In case you don’t know, Australia doesn’t have a parliament at the moment. We had an election and no one won it. Everybody is talking about what it all means – where the major parties went wrong, how it will resolve. Some people are saying that Australia’s hung parliament demonstrates that our political system is ill, the major parties are out of touch, that we need something new.
Here’s what I reckon: we don’t need a new way of governing – we already have it, but our major political parties and much of the rest of the political machine are reluctant to realize it. Our society isn’t broken, it’s just that our political system has stopped being able to adequately reflect it.
Those who have not yet realized the switch insist on applying the political analysis of the 1980s and 1990s. Examples include Michelle Grattan calling Rob Oakeshott naïve for his “cheeky” suggestion of a grand coalition; when long-time ALP supporters talked about the shame it was that the ALP ran a poor campaign – like a better campaign could have brought that miserable party out of the doldrums; when ALP supporters cast blame on those who voted for the Greens. Those voters did not slip and fall onto their ballot papers – they made a real choice. And don’t think you can call it a ‘protest vote’ as though that doesn’t really count. For shame that traditional ALP supporters have to protest with their vote. They are angry and so disgusted that would even risk an uncertain election outcome just to tell the ALP just how angry they are.
As commentators reflect on the unusual outcome of our election, people talk about ‘the race to middle’ as a way to lament the demise of strong ideals in government. The race to middle that sees the major parties run where the votes are instead of demonstrating strong leadership. But here’s the thing, I don’t think the race to the middle in an inherently bad thing.
First of all, government should indeed reflect the values of the community. Yes, they should also lead the community places where it sometimes doesn’t want to go, just as Abraham Lincoln took Americans towards the end of slavery without waiting for popular support. But a good government cannot do that all the time. It must struggle to strike balance and know when it’s time to push for change and when it’s time to step in line – which is actually an essential part of good leadership. A government cannot always take the Australian people where they don’t want to go. That can be frustrating when we see our nation behaving poorly, such as we have behaved towards asylum seekers. But those values debates aren’t just for government to fix with some ‘leadership’, they are the ongoing struggles we need to have as Australians and as people. Those struggles will never be easy, they will never end and a government can and will only ever do so much. A true test of this is that a government who screams ahead of its people will have the opportunity to govern taken from them at the soonest available opportunity. Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and truly inspiring UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said on being pushed from her UN post by the Bush Administration, “I came into this job not to keep a job, but to do a job.” As much as I desperately await the moment that an Australian politician shows half the courage and morality of Mary Robinson, such methods sadly do not provide stability. And as anyone who knows about the long and slow work of building a strong nation will tell you, frequently changing governments does none of us any good.
Secondly, the middle that the major parties are racing to, maybe it isn’t such an evil place. We are witnessing the rise of the centre as fewer and fewer people associate clearly with a left or a right. But the centre is not just the place for ideologically bereft or apathetic people who haven’t found their end of the spectrum, it is a real and active choice that says what I want is a good government. It is about effective over ineffective, thoughtful over reactionary, doing what is required to make Australia a better country. It is not about historical links to a political ideology.
As the major parties organically move away from there historical roots and closer to the centre, voting somewhere in the middle for the team who seems best for the job seems like a pretty smart move. It occurs to me that what I’m describing is just a regular ‘swinging voter’. But just as the old left-right paradigm has changed, I feel that this is something different. And at the end of the day, applying our methods for understanding the nuances of Australian politics from 20 or even 10 years ago seems pretty foolish at this point.
A new friend of mine recently illustrated the beauty and the power of the centre so well that it makes me feel that I could as comfortably call myself ‘centre’ as I could call myself ‘left’. I knew before I met her that she comes from a politically conservative family and had voted for the Coalition her whole voting life. I liked her a lot as soon as I met her – one week before the election – but decided not to spend too much time talking party politics. A week later we got together again and, after a few drinks, we all began to dissect our voting histories. She confessed to us all that she had indeed voted for the ALP at this election because she made a call about who was going to provide a more effective government. I am sure there were many deep thinking Australians who voted for the Coalition or the Greens or an Independent on similar grounds. This is the heart and power of the centre – it matters less who you vote for than it matters that you gave it some thought.
Thoughts, information, ideas, engagement: that is where the recent election campaign failed us. In order to think deeply, you need access to information, you need to be engaged. But instead, as the major parties raced to middle, we all raced to find something else on TV. (Thank goodness for some astute programming on the ABC that allowed me to poke fun at our miserable political system while still getting to know the people in the business.) People will say that it is an individual’s responsibility to educate themselves about politics, but political parties have got to come to the party. Just as any functional organization knows, you can’t write an Occupational Health and Safety policy then put in on the shelf. When the rate of injuries begins to climb, only the worst managers would argue that the policy was there all along for staff to peruse.
Giving Australians a political environment that they can engage in and think about and care about – that’s real leadership and right now we aren’t getting it from the political establishment.
I was desperate to turn 18 and it wasn’t because I would be able to drive or drink alcohol. I was just so desperate to vote. I had already begun a tradition of setting myself up on the couch with pillows and blankets and popcorn to watch the election and I wanted to participate in all the action. Ten years later, I still can’t drive and I could barely be bothered with the election at all.
In that strange way that we do, I assumed that the election wasn’t really about people like me. People like me are getting by in life just fine, so people like me don’t see elections as being about our own prosperity. People like me are more concerned about the big ideas and aspirations for a better world. People like me find more resonance with that quote about the best indicator of a nation’s humanity being how it treats its most vulnerable. But people like me are in the minority right? Most people are concerned about how interest rates will affect their mortgages…right?
But when I look at those statistics about Generation Y, I fit every average. Straight down the middle. So if I’m average in education, average in work experience, average in marital status, maybe there are more people like me than I realize – and for the record, I’m damn sure we’re not unique to Generation Y.
So maybe the reason why this election saw more informal votes than any other was because we’ve all begun assuming that the election isn’t about us anymore. It’s for someone else and they seem to be ‘working families’ with extensive misinformation about refugees on boats – or so the major parties would have us believe. So instead of voting in an election where your values aren’t represented anywhere; instead of voting to get a good party into power, or even just to keep the worst party out; maybe it was too hard to stomach voting for any of them?
On the Sunday after the election, as the city buzzed with intrigue about our parliamentary ambiguity and the excitement of a Green winning a seat in the lower house, I played a game with my friends over a few glasses of wine: “Would you run for parliament, and if so which party?” We were sitting on Spring St, watching the sun lowering over Parliament House to give it that warm peachy glow. If ever we would answer yes to this question, it would be today – when politics felt exciting and something other than a foregone conclusion felt possible. All three of us, whispering conspiratorially, agreed that maybe we would run. Which party? “Oh….well…independent I suppose. What other real choice is there?”
For many years, politics has been a mug’s game and as long as the political establishment insist on maintaining a status quo that the Australian public is screaming to shake off, politics will continue to attract mugs and Australia will suffer for it.