One of the more amazing elections of the past 50 years was in 1974, less than 18 months after the Whitlam government took power - at least in the House of Representatives. It did not have a majority in the Senate and was often frustrated there, in part because of the crossbench numbers of Democratic Labor Party - foes of Labor since the 1956 Split. The DLP was led by Vince Gair, a former Labor Queensland premier, a fairly good one really who had been expelled from Labor with some of his ministers, including Bob Katter's dad, for daring to defy an AWU official.
The main purpose of the DLP had been to keep Labor from power, but that was usually achieved at election time, and in idle and very boring moments in the old men's club that was the Senate, the Labor leader, Lionel Murphy, ratbag Liberal senators and even DLP ones would sometimes collude to make life more interesting, such as by inventing the Senate committee system.
Early in 1974, Lionel Murphy got wind of the fact that Gair, ageing and bored, might be open to an inducement that would take him out of the Senate, and give Labor a particularly good chance of grabbing his seat at the next Senate election. Gair was offered, and accepted, the ambassadorship to Ireland, though he neglected to submit his resignation. Alas for the plotters, the appointment was leaked to the inimitable Laurie Oakes, and, in the furore after, Joh Bjelke-Petersen and various Country Party members inveigled Gair into drinks and "the night of long prawns" outmanoeuvred Whitlam by delaying the resignation until after a very pliant and anti-Labor Queensland governor issued the writs for the election.
While the plot was afoot, the leader of the opposition, Billy Snedden was beside himself with indignation at what he saw as the corruption of it all. He announced that the opposition would block supply in the Senate. Whitlam already had a stack of bills which had been twice rejected by the Senate, and did not hesitate, heading straight off to Government House, where Sir Paul Hasluck granted him a double dissolution of Parliament, which put all of the Senate seats, including the five DLP seats on the table. The effect was, as Peter Blazey wrote in The Political Dicemen that Vince Gair, a Labor rat, achieved a feat unequalled in the history of political rodentry - he sank the ship he was swimming away from. No DLP members were elected in the new Senate.
Labor won, losing one seat (Al Grassby's) and now had a majority of five. In the Senate, Labor and the Coalition had 29 each, with Steele Hall, of the Liberal Reform Movement in South Australia, and Michael Townley, as independent, adding to the numbers.
Disastrously, from the Coalition's point of view, it meant that when the new Senate again rejected Whitlam's six double-dissolution bills, Whitlam was able, under the constitution to convene a joint sitting of both houses. As a result, the bills passed into law.
In the aftermath of the election, Billy Snedden acted oddly. He refused to admit that the Coalition had lost. He did not claim to have won - in a Donald Trump style tantrum - but seemed to insist that the result had worked to the Coalition's advantage. He was widely ridiculed - and not long after, Malcolm Fraser rolled him for the leadership on his second attempt.
We may be thinking of this next Saturday. One of the two sides will be in government, but observers will be looking closely to see if it can be called a "win," and, if so, for what it provides by way of a mandate, or a grant of power limited only by what the Senate approves.
In the unlikely event of a second Morrison miracle - his capacity to reform his government in his own right - Morrison will claim popular endorsement to carry on with what he has called his plan. Indeed, he will be able to claim that the people have endorsed his secretive, unaccountable and lawless style. If that happens, Australia will be on the path to authoritarianism. It is unlikely that a demoralised and shattered Labor Party would be able to resist.
If Anthony Albanese and Labor win comfortably - for example with the 80 seats being predicted by The Australian this week, no one can dispute the party's right to government and the trappings of office. But given the extremely narrow program put to voters, those who do not welcome his victory will be disputing how broad his mandate and how much freedom of action he really has.
There are models for making the work of government intense, and exceedingly difficult. Tony Abbott, for example, treated opposition as providing a duty of utter non-cooperation and opposing everything the government did. In modern times, he and the Murdoch press have become attracted to Trump-like calls for mutiny, disobedience and disruption whenever any deviation from the past occurs.
