Coalition’s mental health funding, but would want dental care supported.
How would Abbott manage the Greens’ push for same sex marriage?
Consider how the Greens might feel about Tony’s Boatphone, his threat to ‘turn the boats around’, and his reopening of Nauru. It is the Greens that have been the most outspoken about treating asylum-seekers humanely and they are opposed to off-shore processing. .
That’s enough now about what Tony Abbott would need to reflect on as he contemplates minority government with the independents and a Greens-dominated Senate. Running a majority government is difficult enough, accommodating the various views party members have, but party unity usually overcomes dissent, as we saw when he conjured up his PPL without consultation. But he cannot rely on that when he’s required to negotiate with those outside his party. How would he cope with the sort of unremitting obstructionism he had inflicted on Labor for the last three years?
Malcolm Fraser’s ‘Life wasn’t meant to be easy’ may take on a vivid new meaning if Abbott ever gets the chance to manage a minority government. Authoritarianism and any tendency towards autocratic behaviour would need to be replaced by painstaking negotiation and the accommodation of views alien to his own. Would he be capable of this? Perhaps he would; he has performed much better on the campaign trail than his colleagues, and even he expected, so anything is possible. But he would have to put away the aggressive, pugilistic Tony and become the collaborative, accommodating Tony, willing and happy to accept ideological and political positions he does not favour. It’s a big ask. I suspect most who comment here would hope he never gets the opportunity to show us one way or the other.
What do you think?