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Provisional post-mortem as the wait goes on

Nick Bryant | 02:52 UK time, Friday, 27 August 2010

In one of his more recent books, the cricket writer Gideon Haigh recounts a good yarn from the day when the English playwright Tom Stoppard applied for a job on Fleet Street. "It says here you're interested in politics," said the interviewer, as he perused the application. "Okay. Who's the Home Secretary?" Stoppard treated the question with exquisite disdain. "I said I was interested," he replied. "Not obsessed."

I confess that I have reached the same point with these post-election deliberations. These "Independents' Days," as everyone is calling them. I remain interested, though not obsessed; and I dare say many of you feel the same.

By the end of play today, it looks as if we will get a clear sense of which party or independent has won each seat. But we are no closer to getting a clear outcome. To help guide their choice, the three key independents have listed seven demands, which include detailed briefings from senior civil servants and politicians on both sides with key portfolios. They also want definitive costings on the election promises of both the main parties, a process to which the Liberal leader Tony Abbott is refusing to submit because of an ongoing row with the Treasury over a leaked story which damaged the Coalition during the campaign. Like I say, I'm interested, but not obsessed.

So while the impasse continues, perhaps we should carry out something of a post-mortem. Why did this election end up without a clear-cut result? Why did Julia Gillard's snap election gambit misfire? And what explained the unexpectedly strong showing from the conservative opposition leader, Tony Abbott?
Tony Abott meets independent MHRs 25 August 2010
On the first point, perhaps political historians will come to reflect that this was an election that neither side truly deserved to win. Ahead of polling day, we detailed here the present phase of ugliness in Australian politics, along with its narrowness. We also dealt with the insularity and small-bore parochialism of a fairly visionless campaign, which for days was obsessed with process. Is there anything drearier in politics than debates about debates? So let's not belabour the point here.

But this election did produce strong evidence that Australians are fed up - embarrassed even - with the politics being put before them. In other countries, turn-out figures usually provide the key indicator of voter disaffection, something we cannot rely on in Australia, of course, because of compulsory voting. But as a number of you have already pointed out, the 2010 election has recorded the highest number of "informal votes" from the past six federal elections. Over 5% of the electorate cast an "informal vote" - that is to say, they did not think that any candidate or party merited their backing.

The surge in support for the Australian Greens offers another indication of frustration with the two main parties. With over 11% of the vote, the Greens ended up with the strongest third party showing since the Second World War.

In this post-election phase, there also appears to be widespread public respect for the three independents, whatever their idiosyncrasies. Their demands for a new kind of politics, though occasionally fanciful, have hit a chord. To many, they have come across as honourable, candid and trustworthy, not words that are commonly associated with politicians. During a phase in which Aussie politics has been brutally and sometimes cannibalistically tribal, their talk of acting in the national interest strikes many as unusually wholesome and refreshing. Votes being counted after Australian election

Then there is the anecdotal evidence gathered over the past few weeks, from speaking to voters and reading your comments. I have not encountered a single voter who considered the 2010 election a good advertisement for Australian democracy. Quite the opposite. Indeed, is it now possible to speak of Australia's political cringe?

As to the question of Julia Gillard's failure to secure a majority, it will doubtless be argued over for years to come - and especially within the ALP. The Labor powerbrokers who ousted Kevin Rudd blame the former prime minister for leaking unfavourable stories which badly damaged Julia Gillard during the second week of the campaign. But in calling an election so soon after a ruthless leadership coup, few should surely have been surprised that the bloodletting overflowed into the campaign.

The same powerbrokers have blamed the ALP's awful performance in Queensland on an unpopular Labor Premier, Anna Bligh. This may have contributed, but I spent quite a bit of time in Queensland during the campaign and left with the more powerful sense that the treatment of Kevin Rudd was a more significant grievance.

The "Blame Rudd" powerbroker thesis is predicated on the alleged "Rudd leaks" being the hinge-point in Julia Gillard's fortunes. But, again, my sense is that she was in trouble before that. Surely you could date the end of her political honeymoon from the moment it was revealed that her "East Timor Solution" asylum seekers policy had not been agreed upon by the East Timorese government. Then came her proposal for a Citizens Assembly on emissions trading scheme, a contrivance that, for many, demonstrated the same political gutlessness which had got her predecessor into trouble.
Julia Gillard meets independent MHRs 25 August 2010
Back in 2007, it irritated me when The Guardian dubbed the federal election "The Climate Change Election". It was a decent headline, but poor analysis, because Workchoices and a widespread feeling that John Howard had done his dash were far more important factors. The irony is that that 2010 was much more of a "Climate Change Election". Not because the question of global warming loomed large. It didn't. But because the politics of climate change came to have such a crucial bearing over the past nine months.

Kevin Rudd fell out of favour partly because having called climate change the greatest moral issue of our times he put the ETS on the back burner. Julia Gillard attracted the same accusations of political cowardice when she proposed the Citizens Assembly. Tony Abbott won the leadership of the Liberals because of Malcolm Turnbull's offer to Mr Rudd of bipartisan support for the ETS. Then the new Liberal leader mounted his comeback by harnessing much of the scepticism that came to the fore after 'Climategate" and Copenhagen.

Paradoxically, Labor once viewed its green agenda as something which would keep it in power well into this decade, and chronically divide the Liberals. Remember the talk about how Rudd would call a double dissolution election after his ETS scheme was defeated and consign the Liberals to the wilderness. The dramatically altered politics of climate change were a key factor in this election.

So, too, was Tony Abbott, whom everyone underestimated. The ALP. The commentariat. Your blogger. The Liberals. And even, arguably, himself. His performance reminds me of the late, great Bob Monkhouse's signature joke: 'People laughed when I told them I was going to be a comedian. Nobody's laughing now."

Once derided as the "Mad Monk," Tony Abbott made people take him seriously. He not only demonstrated a level of discipline during the campaign which even close friends thought was beyond him, but clearly had everyman appeal. In our first television piece on the election, we included those now iconic shots of him in his scarlet Speedoes. What we should have explained, of course, is that wearing budgie smugglers in Australia is not automatically a vote loser. To some, it put on fleshy display the very thing which many voters clearly found attractive: his authenticity.

Sometime over the coming weeks - yes, that was a plural - we will find out who has emerged as Australia's prime minister. But I would love to hear your views on how we reached this point.

Post-mortem update:

Camo is right. An hour after I pressed send on this blog, Tony Abbott agreed to the independents' demand to have the coalition's policies costed by the Treasury, which looked like it could become a deal-breaker.

The Sydney Morning Herald is calling it "Abbott's costings cave-in."

The Coalition is also rejecting claims from the Greens' leader Bob Brown that it is manoeuvring for a new election.

For post-election tragics who want to keep up with every new twist and turn, this service from ABC does the job, as doubtless you already know.

Have a good weekend!


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