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Politics Abhors A Vacuum

So they did it. The Australian electorate slapped down the Gillard Labor Government but refused to embrace Tony Abbott and the Coalition to the extent necessary to propel them into office.

Gillard-AbbottOn current counting, a two-party preference for Labor of 50.68 per cent prevails. A bare majority of 135,792 voters opted for Labor over the Coalition.

Spin it as they are doing furiously this morning, the Liberals have failed to capture the majority they sought. They point to their 43.48 per cent share of the primary vote, compared to Labor’s 38.51 per cent.

But the Liberals don’t point out that most of the swing went to the Greens. The Liberal vote is up a mere 0.64 per cent. In Queensland, the LNP vote is up a piddling 0.43 per cent. The Greens are up 3.64 per cent.

Australia voted yesterday the way Tasmania did six months ago. Just on 50 per cent of the nation cast their number one preference for Labor or the Greens. The centre left domination of Australian politics has been confirmed again.

None of this is to deny that Labor has been given a mighty whack. In NSW, the ALP primary vote slumped by 6.43 per cent. In Queensland, it was 8.87 per cent. Up to 14 seats have fallen in those two states alone.

The anti-ALP mood was unsentimental. Kevin Rudd saw his primary vote fall by 9.11 per cent. Wayne Swan’s fell by 10.43 per cent. Both men survive with their majorities slashed. Only Julia Gillard experienced a swing of 6.61 per cent in her favour in her electorate of Lalor.

The informal vote has jumped to 5.64 per cent, the highest since 1984. It’s dangerous to assume that this is a protest vote but that analysis can wait for another day.

The voters have said they’re not happy with the government. They’re not ready to take on Abbott either but they’re edging closer.

What the electorate has delivered is a new campaign. Julia Gillard has been on the streets of Lalor this morning, taking coffee with her partner. She’s trying to look unfazed and confident. Unlike a lot of the facile media coverage this morning, Gillard at least seems to understand that her next campaign started last night.

If nature abhors a vacuum, so does politics. As it became clear that neither side would win a clear majority in the House of Representatives, the real campaign for government began. The winner will be the side with the clearest head and the smartest strategy.

The Liberal Party’s National Director, Brian Loughnane, appeared on Channel 9 with Laurie Oakes this morning. He was joined by the ALP’s National Secretary, Karl Bitar. Both men talked of what their parties would bring to government. Loughnane emphasised a stable, mature pair of hands. Bitar talked of Labor’s economic plan for the future.

If it sounded like a re-run of the election campaign, it was in part. But it was the first stage of a new campaign, the campaign to win the hearts and minds of Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott, Bob Katter, Adam Bandt and, possibly, Andrew Wilkie.

Think back to the Bush v Gore campaign in the United States in 2000. As the closeness of the Florida result revealed itself on election night, the Republican Party swung into battle mode. An army of lawyers and political operatives descended on Florida with the aim of winning the state at all costs. The Democrats were assailed with protestors at counting stations chanting and demanding “stop the count”. It was hard-ball politics of the most brutal kind. We know how it ended.

That is where Australia is this Sunday. We’re not sure how it’s going to pan out because we don’t know how the seats are finally going to fall in the House of Representatives.

The ALP may yet move to 73 or 74 seats and be able to govern with the support of Bandt and Wilkie. Counting in the seats of Corangamite, Brisbane, Boothby, Lindsay and others will determine this over the next 10 days.

In the meantime, the political game is all about securing the support of the three rural independents: Windsor, Oakeshott and Katter.

Windsor has experience of this situation. He was one of the independents who struck a deal with Nick Greiner to form a minority government in NSW in 1991. Like the Victorian independents who delivered government to Steve Bracks in 1999, a charter of demands was negotiated.

The policy demands of such a charter at the Federal level are wondrous to behold.

Rob Oakeshott’s media interviews during the campaign were punctuated by line dropouts. Broadband might interest him.

Parliamentary reform will be on their minds. An independent Speaker for the House is a real possibility. Chris Uhlmann suggested Kevin Rudd for the job this morning but that’s just silly. Rudd has other priorities. But imagine a House presided over by someone like Tony Windsor.

A Parliamentary Budget Office to oversee fiscal policy? Political reforms to address the cynicism in the electorate might go down a treat.

And then there’s Bandt and Wilkie, one a Green, the other a former Green. What may they want from a minority government? Proportional voting in the lower house? Same sex marriage? An ETS?

These conflicting policy aims may torpedo any agreement amongst the independents.

But South Australian Premier Mike Rann has pointed the way in his postings on Twitter this morning. In 2002, in order to form a minority government, Rann offered a Cabinet post to the National Party leader and the Speakership to a former Liberal. Another former Liberal turned independent went into the Cabinet. They were given the right to vote against the government, provided they supported confidence motions. The Rann model is a road map for the current situation.

Those commentators talking of another election may be right. This new Parliament is unlikely to last three years, although the last hung Parliament in 1940 went full term. The war may have contributed to that.

But who wants another election? Not the major parties who are exhausted after the one we’ve just had. The campaign money has been spent. Not the Greens and independents who have an unprecedented chance to be major players over the next three years.

And certainly not Gillard. She needs this one final desperate chance to show that she can be a Prime Minister. She has one last chance to show that she has some ideas. She has one last chance to prove the faith of her misty-eyed fan club is justified.

It needs to be remembered, however, that the same political geniuses who led the ALP into this electoral debacle are now the ones handling the public negotiations over minority government. It’s hard to have confidence that they won’t cock this up the same way they threw away the government’s majority.

Bitar, Arbib and Shorten have been speaking out over the last 12 hours about how they saved the government from an even bigger loss of seats if Rudd had remained leader. They claim they rescued the party from a devastating loss during the campaign.

They claim the “vicious” leaking – and they mean by Rudd – derailed the ALP’s campaign in the second week. They claim it was only due to their strategy and Gillard’s campaigning skill that they clawed back the vote.

It’s tripe. It’s self-serving. The fact is, despite her political grit and skill, Gillard was awful. She disappointed and let down hordes of voters who hoped for some policy heft and Labor soul from her. Instead she offered them a small-target strategy and nothing on the big issues that mattered. She nurtured the army of the disillusioned.

Kevin Rudd should not be excused in any of this. The failure of leadership nerve and courage began with him.

The alienated Labor voters and members may end up disappointed again. That’s why this new election campaign is so important. Forget about the past five weeks for a bit. We have truly moved forward now. The real election is upon us.

As for the Liberals, never underestimate their capacity for bastardry. Their reason for being is to govern and keep Labor out. They will pull out every stop over the next fortnight to force Gillard out.

Their campaign has begun with distorted interpretations of yesterday’s vote. Every utterance is directed at de-legitimising Gillard. Abbott’s new found persona as the man of calmness and stability still has the potential to kill her off. He’s already severely wounded her.

It may yet be the making of Gillard. Her much vaunted negotiating skills are needed by the Labor Party now as never before.

But she needs to summon some policy courage beyond the shallowness of her call for everyone to work hard and worship at the altar of the My School website.

The people who run the ALP in Canberra have come close to betraying their supporters. They have one last chance to redeem themselves.

We know they want to win. They like winning.

But do they understand why?

This article first appeared on The Drum.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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