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The new order

It seems, then, that we have a government. What to make of the result?

Andrew Robb recently wailed that a Labor-Green coalition would install ‘the most left wing government in Australia’s history’. Now, of course, that’s not, like, actually true or anything, but the rhetoric does highlight how remarkable this outcome actually is.

Remember, a year or so ago, Ruddism was in full bloom, with Labor presiding – just as Kevin07 had promised – over a tremendously socially and economically conservative administration. What’s more, it was cocky in its conservatism. Against critics on the Left, Rudd could point out that he’d campaigned as Labor’s most right-wing leader and had defeated John Howard on that basis. Whether that’s an accurate understanding of the 2007 election is a different question but the point is that Rudd had a more-or-less coherent story to tell about his government’s conservatism.

Gillard can not make the same claim. We have a Labor government but, as Rob Oakeshott plonkingly pointed out, it can’t claim a mandate for anything much at all. And nor, of course, can the Tories.

This election thus forces an opening in the public sphere, creating more room for progressive ideas. The Greens, for instance, have emerged with far more programmatic coherence than either Labor or Liberal, especially since both Gillard or Abbott have been diluted by their already asinine campaigns with weeks of undignified horsetrading. The promised debate about Afghanistan is one example of how issues previously quarantined from the mainstream will get a public hearing.

That being said, we shouldn’t lose our bearings. All the talk about ‘new paradigms’ is utter nonsense. There’s nothing democratic or progressive in braying calls for civility and unity and consensus. Actually, democracy depends on the contestation of ideas – if that dismal election campaign proved anything, it’s that we need more political conflict (real debates, real arguments, etc) rather than less.

Likewise, the rural independents are not Philosopher Kings, somehow perched above the political fray. Their prominence doesn’t represent anything much else other than the specific vagaries of the electoral result, and the statesmanlike airs they’ve been giving themselves will not last very long.

What happens now? Obviously, expect to see a ferocious campaign from Murdoch’s flying monkeys. The Op Ed pieces are already being written, explaining how we’re all a hop, step and jump away from the gulags that Adam Bandt’s constructing from his red base of Melbourne.

Whatev, as the kids say.

What’s more important is that it’s going to be very difficult for a Gillard minority government to impose the kind of neoliberal policies that are the default setting of Labor in government. One of the positive aspects of the Independents’ showboating is that they will hesitate to support unpopular policies. That means that any austerity measures Gillard has in the pipeline will be very difficult to pass – or, at least, will only get through parliament after an agonising debate.

In other words, the prospects for grassroots campaigning actually look quite good.

Of course, nothing is assured. Who knows how long this strange parliamentary interregnum will continue? But while it lasts, it does provide a perhaps unexpected opportunity for the Left.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Jeff Sparrow is the former editor of Overland. He is the co-author (with Jill Sparrow) of Radical Melbourne: A Secret History and Radical Melbourne 2: The Enemy Within, the editor (with Antony Loewenstein) of Left Turn: Essays for the New Left and the author of Communism: a love story, Killing: Misadventures in violence, and Money Shot: A Journey into Censorship and Porn.  On Twitter, he's @Jeff_Sparrow.

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  1. Given the difficult bind this puts the Greens in, it’ll be interesting to see what the grassroots activists in the Greens do and how the divisions between the activists and parliamentarians start to take shape (and if they’re detectable outside caucuses).

    I think what we’re going to see is a contest of wills: the Independents’ idea of ‘stable government’ vs government’s own policy agenda. Regardless of what happens, there is no way the Greens, Wilkie or the other Independents will get everything they want. So what are they willing to compromise on?

  2. Thanks Jeff. The challenge for the Greens is going to lie in managing their success. They will need to demonstrate competency and accountability and I believe they will relish the opportunity to do so.

    I expect to see a relatively quiet year ahead as Labour keeps its head down and consolidates power as best it can until the new Senate sits in July next year. I also expect a lot of planning to happen in the meantime in anticipation of a more accommodating Senate in which to introduce contentious legislation (e.g. ETRS or similar)

    Meanwhile, the Coalition will continue with its reductionist negativity that has proved so successful in the election campaign, ably assisted by News Ltd and a revived anti-mining tax campaign. The Greens will be accused of rooning everything good known to man and woman.

    I doubt very much that the broad Left will prove any more effective in demonstrating its relevance than it has over the past two years. If you can’t make your argument heard during a financial collapse, what chance is there of being heard now? And even if the Left is heard, what does it have to say, really? I know that’s harsh but as far as the Australian public are concerned the Left is the Greens. If the broad Left does have something valuable to contribute, and I believe it does, then now is the time to get its act together and do it. Unlikely, in my view, notwithstanding the current efforts of a few hardy souls.

  3. I don’t think political destabilisation will be restricted to ‘the right’. I watched the entire Wind-shott presser and Q&Q session yesterday and was dismayed at the line of questioning from all concerned. The unedifying manner in which each and every one seemed to be vying for that ultimate ‘gotcha’ soundbite was galling. Even journalists I had a great deal of respect for – try reading Peter Hartcher’s online piece in SMH without cringing or wincing. Its all about ‘teh narrative’.

  4. How about the hostility surrounding the Noel Pearson questions? The journo (I can’t recall who it was) sounded personally affronted that Windsor didn’t consider Pearson the sole voice of Aboriginal Australia.

    Weird how the presser descended into a fray about depriving the voting public of a democracy. Media, remember: the people already voted. They voted not to be subject to the two major parties.

    • Sorry, that was very cryptic, wasn’t it? Guess I just meant that it seemed to contain, for me, very little analysis, very far after electoral events.

      There’s no sense of media accountability, no acknowledgement of the Greens and their import and no sense of the bigger political picture, IMHO.

      I already had a sense of everything Keane writes just from following events as they unfolded yesterday. So what is he saying?

  5. For a US perspective on the kind of tactics to be expected from the Coalition and assorted allies in coming months see this interview with Joe Bageant whose most recent book is published locally by that little gem of a house, Scribe.
    http://www.abc.net.au/rn/latenightlive/stories/2010/3005204.htm

    Bageant talks about the Tea Party’s capacity to fuel anger through media alliances/campaigns and convert it to attacks on the legislature. This question of ill-informed, misdirected anger needs to be addressed locally. It is, in fact, a symptom of latent fascism; a yearning for a single authority that brooks no opposition.

    As the Possum blog cited earlier suggests, it is their way or no way. We are currently on the brink of an organised escalation of hostility towards genuine democracy. The Coalition will run a line, founded on blatant propaganda derived from narrow readings of the election statistics, that the Gillard government is illegitimate. It will be interesting to see how Labour, the Greens and Independents counter this when the media is generally hostile to the minority government at this stage.

  6. The problem, IMO, is that in a very depoliticised environment the intuitive response to genuine problems can offer make the situation worse. That’s what I was trying to get at in the post. Like, you can see why there’s this sense that politicians shouldn’t squabble, and parliament should be nicer, and we need a new paradigm, and so on and so forth. The diagnosis is spot on — there is something broken about the public sphere. But the remedy — the trust in crackpot independents, the talk about unity governments and the breakdown of the part system — is only going to make the disease worse. It’s a different facet of what Boris is talking about above. Without a clear direction on the Left, we’re likely to see all manner of weird and wonderful phenomenon developing.

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