The carnival is over, the independents have backed Labor and Julia Gillard is Australia’s Prime Minister – but will we choose Government or democracy?
One of the most instructive periods in Australian political history is over and the questions that remain concern its lasting effects, because it’s not just about what happens during this parliament, it’s about all of the parliaments that follow.
For the first time in living memory (well, more or less, there are people around who probably remember the 1940s), and for a mere 17 days, powerbrokers in the major political parties did not run the show or call the tune, or do whatever they do that allows them to choreograph political life in this country.
And nobody could think that they enjoyed it. They didn’t. Not one bit. And they’ll be desperate to reassert themselves in the next parliament and every one that follows.
The reforms to parliament that will be introduced are only a small part of the story. Parliament with an enhanced role for minor parties and independents and a Question Time with more actual questions and real answers is a better parliament.
The more important thing about this parliament is that it will make it harder to govern. That is, it will be harder for members of our political executive (or Cabinet) to get laws passed. They’ll have to negotiate with other members of the House of Representatives who are not bound by loyalty to one or other of the major parties. And they will have to account to other members of parliament in a way that they’ve never done before.
One result will be that the independents and Greens in the House of Representatives will have to work very hard to be fully part of the policy-making process and to understand the nature of all the bills on which they’ll be voting. They need at least three extra staffers each if they are going to do their jobs properly. (And if Julia Gillard is a real leader she’ll give Bob Katter and Tony Crook extra staffers and invite them to be part of the policy-making process. But that’s another story.)
But the more important effect concerns our choice between government and democracy.
Australians face two paths: we can run, shrieking and remorseful, into the arms of either the Coalition or Labor parties and make sure that one of them gets to control the next parliament. Or we can suck it in, accept that real democratic politics isn’t simple or easy and that we meant all the complaints and criticisms that many of us directed at the major parties.
So what do we need to do if we choose democracy over government?
First, we have to understand what Rob Oakeshott meant when he said that it was a judgement call and a points decision, and get on with it. They made a call, they don’t know they’re right, but they think they are and used a meaningful process to get to the point at which they could make a decision. The milk’s been spilt. There can be no crying. Play on!
Second, we have to ignore people who want to talk about uncertainty and instability because that’s what you get when you have a democracy. People have to talk and listen and be convinced, and that’s never a quick, decisive or simple process. We have to accept that we won’t know whether a policy will be introduced until it’s gone through an extensive consultation process, the members of the House of Representatives have supported it and their decision’s been confirmed by the Senate.
This is going to be the hardest thing to do. In many ways, Australians have just witnessed a, generally, unintentional collusion between the major parties and journalists to induce a hysterical desire on our part to return to the safe and simple old days of major party politics. The days when we knew what the result would be before any members of parliament took their seats because the major parties had it all stitched up.
Third, we have to tell any polling company that calls that we won’t vote for the Labor Party in the next election. This might have more force if you tell them that you’ll vote Liberal or National. But that’s up to you.