For the last three weeks I have been in Queensland, and no one much there wanted to talk about the election. When the time came for me to vote, in Townsville a week before the poll, even the how-to-vote people outside were reluctant to talk about the likely outcome. I missed Bill Shorten at a Cathy O’Toole rally in Townsville by a minute or two, but later saw a big sign declaring that ‘Only Bill Shorten and Cathy O’Toole can deliver the Stadium!’ For those unaware of this election-winning slogan, Townsville would like a decent stadium just like Sydney and Melbourne, paid for by the Feds, and that has to be priority number one for a Labor Government. It is of course, not at all clear who will be governing us for the next little while, but I doubt that it will be a majority Labor Government. North Queenslanders can look on the bright side. Malcolm Turnbull apparently promised the Townsville Stadium too — but is the promise void if the Coalition loses Herbert? Those with long memories will wonder anyway whether it was a core promise or not.
For the last week I have been in Kennedy, the seat of Bob Katter, of the Katter Australia Party, its Leader and sole representative, easily returned. Kennedy is a large seat, extending from the Northern Territory border across to just outside the City of Townsville. His signs have been the conspicuous and frequent ones, and supporters were taking them down on Sunday. No doubt on their part. Katter’s argument is with the Nationals, and you can see him as the embodiment of the new state sentiment that nothing much will happen in North Queensland until they govern themselves. He may be in a pivotal position in the new Parliament, too, and in any case he is unlikely to support a Shorten Government.
On election night I relied on the ABC, mostly because I have much respect for Antony Green, their election analyst, and when I turned off the TV set it was because he said there was nothing more that could be said that night, with the two parties tied at about 67 seats each, one Green and four Independents, and a clutch of seats still in doubt. Despite the uncertainty about who will govern, and in what context, there are a few things that can be said at once.
First, the major parties have not done well. Very generally, the two major party groups won only three votes in every four between them, with the Greens gaining 10 per cent, and the ‘Independents’ (everyone else), the remaining 15 per cent. In 1910, the first election with the two parties we know today, they won 95 per cent of the vote between them, and all the seats. The Greens have settled over the past few years at about 10 per cent, and that tells me they are not likely to grow. Their policies, including climate change, are a rag-bag of feel-good ideas that do not have a common thread, let alone intellectual coherence, but appeal to some of those who live in inner-city electorates.
It is odd indeed that a party with this name is focussed on the heart of the cities. In the country, and Australia has a lot of that, the Greens don’t do especially well, and often quite poorly. And the inner city, in every State, is a long way from the Great Barrier Reef. It is a puzzle. I listened to to Richard di Natale, the Greens leader, speaking enthusiastically about climate change and the outcome for his party, and found it hard to see why he felt as he did. The ABC commentators said that he has a long-term plan to win the inner city seats from Labor. Fine. But how come such a party is called the Greens? A further thought: Linda Burney mentioned ‘climate change’ as an issue for her in inner-city Banks (Sydney) but no one else did. It may be that most of the core ‘climate change’ people are now Greens. I’ve mentioned before that those who nominate ‘climate change’ as their most important issue come to about 7 per cent of the electorate, and that is consistent with the Greens’ share of the vote.
Second, the ALP’s share of the vote is one of the historically low scores, though we won’t know it exactly for a few days. We will know more when all the votes are in, and the preferences are counted, but my own assessment is that the drift from Labor went less to the Greens than to the other groups, and the drift from the Coalition did not go to Labor, or to the Greens, but to the other groups as well. It is hard to dispute the view that there is a high degree of dissatisfaction with the major parties, and in our system that means the growth of and support to minor groups that come and go, representing local issues of one kind or another, or State-wide issues, as with Nick Xenophon’s party, which won a seat. Pauline Hanson’s One Nation did well too, in Queensland, getting up to ten per cent of the vote in some seats. I see no sign that either Labor or the Coalition knows what to do about any of these formations.
Third, Malcolm Turnbull is not the vote-winner many thought he would be. I was surprised with some of the Coalition strategy. Where was the obvious attack on union corruption, given the Royal Commission’s report? ‘Jobs and Growth’ didn’t cut it for anyone I talked with. Where was the attack on the lack of fiscal responsibility of the last Labor governments, the basis of our current public debt problem? I came to the conclusion that the Coalition was relying on its substantial buffer of seats in the House, and that nobody wanted to argue difficult themes.
Fourth, though lots of commendations came Bill Shorten’s way on election night, as ‘the real winner in the campaign’, I gave up on him early in the contest, since he seemed to have discovered the fabled Money Tree, and was promising this and that as though money were no problem at all. On election night Kim Carr trumpeted that his Leader had showed what ‘true Labor values’ were. I wouldn’t have thought spending money you didn’t have was a true Labor value. At least the Coalition was more modest in its promises even if its appeal was feeble and tentative. It didn’t seem to me to go on the attack about the absurdity of Labor’s promises, but perhaps I missed that. I wasn’t impressed by the thumping about the Coalition’s intention to privatise Medicare, which was, if not an untruth, then close to it.
Finally, there seems to be a disconnect between the reality of Australia’s situation and the view of the body politic about that situation. If we go on funding everything that people want we will run out of money. Indeed, we have run out of money, and will be told soon by the credit agencies that we are running out of credit too. I may have missed it, but I saw no one attacking Labor because of its endless promises, or from Labor defending its pitch with any kind of reasoned argument. It seemed like an election in Fairyland to me, and I’m long past Peter Pan and Wendy.