Illustration: Rocco Fazzari
One tiny solace federal Labor can take from its drubbing last Saturday is that a double dissolution is now almost inevitable, but without Labor necessarily being blamed for yet another election. And it would be in Labor's interest, even if it loses, provided it has something to help bring it on.
Indeed the double dissolution need not even be on the issue of the formal abolition of the carbon tax or mining taxes. Labor strategists ought to be able to contrive some issue, before and after July, to make common cause with the Greens and at least some of the new ragbag of Senate independents, to reject an Abbott proposal - perhaps a ''mandate'' one, such as paid parental leave. A double dissolution would put all 12 Senate seats from each state in play. Strictly, this can increase the chances of strong independents winning (because it reduces the percentage of votes needed from 14.4 to 7.7 per cent). But in practice, major parties aggregate a bigger share of the cake. Labor badly needs that. On Saturday, it won only one in every three state Senate positions - five fewer than the Coalition. Labor, with the continuing senators, is now 14 seats short of a Senate majority of 39. The Coalition has at least eight more.
A similar performance by Labor and the Greens at the next ''ordinary'' Senate election would see Labor reduced to 24 of 76 seats, and the Greens to eight. The Coalition could well have 36 or more, perhaps a majority in its own right.
There is nothing perverse about the prospect of a range of artificial parties, and the Palmer party, winning seven positions. The way that some talk about it, one would think this to be an unintended anomaly of the system.
It is no more so than the fate staring at Sophie Mirabella, assuming she loses Indi. Cathy McGowan, an able independent with goodish National Party roots, stood, and Labor, to make mischief against the Liberals and to return animosity towards the abrasive Mirabella, gave McGowan its preferences, taking the trouble (which was not difficult) to run third. Mirabella is in this sense a victim of ''tactical'' voting.
In just the same way, the efforts of groups of independent pseudo-parties to tightly exchange preferences before allowing them to drift away towards Labor, or the Coalition or the Greens, is tactical voting. So, too, is the tactic - to the extent that it was employed - of creating artificial parties, with largely nominal candidates, to gather all of the anti-major party feeling there is.
In 1989, the first ACT Assembly elections saw a plethora of artificial parties, including the Sun-Ripened Warm Tomato Party, and the Party Party Party, complicate an already very complicated voting system. Those with even longer memories will recall that in 1975, a Liberal minister, Vic Garland, found himself up on bribery charges (he was acquitted) when he was alleged to be subsidising minor parties and independents in the ACT seats, in exchange for preferences to Liberal candidates.
Indeed the creation of narrow one-issue parties has become in recent years a tactic in conservative politics. Complicating the ballot paper is thought to increase the likelihood of voting errors and informal votes by less intelligent voters, thought to be more likely to vote Labor.
Such tactics are often thought clever when practised by one's own side, but diabolical, and contrary to the spirit of the electoral laws, when they permit opponents to improve their votes, often hugely. Yet Labor, in particular, is hardly in a position to complain. The combined anti-party groupings (including the Palmer party) won more Senate votes than Labor candidates, but have probably won only about half the seats.
Antipathy to the major parties (including the Greens) is a distinct aspect of modern politics. It was not so long ago that more than 90 per cent of voters gave a first preference either to Labor or the Coalition: on Saturday, one in every four voters rejected the major parties. Accepted middle or left parties, such as the Democrats, the Nuclear Disarmament Party and the Greens have helped develop the tendency: it is by now
something much more than a ritual protest vote before one's preference comes ''home'' to one's ''natural'' party.
Both Labor and Liberals can blame only themselves. The anti-party vote comes partly from anger and disgust at conventional politicians, including at classic pieces of political cynicism about political pay and expenses, rorts, corruption and obvious chicanery, as well as from evidence that professional politicians are increasingly a class apart. It is aggravated by the hollowing out of party organisations, and public reports of factional organisers' manipulations. Populism, nationalism, racism, manipulated dislike of supposed elites, and weariness of continual economic change has spurred some groupings, as has, sometimes, propaganda from political groupings abroad.
Perhaps the pseudo-parties have only small individual constituencies, and, almost certainly, they lack sophisticated world views and general policies going beyond the particular bee in the particular bonnet. But what unites such people - such as serious suspicion of the big parties - is often more than what divides them, particularly when they have learnt, care of people who strategise and negotiate for them, how much they can gain if they hold together rather than get picked off one by one. This has already been seen in state upper houses, and, even in the Senate by the use of power shown by politicians such as Brian Harradine, Steve Fielding and Nick Xenophon.
Artificial ways of rendering null the votes by such groupings will not work - and not because of constitutional problems so much as because suppression will engender its own counter-reaction. Just as importantly, it may well be that the arrival of independents in such numbers is a sort of precursor of several types of new politics brought on by the disfavour in which big parties are held.
The first has been floated by Labor. It is that Labor would retain a central core of political, economic and social ideas - on which it retains the Caucus power to bind - but that it would create a far wider field in which people under the Labor umbrella could openly disagree with each other, including in Parliament. The Liberals would say they already have this, but they, too, tend in practice to be tightly caucused and generally bound, sometimes as much to leadership edict as majority votes. It would really be better for the quality of public debate if our elected representatives were freer to express their ideas.
The second is the tendency, around the world, for governments formed of coalitions, often in odd formations. This has long been the tendency in non-English-speaking countries; it is now the model in New Zealand, Canada and Britain, as well as in some of the Australian states and territories. It is all very well for politicians, such as the incoming prime minister, Tony Abbott, to declare he will not work with minor parties, or form coalitions with independents. Parties are there to get, hold and exercise power: it's the electorate that deals the cards, not the parties.
Jack Waterford is Editor-at-Large of The Canberra Times. firstname.lastname@example.org