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Issue #1470      1 September 2010

Greens emerge as third major party

Two party system dealt heavy blow

While uncertainty remains over the final composition of the government, there can be no doubting that the two-party system took a hammering in the federal elections. It can also be said that the success of the Greens was not the result of a protest vote, but a conscious choice on the part of many voters based on policy. The Greens with 11.5 percent of the vote only won one seat in the House of Representatives, highlighting the undemocratic nature of the present voting system and the need for substantial electoral reform.

The youth vote and widespread desire for action on climate change played an important part in the increased support for the Greens. For some voters, it marked an historical break with a life-long allegiance to a particular party.

The two major league teams have fought out the finals for decades, each with its own members’ club, supporters, and corporate backers. They played to the same conventions, used the same tactics, and the minor league players posed no threat. The Democrats, One Nation, etc, came and went.

This time, there was a third team in the finals, with a fresh approach, a growing base of members and supporters that most importantly, was not beholden to corporate sponsors. There are now three major players and the third team, the Greens, presents a serious threat to the interests of the backers of the other two teams. There are also some minor players on the field, some uniting to form the Independents team. They must now be taken seriously.

As counting continues the Lower House looks set to have Labor 72 and Coalition 72. There are six other MPs – four independents (three working as a team), one Greens and one unattached National Party. Both Labor and the Coalition are fighting to gain their support. Greens Adam Bandt, who won the seat of Melbourne, has indicated his preference for Labor. The others at the time of going to press remained uncommitted.

Greens team

The Greens are to be congratulated on their excellent campaign, and on their principled approach and progressive platform. They increased their votes by almost 50 percent, to 11.5 percent in the Lower House. Under a more democratic, proportional system of representation they would have had 17 seats, instead of one, in the Lower House. Whereas the Australian Labor Party (ALP) with 38.4 percent of the primary vote (down from 43.39 percent in 2007) won 72 seats – 48 percent of the seats. The ALP owes a number of its seats to the distribution of Greens preferences.

In the Senate, the Greens polled almost 13 percent, and won six out of the 38 seats being contested. They polled more than 1.7 million votes. As from July 2011, when the new Senators take their seats, they will for the first time have representation from every state. They also have three seats from the 2007 elections which are due to come up again in 2014. This brings their total to nine Senators, in theory giving them “the balance of power”. To what extent they can exercise this position and negotiate amendments to legislation from the government will depend very much on the type of government that is formed and the policies of the Labor and Coalition Parties.

Balance of power kicks in when the Opposition refuses to support legislation. On questions such as the environment, health, education, refugees, Indigenous Australians, social welfare, Afghanistan and the US alliance, the ALP and Liberal/National Coalition have very similar policies.

It is not beyond the realms of possibility for some sort of national government to be formed, for the next opposition party to make some rule changes, and abandon the idea that everything a government does has to be opposed. When the two major parties sit back and reflect on the situation, it may well suit their interests to forge some form of stated or unstated united front against the Greens. The Greens pose the major threat to both parties and the comfortable relationship they had taking it in turns to form government.

Independents team

The increased support for and re-election of independents Bob Katter, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott to the House of Reps – all former National Party MPs – are a direct result of their closeness to their constituents and their unstinting efforts to pursue the needs of their rural and regional electorates. Although fairly conservative, they do not fit easily into the mould of left or right, being conservative on some issues and progressive on others. They have been joined by another independent Andrew Wilke and West Australian National Tony Crook, who says he will not be bound by National Party decisions.

The three decided from the outset to unite in their negotiations with the Labor and Coalition parties to gain the best outcomes for their constituents and backers. They enjoy considerable personal popularity in their electorates – something which cannot be said about many Labor or Coalition MPs.

Katter, Oakeshott and Windsor are conservative but not neo-liberals. On some issues they take a better position than Labor and the Coalition. Depending on the specifics of their rural and regional constituents they have concerns about the lifting of trade barriers and tariffs on agricultural imports, poor communications (national broadband network should remain in public hands), lack of infrastructure, inadequate access to health services, education, water and transport.

The mining tax played a big part in Katter’s Queensland electorate. Katter is more of a red neck, with a reputation for racist and other outlandish statements. At the same time he opposes competition policy, “free markets” and cuts to trade protection. He opposed the full privatisation of Telstra and deregulation of the sugar and dairy industries.

Windsor has strong links with and receives considerable funding from the ethanol industry. He is opposed to competition policy and the Coalition’s broadband policy and their reliance on the private sector.

Oakeshott supports Labor’s health and hospital reforms, its emissions trading scheme and has a relatively more compassionate position on refugees.

Crook is strongly opposed to the mining tax and supports a “royalties for regions” scheme that puts dollars into the bush. He says he might attend meetings of the Nationals, but sit as an independent.

Wilke was a Liberal with a background in defence intelligence, but fell out with the Howard government over the non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He previously stood as a Greens candidate in 2004 and has narrowly won Denison in Tasmania as an independent. Apart from seeking Australia’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, one of the issues he is strongly committed to is setting controls over gambling machines. He also wants better treatment of asylum seekers.

The National Party finds itself in a difficult position, with rumblings in its ranks. It has been tied to the Liberal Party and the voice of country and regional Australia has hardly been heard. This is in sharp contrast to the powerful positioning of three former members (Katter, Oakeshott, Windsor) and one current member (Crook) who are not only influencing policy but also having a say on which party might form government.

Seeking real change

Policy differences between the two major parties were hard to discern, despite the attempts of leaders to make them look different. Neither offered what the majority of working Australians or small farmers wanted. The frustration of the electorate was compounded by phoney debates, arrogance, deception and outright refusal to come clean on key issues. The campaign lacked real content, descended to the lowest depths imaginable with discussion of physical and other attributes of individuals rather than policy. The corporate media played ball, seeing its interests in maintaining the two-party charade.

The key issues were there for all to see, and the Greens addressed these with progressive policies that put the needs of people and the planet before private profits. The independents also put genuine policies that met many of the needs of their electorates.

As the week progresses, it should become clearer whether a minority government is formed, or whether some form of national government with ministers from both sides emerges – in effect a united front against the Greens. Gillard appears prepared to go in that direction.

The question of electoral reform will be taken up in a future issue of The Guardian.  

Next article – Editorial – Greens in the cross hairs

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