Less than a month into the new parliament, there is no shortage of advice for our Prime Minister, with News Ltd warning about the danger of ‘over-reaching to the left’, while former British PM Tony Blair – perhaps nostalgic for his own failed New Labor experiment in the UK – is urging her to stay the ‘centre course’. 

Illustration: Eric Lobbecke, Daily Telegraph.

But the ‘sky is falling’ hysteria about our new patch-work parliament has been a little overplayed:  it mirrors perfectly the divisions across our rainbow nation – between regional and urban Australia, between migrant and non-migrant communities, between open minded and closed minded individuals … and the list goes on. 

We live with these divisions every day – and manage to negotiate our lives around them.  It’s curious that we don’t reckon our politicians should be expected to do the same. 

These divisions also illustrate the divide between a politics based on ideals and one manipulated by party machines.  In this election machine politics has been the big loser, and the clear winners are those far away from the machine fray - the Greens and a handful of independents.  This in itself is truly remarkable given the amount of money spent by the major parties trying to capture people’s votes (as opposed to their imaginations). 

The story of how Labor lost the faith of the country after its landslide win in 2007 has been well documented in a narrative that weaves its way through a series of mishaps, leaks and poor campaign strategy and settles on the abandonment of conviction politics and the embrace of the party machine.

This is a story that borrows heavily from Blair’s New Labor style – one that successively jettisoned the party’s base for a shallow focus group driven approach to politics.  For anyone interested in seeing how this plays out simply tune into a the political satire In the thick of it, which presents a brilliant parody of soul-less politics when a couple of hapless Labor staffers luck upon Mary, a single mother who symbolises middle England.  With great excitement, they do away with focus groups and instead mine the opinions of the invincible Mary in a series of hilarious one on ones.   

For anyone who lives in NSW, this approach is immediately recognizable, and one suspects there was a besieged version of Mary lurking somewhere in Western Sydney during our recent campaign.  The past success of this model in NSW has as much (if not more) to do with the revolving door of Liberal leaders and lack of energetic opposition than it has with the genius of campaign tactics and targeted vote buying announcements. 

Those who are unhappy with this political style in the UK simply abandon the vote:  UK Labor won with a 74% turnout in 1997, by 2001 this had collapsed to 59%.  Meanwhile Australia hit a record informal vote in the federal election and nearly 12% of voters turned to the Greens in what is a troubling message to Labor’s left that many voters think the best way to shift policy towards more progressive outcomes may be to abandon the party altogether.

It’s clear that our new government of coalitions won’t be without its challenges.  Writing recently about right wing coalitions in the US, Paul Waldren has observed that coalitions whose goal is to hold national power and enact a broad agenda will inevitably be unwieldy, noting that few things are harder than getting those from one corner of the progressive movement to sublimate their agenda to someone else’s.  He says conservatives—though they have as many sub-factions as American liberals do—have always seemed better at doing so.

Can it work here?  Big business, conservative and some media interests appear affronted by any suggestion of success, and have highlighted the ‘weakness’ of compromise associated with any coalition.  Still for most of us modern life is all about compromise – whether at work, home or in the community.  And while we might yearn for authoritative control over our lives, we generally just get on with things by making the best of what’s available. 

The big question is: Can our politicians do the same? 

Most commented


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    • Eric says:

      05:48am | 29/09/10

      Heh. If it was Tony Abbott holding on to government by one vote, I think you’d be arguing the opposite case.

    • acotrel says:

      06:32am | 29/09/10

      ‘the amount of money spent by the major parties trying to capture people’s votes (as opposed to their imaginations).  ‘

      We had one major party which believes mining will always be the basis of our wealth.  Another which emulated their lack of vision, and played their negative political games! The ‘best man won’ - US, - the parliament now reflects society’s political opinion, and we have the leverage for change!

    • AdamC says:

      09:28am | 29/09/10

      Jo-Anne, it seems your article is based on a false premise in the alleged failure of New Labour. In what sense do you argue New Labour didn’t succeed as a modern vision of centre-left government? It was certainly successful and popular enough electorally and it isn’t as if the government didn’t achieve anything policy-wise. This must set them apart from the disastrous mob in NSW.

      While I would never have supported Tony Blair politically, he is one of those centre left politicians (like Bob Hawke) who I find myself holding in high esteem.

    • ChrisG says:

      12:51pm | 29/09/10

      So much to disagree with! First define ‘machine’: clearly the Greens have a party organisation, indeed it appears that like all other parties, as they’ve grown factions have developed. The Independents have election organisations, the difference being they are autocratic rather than oligarchic.

      Second, remind me what the combined primary vote was for the ALP, Coalition and Greens: how does this spell the defeat of machine politics?

      Third, this Parliament represents ‘rainbow’ Australia, including its migrant and non-migrant profile? I’ve seen the MPs and Senators for this Parliament, and demographically reflective they ain’t, although I note that the nasty Liberal Party machine delivered the first indigenous MP to the lower House! A couple of anglo-celts from the regions doesn’t create a rainbow.

      Finally, please drop the condescending approach that people committed to the major parties don’t have ideals : as a think-tanker, perhaps you should re-read Weber on ‘Politics as a Vocation’.

    • Shane From Melbourne says:

      03:07pm | 29/09/10

      We the party of the informal vote think all the parties are crap….

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