As over lockdowns, masks, vaccines or any other "threats to freedom" that occur. The executive government which Albanese may inherit is strewn with booby traps, including an array of frank Coalition partisans given jobs with statutory tenure. And parts of the bureaucracy that ought to be instantly available to the new government will be sidelined for a time, if only because they were effectively put out of action, or were compromised, by the Morrison government.
The new prime minister could live in interesting times. And how much more if the majority is tiny, or it depends on independents, or must immediately make hard choices that alienate the crossbench in the Senate.
Albanese, if prime minister, will have no problem claiming a mandate for action on anti-corruption legislation, and work on re-regularising public administration, including the restoration into effect of the financial management act, treated almost as a dead letter by Scott Morrison. Likewise with action on climate change and environmental improvement. But whether and to what extent such action fits into some announced program of action can be expected to be very closely contested. No doubt the Nationals will want everything to be approved by one of its impartial committees first.
There has been a lot of debate about economic management. Morrison's claim that the Labor team is not to be trusted in running the economy will have been implicitly rejected if Albanese is elected. But one can imagine that opposition spokespeople will find in Labor economic promises almost legal limits on new taxes and spending. The right of close scrutiny they will claim this gives is not, of course, a privilege that they extended to Labor or independents while they were in government, but this would be different, presumably because Labor is on training wheels.
Albanese is, of course, used to government, and experienced, if mostly from old positions as leader of the government in the house, at putting down the pretension of opposition members without the numbers. He also has experience, from when Julia Gillard was prime minister, of dealing with independents in minority government. His alleged problem will be, however, that he set himself up for such restrictions by the timid way he threw out a wide range of long-standing Labor philosophy and policy. He explicitly restricted himself, in his electoral campaign to such a limited agenda.
Can you go narrow, and pretend harmlessness until you win, then claim a power as unlimited as that which Morrison and his government claimed for themselves, the Coalition critics will ask? Wouldn't that be taking power by deception?
My own fear is that some traditional areas of Labor approach to subjects, particularly in the welfare field, will not be able to be said to be affirmed by platform promises or campaign rhetoric. It's all very well to speak of a "people approach" to disability service management - whatever that means, if anything. Albanese, traditionally a man with a soft heart, has gone out of his way to talk tough on matters such as entitlement. In any event one cannot say comfortably that Labor, in the recent past, has had a "people approach" to single parent benefits, unemployment benefits and invalidity.
Coalition ministers and pliant senior bureaucrats may have developed new levels of meanness, rigour, grinding suspicion, and mechanical and impersonal zeal during their last turn at bat. But they worked off a model Labor was developing. Remember the Jenny Macklin and Penny Wong-inspired cuts to single mother's benefits which saw 100,000 single-parent families have their income reduced by $120 a week - supposedly to give them more incentive to look for jobs once their youngest child was eight?
Everything Labor does on refugees, including with new programs involving Ukrainians and Afghans, will be carefully parsed and scrutinised by Coalition ministers convinced that Albanese has bound himself to make minimal changes, and by bureaucrats who, like politicians, have convinced themselves of the need for cruel and arbitrary and inhumane treatment of refugees, if only to discourage them from seeking Australian help. This goes against the instincts of many on the Labor left, including Albanese, but he has convinced himself that showing "toughness" is the only policy that works. Sure, ask Angela Merkel.
In practical programs in Aboriginal affairs, recent Labor ministers helped turn the clock back to the 1960s - perhaps 1950s in relation to housing. It would be a dreadful pity if Labor turned all its energy into implementing the statement from the heart, while neglecting the practical programs which could be, but are not yet, improving quality of life.
The lamentable thing is that the election has been fought and won with the electorate pretty much convinced that the terrible things that one side is saying about the other are more or less true. That's the case with Scott Morrison. Most of his colleagues did not want him campaigning in their electorates, and that dislike has become visceral for many voters, especially women. He is ending up arguing that even if you hate him, you should respect him as better on managing the economy than Labor. There's no evidence that this is true, or that he has a particularly good record.
