16 August, 2013

Absolute power

After three years of saying ‘Let the people decide,’ (ignoring the fact that the people did decide in 2010 only it was a decision that he didn’t like) Tony Abbott seems to have amended his position to ‘Let the people decide, so long as it’s a decision we approve of.’  This appears to be his strategy in deciding to preference the Greens last, behind Labor on LNP how-to-vote cards. 

Of course, it’s the Liberal party’s prerogative to distribute their preferences however they see fit and it doesn’t mean that anyone who votes Liberal first will distribute their own preferences according to how the card advises.  It’s likely to have the most impact from people who vote above the line in the senate. 

However, dressing this tactic up as some kind of righteous stand is rather disturbing.  Naturally, Abbott and the Liberals want a clear majority. Every party does. Everyone in politics wishes to be able to enact their agenda unhindered by boring stuff like having to convince a majority of the people’s representatives that it’s a good idea, but Abbott’s insistence that an outright majority is the only workable outcome suggests that we should perhaps add ‘democracy’ to the list of things that Tony Abbott doesn’t quite get.

Abbott insists that the hung parliament has been a failed experiment – an assertion that is clearly incorrect if only because of the fact that it went full term despite the opposition’s insistence that it wouldn’t last and all their efforts to ensure it wouldn’t.  The hung parliament may have been a novelty to a pair of parties that have both become used to either controlling the house of representatives or not, but it is neither an experiment, nor a failure.  It’s the way things are supposed to work.

Last week, Tony Abbott addressed voter concern that’s he’s a risky prospect by saying that in a Westminster system, you elect a team, not a leader.  It was an astonishingly hypocritical comment after his lines about voting for Kevin and getting Julia, then voting for Julia and getting Kevin.  It was also completely wrong.  We don’t elect leaders. We don’t elect parties. We don’t elect governments. We elect representatives. That is all.

I have written about this before, but it’s worth repeating: The parliament IS the government. In this parliament that has just been dissolved, there was no constitutional reason why we couldn’t have had Julia Gillard as prime minister, Tony Abbott as deputy prime minister, Kevin Rudd as leader of the opposition and Bob Katter as speaker. There is nothing to stop the parliament appointing the best MP for each position except partisan intransigence.  The notion of separating government and opposition is mere convention, but it’s a comfortable and familiar convention.

It’s a convention that voters are familiar and comfortable with as well, which is why I am not going to pretend that who will form government and who will be prime minister are not usually higher considerations for most voters than who will make the best local representative.  I am in the situation myself of having a local member who is a good person and a decent representative but standing for a party that I absolutely do not want in government and therefore, I am going to have to put him last. 

Such strategic voting is the reason behind the Liberals’ decision to put the Greens below even their arch-rival, the ALP, only they’re trying for it en masse. They have decided that government should be a binary choice between one mob and the other mob, even if it means possibly helping the other mob over the line in a couple of marginal seats and senate places. In Abbott’s mind, the party that forms government should be able to do exactly as it pleases. Well alright, as mentioned, every party wants that deep down. Both major parties are guilty of trying to stack the parliament with generic McCandidates who are there to represent the party in the electorate, not the electorate in the government.

It comes back to the perennial dilemma of representative democracy. Do we vote for those who we trust to represent us best, or do we vote for those whose agenda we most approve of and authorise them to enact it? Is this a participatory democracy, or merely an elective dictatorship?

Although it may be the most honest thing he has said on the campaign, with his demand of all or nothing, Tony Abbott has made it clear that he errs on the side of the latter on both questions. This would not be quite so worrying if he had presented any kind of detail on his very broad policies. If he is genuine about not being prepared to negotiate his agenda through another hung parliament, should there be one, then one has to wonder why not. It goes against the spirit of parliamentary democracy. It’s one thing to put all your policies on the table and say, “These are our plans, take it or leave it!” It’s quite another to say, “Just give us carte blanch or else and we’ll work out the details later.” That should worry people, no matter who it is.

PS: I realise that this is the third post in a row criticising Abbott. Lest anyone think I am showing partisanship, if Kevin Rudd or indeed anyone not in the Liberal party says anything equally shocking, then you can rest assured I’ll have something to say about it. 
Frankly, the election campaign so far has been The Tony-Abbott-Said-WHAT?? Show. Whether this plays better for the Coalition or Labor or the minors is yet to be seen.

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