Australia may, or may not, be in the grip of a new political paradigm. But old fashionable hyperbole is still rampant. Interviewed on ABC Radio yesterday, the former Labor minister Gary Punch accused Tony Abbott of “shaking the core of Australian democracy to its foundations”. The reference was to the Opposition Leader’s decision not to go along with the Agreement for a Better Parliament document, which envisaged that the speaker of the House of Representatives would receive a “pair” when votes are counted.
Earlier news that the agreement between Labor and the Coalition and the rural independents had broken down in this instance led the journalist Malcolm Farr to report that “a constitutional crisis is threatening”. In fact, there is no constitutional crisis and Australian democracy remains in a healthy condition.
After the election, Julia Gillard managed to scrape together a majority of two on the floor of the House – with the help of one Greens MP (Adam Bandt), one ex-Greens candidate and new independent (Andrew Wilkie) and two rural independents (Rod Oakeshott and Tony Windsor).
This is the same majority as that achieved by Robert Menzies when he formed a United Australia Party-Country Party government, with the help of two independents, after the 1940 election. And it is the same majority John Curtin enjoyed in October 1941 when the two independents crossed the floor and brought down the Country-UAP coalition, then led by Arthur Fadden.
Sure, there was a change of government in 1941. But there was no constitutional crisis and democracy was never endangered. As the Prime Minister conceded in her speech in Bathurst this month, during his first term in office Curtin presided over a stable administration.
It was much the same in 1961 when the Coalition, led by Menzies, won a majority of two in its own right. As is normal in such circumstances, the government provided a speaker and governed with a majority of one.
Labor has 72 seats and it has signed agreements with Bandt, Wilkie, Oakeshott and Windsor not to block supply or to support no-confidence motions for political reasons. In view of this, it seems likely the government, after providing a speaker, can govern with an effective majority of one until 2013.
The only plausible threat to Gillard’s political longevity would occur if the angel of death called in a seat that the Coalition could win from Labor or an independent. That, or the unlikely resignation of a Labor MP for political reasons. It’s a possible, but remote, scenario.
It seems inherently unlikely that the Greens or independents will cross the floor and bring down Labor. For starters, Bandt and Wilkie are on the left and would always support Gillard ahead of Abbott. Then there are the two rural independents. Despite the long delay in coming to their decision, it was always likely that Oakeshott and Windsor would put Labor ahead of the Coalition.
On August 23, Windsor appeared on Sky News and equated the Nationals with cancer. This was insensitive to cancer sufferers, but it did provide clear evidence of Windsor’s hostility to the Nationals, of which he was once a member.
On December 2, The Australian quoted from an interview that Oakeshott gave to the Port Macquarie News. The member for Lyne said that Abbott was little more “than Pauline Hanson in Liberal drag”. In fact, Abbott was one of the leading opponents of Hansonism within the Liberal Party. In this interview, Oakeshott also ran a line which was embraced by anti-Catholic sectarians during the election campaign.
The independent MP declared that Abbott’s “natural starting point is of concern for Australian politics where no separation of church and state exists in principle”. Take away the prolix language, and Oakeshott was suggesting that Abbott could not be fully trusted because he is a traditional Catholic.
There is a lot to be said for the biblical adage that “by their fruits you shall know them”. Bandt and Wilkie are leftists. Windsor is a National Party hater and Oakeshott’s language seems to suggest he distrusts Catholics like Abbott. Moreover, Windsor and Oakeshott come from rural seats where Labor has little support, and both would have reason to avoid an early election.
The idea that the speaker, who does not have a deliberative vote, should be paired with a deputy speaker who does was never a good idea. This is the case whether the speaker is an independent or the nominee of the government. Speaking on The Nation on Sky News on September 2, Oakeshott said he did not want the speaker’s position. Then he said he did. Then he changed his mind again.
The entire saga was unnecessary. Labor should, and can, provide a speaker and govern with a majority on the floor of one, plus, where required, the speaker’s casting vote in the event of a tie. Just like Curtin in the early 1940s and Menzies in the early 1960s.
At the moment, many commentators are giving Abbott advice about how the opposition should behave. In The Australian, the Labor operative Bruce Hawker warned Abbott that “he could seriously damage his image with the Australian people” if he is too negative. This is the same Hawker who, before the election, said the Opposition Leader’s policies “on a whole raft of social issues just beggar belief” and suggested Abbott was unelectable.
Those who voted for the Coalition should expect that Abbott will represent their views. Meanwhile, Gillard has a working majority in the House of Representatives and, if the Greens are onside, should be able to get Labor’s legislation through the Senate from July. In other words, democracy as usual.