Albanese's electioneering performance has by no means been as bad as mostly hostile and partisan criticism from the mainstream media would suggest. The continuing focus on his "gaffes," including by the ABC, has been unfair. He has come through, not least after finding a bit of courage on the minimum wage - probably the matter that will win him the election. But he still has allowed doubts about his economic nous to emerge, and once out there, lurk around. Luckily, he will in actual government have Jim Chalmers, Katy Gallagher and Andrew Leigh to demonstrate Labor's economic credentials.
Labor has committed itself to health, aged care, child care and education changes, as well as to NDIS. These are cleverly targeted, but no substitute for broad policy and program reform, including recognition that the health and hospital system need substantial reinvestment in the coming decade. This must proceed according to an accountable plan focused on identifying and meeting need within the resources that are available. Australia needs to double its trained healthcare workforce over the next five years, simply to meet existing and developing needs in hospital, aged care, and disability services. Even with his commitment to better remuneration, he must also face the fact that retention is an issue as big as recruitment. It seems to me that some money he has promised for physical infrastructure would be better put into developing and maintaining some of our social infrastructure, including its buildings and its staff.
It would also be very clever politics to seek to harness some of the reforming zeal of the teal independents. They could be charmed into reform projects on environmental matters, on meeting climate change targets, on the shape of the new economy when the pandemic subsides (it is nowhere near there yet) and in making government more transparent, more approachable, more consultative and more focused on value for money. That could include review of administrative law, the ombudsman and the practical administration of freedom-of-information legislation, and a good hard look at undoing some of the Pauline Hanson-inspired changes to the Family Court system.
Albanese might remember that Bob Hawke dealt with the problem of unwanted appointed officials, including judges (such as but not confined to, Jim Staples) by abolishing courts and creating new courts with new appointments, including people of merit from the old courts and tribunals. The scandal of political appointments of mates, cronies, party donors and friends to the AAT - and to the Fair Work Commission and some other bodies is such that a purge is justified, if only to preserve the reputation and authority of the many members who enjoy public confidence and make the system work.
Traditionally, the best timing for a successful transition is while the losing party is in deep shock and trauma. It will have lost senior members, including some seen as present or future leadership prospects. The loss of Josh Frydenberg, if that occurs, as seems likely, would seem to underline the fate of the remaining Liberals swinging further to the right, probably under Peter Dutton. Survivors will be arguing about leadership teams, as well as adjusting to the changes of offices, the loss of battalions of advisers and minders, and the inquests into how and why they let power slip out of their hands. In ordinary times, that gives new governments some time to settle in.
I have some suspicion that settling in time is not on the opposition menu. And maybe not on the "events" menu either. Scott Morrison had no problem blaming international factors for any bad outcomes, including inflation, interest rate movements, the war in Ukraine, continuing effects of the pandemic, problems in the Pacific, with China, and relations with our northern neighbours. Not all of these allow for settling-in time, and former ministers, still reasonably well briefed about conditions, will be more focused on finding mistakes than, as in the past, in helping to cover them up. The public service advisers popping by will initially be the same folk serving as flattering courtiers to the previous government. Working out who can be trusted is a much more difficult task these days than once it was. That's because too many went native under the old regime, sacrificing their independence and the public interest to career advancement and status.
Labor must be determined, from the moment they take up ministerial power, to be exemplary in the way they exercise power. That includes a return to old standards of documentation, openness, probity and readiness to respond to FOI. It involves abandoning any idea of discretionary grants, patronage jobbery, and inside places for mates. It involves governing in the public interest, and only in the public interest. These are important, and ethically necessary, constraints.
Watch those insisting "we didn't lose the election." And those saying, "they didn't win it." Governing is getting tougher, with or without imaginary leashes.
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