Saturday’s election result was not an aberration. It was part of a trend of a declining vote for the two major parties that began in 2010 and is not likely to stop. Indeed, the result was fairly predictable.
Labor may scrape over the majority line this time with 50 per cent of the seats from 30 per cent of the vote, but the days of big, workable majorities for either party are gone and cooperation with the Independents and minors for more centrist policies will be the new political norm.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has said as much. And as a former manager of government business, he knows the difficulty of minority or tiny-majority government and the need to collaborate with others.
There are several reasons for this being the new normal.
The first is that the Liberal Party has lost most of the very people who could bring it back to being the “broad church” that could command enough vote to ever get a big, workable majority again.
The Liberal Party also has a stinker of a problem with its “junior”, dog-wagging Coalition partner, the Nationals. The Nationals retained all their seats on Saturday and now have more than 40 per cent of the Coalition’s lower-house seats and about 40 per cent of the joint party room (which also includes senators).
Further, conservative Queensland members of both Coalition parties have an even greater slice of the joint party room than before the election.
With those numbers, it is difficult to see the Coalition ever dragging its policies to the acceptable centre. Remember, it was the Nationals and Queenslanders generally in the joint party room that blocked both marriage equality and an emissions target for years.
And that is a combined with the self-righteous unbudging conviction of many Nationals demonstrated by Queensland Senator Matt Canavan and Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce going back on the Coalition’s 2050 climate pledge during the campaign.
Long-time moderate Liberal South Australian Senator Simon Birmingham hinted that it might be a good idea for the Liberals not to be in Coalition with the Nationals while in Opposition.
It would mean that in Queensland the single LNP would have to split into its constituent parts: with the five MPs and three senators who attend the Nationals party room in Canberra going their own way. How the joint state party functioned would be anyone’s guess.
The Coalition finds itself facing the “feedback loop” phenomenon – ironically a bit like climate change. As Prime Ministers John Howard, Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison successively took the party to the right they spawned mechanisms that took it further to the right. They gave moderates in the party a hard time, so many left. They allowed the Nationals to dictate too much of the agenda. Their actions resulted in a right-wing echo chamber in the media, particularly the Murdoch press and Sky News.
Incidentally, Saturday’s result has put a stake through the heart of the Murdoch’s press’s relevance and influence.
Another part of the “feedback loop” phenomenon that will plague the Liberal Party comes from the loss of well-heeled inner-city electorates. These are the places that hitherto generated the most donations, enthusiasm and volunteer work for the Liberal Party. That money, time and work have now disappeared, along with the seats, to the teals.
Only if the Liberals cut off the dog-wagging Nationals will they have any hope of rebuilding a party that is acceptable to the centre, where they would need to be to get back to (most likely minority) government.
But it is difficult to see that happening because – again, because the very people who might welcome it and help engineer it are no longer in the Parliament.
And even if it did happen, it is too late.
This brings us to the second reason why Saturday’s result of no majority, or no big workable majority, is the new norm.
This is the fact that history shows us that once an Independent or minor-party candidate gets a seat, they tend to keep it (unless they retire).
Tasmanian Independent Andrew Wilkie has now won five elections, often getting 70 per cent of the vote. Bob Katter became an Independent 21 years ago and was re-elected again on Saturday.
The Greens’ Adam Bandt has now won four elections. So, the vote-drift to Independents and minors is coming from Labor as well. Both Wilkie’s and Bandt’s seats used to be safe Labor, as were the new Green seats in Brisbane.
Don’t expect the teal Independents and newly elected Greens to disappear next election. Expect them to get re-elected, and when each retires expect another Independent to replace her or him, as we saw with Independent Helen Haines taking over from Independent Cathy McGowan in the Victorian seat of Indi.
So, it would be in Labor’s and Albanese’s interest to engage and collaborate with the teals, Greens and Independents.
They are on the same songsheet on an integrity commission, but may differ on some elements of integrity, particularly government appointments, government advertising, marginal-seat pork-barrelling, corporate donors, private-sector out-sourcing, and truth in electoral advertising.
Major parties in government very much enjoy making appointments, advertising themselves with government money, buying votes, getting money from and giving public money to corporations. and being economical with the truth when it comes to campaigning.
That said, there are good grounds for optimism. Albanese has said he wants to change the way politics is done.
More importantly, Albanese as Minister for Infrastructure in the Rudd Government set up Infrastructure Australia to prevent roads to nowhere in marginal electorates and to ensure that government money on infrastructure was well-spent and properly prioritised.
As things now stand, teals, Greens, Independents and Labor together have majorities in both the House and the Senate and could legislate to expose and thus end these corrupting practices. Once that happened it would be very difficult to unwind.
This election looks like producing a better new normal in Australian politics.
The article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 24 May 2022.