We all went to the polling booths and cast our votes. The outcome has been a clear and comfortable majority for the Coalition. Our local school polling place was not crowded with how-to-vote salesmen — the only ones there came from Labor, Liberal, Greens and the Voluntary Euthanasia Party. The sausage-sizzlers did well, and we the voters chatted happily to one another.
In the evening we watched the ABC from 6 pm until almost the end, with a brief excursion into the Rugby Union where, once again, Australia was not doing well at all. The likely outcome in the bigger game was clear from the time the first votes came in, but the size of the victory diminished as the night proceeded. I’ve been a serious student of these major acts of a political democracy since 1961, and my summary take on the election of 2013 takes the form of the following ‘lessons’.
1. In terms of first-preference votes, this is the worst ever outcome for the ALP since the 1930s (some say in a hundred years — but the depression period is more relevant to us). Labor won a third of the vote, that’s all. Two Australians in every three voted first for some other party or person.
2. Despite what senior Labor figures and some commentators said on the night, the accession of Kevin Rudd to the leadership two months ago did very little to improve his party’s performance on election day. Had Julia Gillard led the party to defeat it would have been of the same magnitude, with, arguably, better outcomes in Victoria and worse in Queensland. She would have had strong and outspoken support from notable Australian women.
3. A lot of Labor voters gave their first preferences to a centre or right-wing minor party or an Independent, but then gave their second preferences to Labor. It was this that saved the party from a rout in seats as well as votes.
4. Here and there deviations occurred from the general swing to the Coalition, caused for the most part by local factors, things to do with the candidates, or the strong and sustained campaigning of the local member. In one or two seats there was actually a small swing to Labor.
5. Kevin Rudd’s great weakness was shown again in a long, self-indulgent and triumphalist (but see #1 and #2 above) concession speech that lasted nearly twenty-five minutes. I was reminded of ‘Does that guy ever shut up?’ I had a private bet that he would declare that he accepted responsibility for the defeat and would vacate the leadership. I won (I was betting only with another part of me). I agree with Stephen Smith who said that he should also leave parliament. The ALP cannot rebuild properly while he is part of its parliamentary party.
6. The Greens lost a substantial part of their vote. Labor voters disaffected with their party did not go there. Adam Bandt’s win in Melbourne seems to be due to his enthusiastic young following in an electorate with a large number of young people, and some steady building of his support base over the last three years.
7. Very little was said about the Senate on election night, but there is no prospect of a Coalition victory there. There is, nonetheless, some prospect that the Senate will not have a Labor+Greens blockage there when the new Senators take up their seats next year. The Abbott Government will have to negotiate its legislation through a Senate where it is in a minority. But that has been true for nearly thirty years, and Mr Abbott has had plenty of experience of it.
8. Stephen Smith was sanguine about the prospects for Labor in three years’ time, though he later conceded that Mr Abbott was in a strong position, even economically. Mr Smith clearly thought that the rebuilding could occur quickly, after the right leader was chosen. Like so many others who spoke from the Labor side, he kept saying that ‘disunity is death’, as though that was all of it. I am not so sure. Yes, Mr Rudd has to find something else to do, but Labor has a big task. Look at the number of single-issue groups we have. Look at the number of parties and groups that put up candidates for the Senate. As I heard him, and Kate Ellis, too, Labor sees itself still as a kind of mother, looking after all these demanding children.
I think that’s where it got into trouble — that, and an understandable interest, on the part of well-educated Labor parliamentarians in the somewhat intellectual interests of middle-class Labor supporters. Labor needs to think, not in visionary terms, but in practical terms: what is our national government really for? If you’re in charge of it, what should be your priorities? Why them? Talk about Chifley’s ‘light on the hill’ no more than once every two years.
I don’t think our government is there to solve everyone’s problems. Governments can’t do it, anyway. They can facilitate, provide infrastructure that no one can provide on his or her own, set up safety nets, encourage certain kinds of behaviour, and so on. But they do not create jobs, as I said the other day, and they are not there to make us happy. I don’t think that ‘true believers’ really understand that ultimately all of us have to shape ourselves, and learn resilience, responsibility and patience.
Nor are governments here to solve the world’s problems. Julie Bishop’s sane and sensible statement on election night about Syria was the first time I came to the view that there might be something to her as a politician. Maybe the Abbott Government can provide some insights to Labor about what an Australian government is for. It surely needs them.