“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.”
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.