So for the moment it’s all over bar the shouting. Two of our country independents have shown their agrarian socialist colours and Ms. Gillard is back in power.
Sure, there’s an obvious element of ‘the lady doth protest too much, methinks’ about Julia Gillard’s claims that her new government has legitimacy. The plain fact is that it has almost no legitimacy. Her party got fewer seats in parliament. Her party got massively fewer first preference votes. Her party may, or may not, even lose in terms of the far less significant second preference votes.
Legitimacy may well be in the eye of the beholder, and in our system it is simply a fact that once every 50 or 100 years this sort of thing will happen, but that fact in no way is the same thing as saying this new Gillard/Green/independent government has legitimacy.
For the same reason it has no mandate either. It’s one of those rare cases where all that succeeds is success. It will either govern well, and gain a weird sort of retrospective legitimacy. Or it will govern badly, and be seen for the illegitimate government that occasionally pops up in any democratic system.
Having said all that, it may be worth taking a quick look at who were the winners and losers in this long, drawn-out affair.
My pick for the biggest winner is Kevin Rudd. If he resigns his seat and leaves Parliament, odds are that the Coalition picks up that seat and we have a general election (or possibly Mr. Abbott is given a chance to govern). You simply could not imagine a better outcome for a former Prime Minister knifed by his own party. Whatever he wants, and I mean whatever, he will get.
Not as good as being PM, that’s true, but as good as any alternative could ever get.
Next on my list of winners, perhaps oddly, is Tony Abbott. This was a historic result for any Opposition leader in Australia. Mr. Abbott took the Coalition from certain, and devastating, defeat to within inches of victory. His stature in the party, and his strategy of actually standing for a conservative platform, is now wholly above question.
Again, not as good as being PM, but the next best thing.
Malcolm Turnbull also comes out of this election well. His economic credentials and thinking are needed by the Coalition, and he managed to tow the party line better than expected. He’ll move back into the shadow Cabinet and start along the road to party redemption.
This is not nearly as good as being PM, but it’s far better than Mr. Turnbull could have expected.
Here’s one last winner in this election. It’s the Governor-General. She has been very lucky indeed in how this has worked out. My view, and it’s only my view, is that she made serious mistakes early in the Rudd government tenure in aligning herself – or rather appearing to align herself – with the party political views of the Rudd Labor government. Just think of paid parental leave or campaigning for a spot on the UN Security Council.
If the independents had broken so that things ended up 75-75, our Governor-General would have had to exercise her reserve powers to put one of the two leaders in first, and that would have been a very uncomfortable situation indeed.
So the Governor-General was a lucky winner in how things eventually played out.
Then there are the losers. Julia Gillard is biggest winner of the losers. If Mr. Abbott got in, she was finished as leader of the Labor Party and her political career was probably over. So she would have given anything to stay in, and maybe did do so. Like paying tax, it’s always better to put off the expected disaster as long as possible.
So she lives to fight another day. But it’s in the context of the worst result by a one-term government in near on a century. It’s in the context of a government that was all talk and spin, with her right there at the centre of things. And it’s in the context of having to keep on-side two wild card independents who will grow desperate if Labor starts sinking in the polls.
Better to be a zombie, than dead, yes. But still not great to be a zombie.
Ken Henry is another loser. For a while now I’ve considered him to be one of the most political civil servants I’ve ever encountered in a Westminster (rather than US) system. He appears to be a wannabe Labor party frontbencher.
Worse, in the world of appearances and apparent bias, there are grounds for strong doubts about Treasury. This election has been very bad for Mr. Henry on that score, even if the outcome could have been worse for him. (And for what it’s worth, were I Mr. Abbott I would come out now and say that I’ve lost confidence in Mr. Henry’s impartiality.)
Next there are the three independents. None come out of this with much credit. Mr. Katter comes out best for the simple reason that he respected the clear preferences of his voters. Had he decided a bit earlier he might have changed the momentum, but at least he went with what the majority of his constituents wanted.
Messrs Oakeshott and Windsor, by contrast, did not. And my early prediction is that both will lose their seats at the next election. Their self-interest dressed as bag-of-wind pontificating got so nauseating by the end, reminiscent a bit of Mr. Valiant-for-Truth from the Pilgrim’s Progress, that it became unbearable. The fact is plain. They sold the views of the majority of those who voted for them down the river.
You can recover from many things in a democracy. But this is a particularly tough one. They better hope the Labor government is as keen to make the electoral districts of these two men the highest growth parts of Australia as these two independents are. Somehow, though, I doubt it.
The Labor Party’s relationship with these two gentlemen strikes me as being more in the ‘slam, bam, thank you mam’ category.
That leaves one last person who came out of this election somewhat in tatters. My nominee is the journalist Peter Van Onselen. On Julia Gillard’s coming to power he predicted she’d take Labor to a win twice as big as before. Then he wrote columns that read as eulogies of praise to Ms. Gillard, in the Malcolm Fraser tradition of the ‘Liberal who knows better than anyone else what Liberals should be doing’, which is to say ‘losing to Labor’.
Then, on election night, he called the election for Labor about 200 seconds after the polls closed. Not bad for quickness, just wrong as it happens. Oh, and just a tiny bit embarrassing.
Mr. Van Onselen did, though, ultimately get one prediction correct. He predicted enough independents would break for Gillard to put her back in. It turned out that if you keep backing Labor on every single question that comes up you will eventually get one of them correct.
Hard to see how he came out of the election with any credibility at all.