Protest votes, mandates, and entitlement

Last night I watched the ABC TV coverage of the Western Australian re-election count.

It was an interesting result. With 68.7% of the vote counted, the governing Liberal/National Coalition won 36.8% (a swing of -7.5%), Labor 21.8% (-4.8%), Greens 15.9% (+6.4%), Palmer United 12.5% (+7.5%), and others 13.0% (-1.6%). In other words, there were significant swings against both major parties, strong swings toward the second-largest parties on the left and right, and a slightly reduced vote for micro-parties. With a vote almost rivalling Labor’s, the Greens have made an impressive comeback from the nadir last September (when many journalists wrote them off as a dying party and stopped bothering to cover them). The count will continue over the following weeks, but it looks like the Liberals have won 2 seats, Labor 1, Greens 1, and Palmer United 1, with the final seat up for grabs (another likely win for the Liberals).

But my excitement at the Greens’ success was dampened slightly by the arrogant attitude of Liberal Senator Eric Abetz on the ABC panel. Abetz spent the whole night grasping for excuses to dismiss the views of the 63% who chose to vote for someone other than his party. They were “protest votes”, he insisted, with a heavy implication that this somehow renders those votes insignificant. This is a specious and tiresome argument that betrays an entitled attitude.

Furthermore, when you think about it there is a glaring contradiction in the Abbott government’s message. Abetz’s rationalizations are at odds with the government’s argument that they have a “mandate” to implement all of their policies. If you vote for the government, it’s a “mandate”; and all non-government parliamentarians, despite having received a nonzero amount of votes, must acquiesce to the government’s every wish. If you vote for a non-government party, it’s a “protest vote” that should be ignored, and the people your protest has elected must acquiesce to the government’s every wish. Heads they win, tails you lose.

“Protest votes” is a phrase we hear a lot from political elites, but what does it actually mean? It seems to me that if it means anything at all, it’s a pretty vague concept lumping together several different motivations that people may have for voting against a government – and none of those possible motivations should be ignored. For example, one reason to cast a “protest vote” might be that you strongly disagree with one or more of the government’s policies. Another reason might be that you broadly agree with the government but believe it has too much power. You might want your chosen party to win the election, or you might want them to act as a check on the government. You might even be voting (or not voting) as a “fuck you” to political elites and the political system, or voting for a ridiculous candidate as some sort of joke that even they could do a better job than the government. In all cases, the government cannot credibly argue it has a mandate to do whatever it wants.

After all, if people are casting “protest votes”, that means they have some reason to protest against the government. And if the government is not sure what Australians are protesting about, they need look no further than the mounting protests against Liberal policies – the March in March, the National Day of Climate Action, the blockades against fossil fuel mining, the demonstrations against refugee detention, the rallies against education cuts, and the protests against anti-protest laws.

Another argument Abetz made was that the low turnout means the results are biased towards those citizens who are politically active and motivated to turn up and vote. That is probably true, but consider for a moment the implications of this statement. Abetz is implicitly admitting that his own party’s voters are not particularly motivated to vote for them! So much for a clear mandate.

Of course the election result was embarrassing for both major parties, and some Labor commentators joined Abetz in insisting that this by-election was of no real consequence, that nothing was at stake, that it was a stupid game anyway. Both major parties seem to think they’re entitled to be the only two candidates to form government. Democracy means no political party can or should take our votes for granted. The fact that the Greens’ vote approached Labor’s in this election suggests that many Western Australians see the Greens as the real opposition to the Abbott government. If this trend continues and spreads geographically, Liberal and Labor might not be the only two governing parties for much longer.

Abetz isn’t the only member of the government rationalizing the election result. Deputy PM Julie Bishop says the swing against the government is normal for a by-election (implying Bishop advocates ignoring the wishes of voters at all by-elections). And today Abbott asserted: “As far as I am concerned the very strong take-out of this result is that the Australian people yet again have voted to get rid of the carbon tax and get rid of the mining tax.” What election was he watching?

To be fair, the Greens displayed a similarly arrogant attitude in the federal and Tasmanian elections, in both cases dismissing the fact that they had lost a significant proportion of their votes. I’m irritated by entitlement from any political party.

But the Liberals have for years displayed outright contempt for voters. They misled voters about their intentions, coasting into government by delegitimizing Labor and benefiting from extremely biased media coverage, hiding major policies until the final days of the election campaign, and revealing a radical right-wing agenda after the election (indeed they continue to hide major policies behind stacked reviews that are yet to report back). A Liberal Party speechwriter once told me as fact that his boss would be the next Environment Minister. And Tony Abbott complained that minor parties were “trying to invade the pitch and muck up the way the game concludes”.

No matter how the Liberals try to spin it, at the end of the day the people of Western Australia have voted strongly against the Abbott government. Instead of accepting that reality, the Liberals are dismissing the feelings of 63% of Western Australians because they believe only they deserve our votes.

And they accuse the rest of us of being entitled!

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