Eulogy for the hung parliament

The last week of June was the last sitting week of Australia’s 43rd parliament and first hung parliament since 1943. It also turned out to be the week in which the Prime Minister who presided over the hung parliament, Julia Gillard, was replaced by her Labor Party colleague and predecessor Kevin Rudd. ABC journalist Chris Uhlmann editorialized on 7:30: “Everyone will remember the hung parliament and few will mourn its passing.” But I will mourn the passing of the hung parliament, and so should you.

Uhlmann’s attitude is typical of the Australian media, business lobbyists, and the conservative Liberal/National Coalition opposition (and probably sections of the Labor Party privately) – in short, Australia’s political elites. They paint the hung parliament as a disaster, a perception which seems to have captured the public imagination. The business lobby in particular has waited three years with their baseball bats for this year’s election, where they expect to get another majority government (preferably Liberal) which they can more easily bend to their will. Please don’t listen to them.

Rudd’s return ends three years in which our Parliament heard voices other than the corporate interests who have controlled it for my entire lifetime. Being in balance of power gave the Greens (in both the House and the Senate) and independent MPs (in the House) the opportunity to negotiate with the Labor government. (Gillard also happened to be Australia’s first female Prime Minister, challenging another aspect of the existing political hierarchy.)

When the elites complained about the Gillard government’s “illegitimacy”, “instability”, “populism”, and “lack of authority/leadership/vision”, they were really complaining that people other than them were getting a say for a change. The fossil fuel lobby has succeeded in capturing both of Australia’s major political parties and thereby virtually controlling Australia’s political system, keeping the status quo on climate change for 25 years. The hung parliament has been their one weak point. The reason why the climate policies that came out of the hung parliament were a hodgepodge was because Labor still wanted to appease the fossil fuel lobby but the Greens were trying to improve its policies to drive meaningful change.

Even some supporters of climate action seem nostalgic for the 42nd parliament, but this is misguided. I’ve been researching the history of Australian climate policy (more on that coming soon), and every single parliament from 1990 to 2010 was even more controlled by the fossil fuel lobby than the current parliament. To give credit where it’s due, in 2000 John Howard introduced a Mandatory Renewable Energy Target, and in 2009 Kevin Rudd expanded it. But only the hung parliament succeeded in legislating a carbon price with emissions targets to be recommended by an independent body. While the results of the hung parliament have in many ways been disappointing, they are still an improvement on what came before.

Another oft-heard complaint about the present political situation is “lack of bipartisanship”. But Australian politics already has a much greater degree of bipartisanship than is commonly recognized, and when the two major parties work together they tend to make things worse, not better. There is bipartisan agreement on promoting fossil fuels (despite some grandstanding from the Nationals on coal seam gas); on a privileged advisory role for business lobbyists; on a general need for deregulation and other neoliberal “economic reforms”; and on the primacy of short-term economic growth and competitiveness. And although you might not hear it from the mainstream media, the major parties combine to vote down almost any motion put forward by the Greens. It’s no accident that the first policy on which Liberal leader Tony Abbott announced a willingness to work with Labor was cutting environmental regulations (or in their words, “green tape”). Where Abbott has chosen to break with bipartisanship, it has had the welcome side-effect of forcing Labor to negotiate with the more reasonable Greens. This might not have happened if, say, Malcolm Turnbull had remained Liberal leader.

There are real reasons for political discontent, but that discontent is being misdirected toward the hung parliament. To the extent that there are problems with the current government and parliament, I think another majority government (whether Labor or Liberal) would make those problems even worse. Because it is not the politicians per se that are the problem; it is corporate control of those politicians. This is entrenched by Australia’s two-party oligarchy, which is easily controlled because business lobby groups need to control only two organizations and they control the country. This effectively restricts the scope of mainstream political debate to relatively progressive and conservative factions or strategies of big business. If both parties in a two-party-dominated system agree on most important matters, it effectively operates like a one-party system.

