Australia’s hung parliament

Neither the Labor Party nor the opposition Liberal-National coalition has enough seats for a majorit

"I put 50 bucks on a hung parliament," laughs John, a civil servant in Canberra. He says he and his friends have spent A$500 (£290) betting on Australia's federal election. "That's what we're doing to compensate for the fact that there are no policies or real politicians in this race." Bored and cynical, John is also young, politically engaged and living in his country's seat of government. Compared to most of his countrymen, he has a fervent interest in the election.

Greg - a Sydney-based voter now working in politics - remembers election night in 2007 as "this massive party: the place went crazy". But the optimism that greeted Kevin Rudd's Labor government seems a distant memory. Even before voting began on 21 August, Greg was predicting a subdued election night: "If Labor wins, people will be happy that we've kept [Tony] Abbott out. But there's no great enthusiasm for the government."

Rudd's successor as prime minister, Julia Gillard, seemed well aware of that: her campaign centred around warning voters that her primary opposition, the Liberal-National coalition, was "a risk to your family's future". However, when Abbott, the coalition's leader, appeared on Q&A - Australia's equivalent of Question Time - he told viewers to support him because he wasn't Rudd.

It can be hard to measure voter apathy in a country where voting is compulsory, but it is telling that even the newspapers were calling this election "boring". Perhaps the hung parliament - Australia's first in 70 years - was to be expected. In the House of Representatives, the Greens now have one seat and there is a handful of independents. That neither of the big contenders could achieve a majority indicates how weak their campaigns were.

Both Labor and the coalition recently changed leaders: in December, the coalition voted for Abbott in protest at his predecessor Malcolm Turnbull's support for Rudd's emissions trading scheme (ETS). Rudd was deposed in June in a coup that took just hours, shaking Labor's base. "You've got an untested prime minister versus an untested aspirant," says Peter Browne, a research fellow at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne. Gillard is better known overseas but, at home, "Mad Monk" Abbott - fitness fanatic, devout Catholic and climate-change sceptic - has the longer political pedigree, if not always greater respect. "A lot of people are intrigued by him," Browne argues, "but you wouldn't want to give him the keys to the car."

Both parties campaigned on "corner-shop politics" - a riposte to Labor's ambitious 2007 policy platform. The Rudd administration's ideas about climate change and indigenous welfare were good, but "they buggered up the implementation", Browne says. "Suddenly, people thought, 'Oh, big ideas, let's give them a miss.' So there have been lots of little policies aimed at special-interest groups."

Rudd's popularity was always quite super­ficial. According to Brian Costar, professor of parliamentary democracy at Swinburne, he lacked support within his party even early on. "Rudd's office was so dysfunctional that cabinet secretaries would wait until he went overseas and then they'd rush down to Julia Gillard's office - the acting prime minister - to get them actioned." Rudd's relationship with Bob Brown, the leader of the Greens, was also reportedly poor. "Until [Rudd] was removed, he hadn't even had a conversation with Brown since April last year."

Green giant

On polling day, however, as voters queued in the warmth of what passes for late winter in Sydney, such enthusiasm as there was seemed focused on the Greens. Like Labor and the coalition, the Greens had volunteers handing out "How to vote" flyers: Australian voters must rank all candidates in order of preference, so the parties are keen to make the most of their supporters' second and third choices. But the Greens also had volunteers clambering around with posters; and the Students' Representative Council was handing out leaflets noting that only the Greens "have consistently opposed the Intervention" - legislation affecting Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, which has been strongly criticised as racist.

In this seat, Sydney Inner City, the Labor incumbent won easily, but almost a quarter of the voters went Green. Across the country, the party gained a swing of 3.7 per cent. Most importantly, the jump in the upper-house vote has left the Greens holding the balance of power there, which should, at the very least, force Labor and the coalition to question their ideas. Gillard needs the Greens if Labor is to have any chance of forming the next government. She is seen as one of those who killed the ETS. Nevertheless, Adam Bandt, the sole Green representative, has said his preference is to work with Labor rather than the coalition.

Bandt's support may not be enough for Labor to form a minority government. The independents are yet to pick sides. Three are former National Party MPs unlikely to want to return to the fold, but who say they will stand "shoulder to shoulder". A fourth, the Tasmanian former Green Andrew Wilkie, says he wishes to remain a "true independent". However, local, rural issues are likely to hold sway for all four.

For now, Australia's immediate political future is uncertain. But with both Labor and the coalition divided and lacking ideas, no wonder Australian voters are seeing the Greens as an increasingly good bet.

This article first appeared in the 30 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Face off

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times