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August 26th 2010 print

Peter Smith

The Kingmakers

The three members are at one in explaining that Australia has spoken in putting them where they are. Fed up with the partisan party system, Australian electors apparently developed and executed a cunning and deliberate plan right across Australia to pass power to Bob, Rob and Tony.

All for one and one for all

The election focus shifted from Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott as soon as it seemed likely that the parliament would be hung.

While the new Greens member for Melbourne Adam Bandt and the likely new independent member for Denison Andrew Wilkie are getting some of that focus, the bulk has switched to the three rural and regional members all with past National Party affiliations: Bob Katter (Kennnedy), Rob Oakeshott (Lyne) and Tony Windsor (New England). Mr Wilkie is but one and Mr Brandt is already spoken for. He will fall over, as he says, to the so-called ‘progressive’ side. It’s funny how the Greens use that word when their policies would take us back to a ruder state of society when we were all poorer. But I digress.

The three members are at one in explaining that Australia has spoken in putting them where they are. Fed up with the partisan party system, Australian electors apparently developed and executed a cunning and deliberate plan right across Australia to pass power to Bob, Rob and Tony. Now that Australia has spoken, the trio believe that they have a mandate to act and extract concessions from the major parties in return for their support.

The trio envisage negotiating as one, once they have garnered sufficient information to prepare their position. Maybe some miracle will happen and it will all come together but that seems doubtful. Tony thinks the MRRT is close to a good solution, Bob doesn’t like it. Rob likes a carbon tax, Bob doesn’t. Bob wants to undo GATT; Tony and Rob maintain a stoic silence. Rob has touching faith in the Henry Tax Review and the Garnaut Report because they were put together by experts. It is not clear, but it seems doubtful, that Bob would be as impressed. Rob wants everyone to get on with each other and form le grande coalition. Tony and Bob maintain an indulgent silence. The rest of us rational folk are transported to the théâtre de l’absurde. Mind you, Kumbaya aside, they all think that the parliament has to be more consensual, even while themselves having different views on major issues. Why not; it seems to work for China.

It was surely possible, wasn’t it; Tony Abbott might ask despairingly, that the three independents would at least be as sensible as Adam Bandt and express a leaning towards the side of politics that formed their base. What do they think? Do they think that voters in their electorates just took account of their good looks and personality? Near the end of the count the Labor party had received around 20% of the vote in Kennedy, 13% in Lyne and 8% in New England. And the three might support Labor? What mandate would they have for that?

It is true that the three of them dislike the National Party and, for all I know, for good reason. But that is easily solved. All they have to do is ask Karl Bitar and Mark Arbib how people who hate each other can coexist within the same party. Or, ask Gillard how she can contemplate Rudd as a cabinet minister.

The trio want a number of things before deciding their negotiating position. In the circumstances it seems reasonable to ask for reform of parliamentary processes. Everyone believes in that anyway until they get into government. A bit of pork barrelling, disguised as being in the national interest, might take place along the way and that is par for the course. Less should not be expected. The rest is a reminder of how a little power, fuelled by media exposure, can go to your head.

They want the next government to see out its full term. Unfortunately both Gillard and Abbott have agreed to this. A government that cannot get its legislation through has to have the option of calling an election. Often that is the only way to ensure in tight parliaments that some parliamentarians are not vexatiously obstructive. A middle course would have been for Abbott in particular, faced with a Greens Senate, to reserve his right to call a double dissolution election, say, after 12 or 18 months, if a trigger were in place.

They want costings of election promises and meetings with ministers, shadow ministers and departmental heads. Exactly how will any of that take them forward to any material extent? Costings are always contentious. Department heads can’t comment on the merits of the government’s versus the opposition’s policies. Ministers and shadow ministers are going to talk their book. Will all parliamentarians be given this level of information and access to allow them to make up their mind?

If information was all there was to it, we would never have anything to decide. It would all be clear cut. In the end result, the trio have simply to decide whether to support a Labor Greens coalition or a Liberal National coalition. This shouldn’t be rocket science for regional MPs in deeply conservative electorates.

Peter Smith, a frequent Quadrant Online contributor, is the author of Bad Economics