But hang on, I hear you say, aren’t the Greens unreasonable extremists? An argument could be made that the Greens are in some ways closer to mainstream Australian values than the supposedly mainstream parties. Of course, I know ~80% of Australians vote for a major party, but anecdotally I have often heard them say “I can’t stand either side”. Polls suggest the Australian public are closer to the Greens than the major parties on issues such as renewable energy, coal, coal seam gas, the size of government (in practice though not in principle), trust in corporations, regulation and taxation of corporations, privatization, the war in Afghanistan, same-sex marriage, and (in the case of Labor voters) offshore processing of refugees. This suggests the oligarchy of the two major parties is protected less by their ideology than by familiarity, spin, money, the electoral system, and voter apathy. Anyone who disagrees with their agenda is derided as an irrational “populist”. (I admit this is the weakest part of my argument – opinion polls can generally be interpreted many ways, and others suggest most Australians are climate change deniers, which would put them completely at odds with the Greens on the most important issue.)

Regardless of exactly what the Australian public believes, the more important point is that although the major parties claim to represent the interests of the majority, in reality they tend to represent the interests of a small elite of business lobbyists. In comparison, the Greens tend to advocate for the public interest against vested interests. The most important difference is on climate change: whereas the major parties are obsessed with protecting industries that are destabilizing the global climate, the Greens advocate preventing this. As for the claim that minority government means instability, we shouldn’t want the two-party oligarchy to remain stable, because the two-party system is failing: failing to represent the values and interests of most Australians, failing to stand up to business lobbyists, and failing to mitigate climate change.

In any case, the hung parliament did not cause the unusual sense of political crisis that surrounded it. When Time magazine declared “the protester” as its person of the year for 2011 (referring to the Arab Spring and Occupy movement), Sydney Morning Herald columnist Lenore Taylor shrewdly identified Australia’s 2011 as the “year of the faux protester”. Business groups, previously accustomed to getting their way by insidiously lobbying majority governments behind the scenes, switched tactics when faced with the hung parliament. They ran intensive Astroturf campaigns against policies such as the carbon tax, mining tax, and anti-pokies legislation, assisted by the Liberal Party and Institute of Public Affairs. Unlike the Greens who supposedly controlled the Gillard government, corporate lobbyists are unelected, unaccountable, often faceless, and employed to ruthlessly pursue their self-interest. Their lobbying, of both the behind-the-scenes and Astroturf varieties, is in my opinion far more corrupt than any of the supposedly “extreme demands” made by the crossbenchers, which met with so much outrage. After all, isn’t democratic debate supposed to take place in the Parliament, not in back rooms?

After a three-year campaign attempting to destabilize the government that threatened them, and hypocritically exploiting said destabilization to lament “negativity” in Australian politics, the elites finally won back control of the Parliament as it drew to a close at the end of June. You can almost hear the gloating of the political class: gone is the illegitimate Prime Minister who thought it reasonable to consult with the Greens, who have the extremist aim of protecting all of our futures. Now at last Australia has reinstated a Prime Minister inclined to reverse the loony policies achieved by the Greens and get Australia back on track, back on the track laid out for us by the business lobby, back on the track that leads to climate catastrophe. As I have discussed previously, the fossil fuel lobby aims to turn back the clock to Australia’s climate policies as of either 2009 (an ETS with weak targets locked in), 2006 (no carbon price), 2004 (no carbon price and a RET insufficient to drive investment), or 2000 (no carbon price or RET). The prospect of locking in weak targets, which Rudd is apparently considering at present, is especially concerning because it would actively prevent climate action.

But the Prime Minister will need Parliament to pass legislation. With the 43rd parliament having risen for the last time, now it is up to we voters to determine whose interests will be represented by the next parliament. And it is time we realize the major parties do not represent our interests, and stop voting for them. Paradoxical as it may sound, the majority of Australians will be best represented by another minority government, with the Greens in the balance of power. Although another hung parliament is a long shot because the House’s non-proportional electoral system is heavily biased against non-major-party candidates, the Greens have a good chance of maintaining the balance of power in the Senate, providing a check on whichever major party forms government. Admittedly being in balance of power is of little use whenever the two major parties collude to protect the fossil fuel industry, but even so the more seats the Greens have, the better.

The Greens are the only party who can fix Australian politics, because only they seek to break the fossil fuel lobby’s undemocratic and disastrous stranglehold on government.

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