On with the show: The (new) gang’s all here

AUSTRALIAN POLITICS

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Australia’s voters have delivered a Labor government. Some will see this as a sea change, a fundamental shift in the electoral demographics. Others may cautiously view the result of Saturday’s election – when it finally becomes clear in all its detail, which is unlikely to be this week – as simply another of the cyclical events that periodically sweep away the stagnant tide pools of incumbency. The cynical, and they are many, and those who study history, who are considerably fewer, may prefer the latter analysis.

To do so would be churlish. It was clear early in the count on Saturday night (May 21) that the coalition had lost office. Scott Morrison was quick to concede and to do the usual fall-on-my-sword thing. He was more gracious in defeat than was generally his custom in power, in bulldozer mode, and that is to his credit. Anthony Albanese promised to govern for all Australians – that promissory note is a standard clause in victory speeches – and is sincere in this. He has little option anyway. The new parliamentary landscape will ensure he keeps to that path in the new legislature, whether Labor achieves a majority in the House of Representatives or not. The betting is that it will. There were 12 seats still in doubt on Monday and, on the counting, the ALP is practically certain to end up the winner in four more at least, as it inches ahead in the continuing counts towards the magic number 76 and potentially 78.

An interim ministry has been sworn in. This was necessary because Australia’s prime minister and foreign minister are required at the Quad meeting in Tokyo, where Albanese and Senator Penny Wong headed yesterday. Several sets of eyes will be fixed on them, not only those of the U.S., Japan, and India, keen to detect any shifts (or signs of same) in the new administration’s foreign and defence policies. There won’t be radical change, but in high diplomacy, nuance is everything.

On the domestic front, Labor’s embarrassing own goal in the seat of Fowler – where, as widely expected, party luminary Kristina Keneally’s parachute failed to open, handing the seat deservedly to the popular independent candidate – may create some further intra-party distemper. Fractious factionalism is never a good idea.

That’s something the defeated Liberals would be sensible to consider as they clear out their desks and set out on their path through the thickets of opposition. It’s clear that climate and corruption denial angered enough voters to significantly reduce the party’s primary vote. Liberal moderates were the victims of these political miscalculations. Suggestions from the Murdoch empire and others that the party should now break sharply to the right and occupy the political elevation they feel is there for the taking are misguided. The battleground in Australian politics remains the centre, not the fringe. It may be difficult to carve out a definably different message in the middle of that melee, but that’s the game.

The rise of an independent bloc has now been cemented by the electorate. The increased Greens presence cannot be ignored, nor should it. It may be too early to declare that Australian politics is now a whole new ball game (certainly the Greens need to curb their enthusiasms in that regard) but it’s plain that a significant change has been made.

It’s the Liberals who in this instance have lost the plot, or at least their compass. That’s not a good thing. They’ll have a new leader, almost certainly Queenslander Peter Dutton. He will have an opportunity, if he chooses to take it, to show that he has a broader vision and capacity than he has demonstrated in his ministerial portfolios in the past two governments. 

Some moderate Liberals suggest he’s not as conservative as he looks, and he’s certainly less religious than his former boss. We’ll see if that proves correct. Whoever is Liberal leader will have to deal with the knuckle dusters on the party’s right. The party’s place in the Australian political landscape remains economic rationalism and social liberalism. Denialism is neither a feasible policy nor an electable proposition. Clive Palmer’s wasted millions in this election campaign demonstrate that in spades. But opposition leadership is a difficult place, especially for freshman occupants of that position after an election loss. It is character forming, among many other things.We now have a breathing space while planetary and political alignments adjust. That’s welcome after a six-week campaign of basic shadow boxing and the frankly dysfunctional year that preceded it. Any new government deserves time to settle itself in. We know what Labor’s policy parameters are, even if we are awaiting the detailed plan. Even the ALP’s most intractable opponents in politics and the media know that instant economic and political action isn’t on the radar. It’s time for a chill pill.

This commentary is also on the seniors’ website Startsat60.com, where my column on politics and current affairs appears fortnightly.

One response to “On with the show: The (new) gang’s all here”

  1. Suspect the key to Richard’s interesting piece is in the out line: The “chill pill” reference. It’s true that intractable opponents of the ALP (and I’m one of them) know it’s absolutely not advisable to embark on massive new spending immediately given the state of the national and global economies, and their outlook. Whether the True Believers “know” this is another matter entirely. There is, clearly, massive new spending in the ALP platform (as usual) and the Government will be under immense pressure from within, and from the new bleachers, to get on with it. Many will loudly resist even the sniff of delay, from the Left of the Labor Caucus (big) to the Greens – and the Teals. What do we want and when do we want it was a key cry in the campaign and the long lead-up. The first few months is therefore very likely to set the tone for the term. If Albo resists, as he should, parliamentary sessions will very quickly look and sound like sittings of the Paris Commune, and chaos could come quite quickly. If he proceeds the full impact of the economic chaos that seems virtually inevitable under either scenario would come sooner, and way ahead of the next election. If Albo delivers less than a virtuoso performance on either the economic or social fronts he could be in deep trouble by, at the latest, mid-term. I sincerely wish him well, for the country’s sake, but the track record of Labor outside the Hawke/Keating era suggests this experiment could end up as just another cyclical mess in the Gough/Kevin/Julia mould. Agree with Richard that this election does indeed signal a fundamental shift in Australian politics on the demographic measure. The Toorak Tractor has given way to the Toorak Tesla, probably permanently, as the new money bourgeoisie takes the place of the old. The Libs will have to focus much more on the mob in the suburbs, the regions and the bush for their way back. They are once again the forgotten people, but they know bread is ultimately way more important than circuses.

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