With about 78% of the votes counted, we can say that for the first time since 1940 Australia will have a minority government. Just what that will look like is unclear due to the count still at knife edge. What we can say is that unlike the coalition government recently formed in the UK, the new Australian government will not be a unity of two experienced political parties. The UK saw those parties use their respective experienced political administrations to assist in the makeup of the power sharing, and maintenance of stability. In Australia the government will most likely be formed with three, possibly four, independents (there is also a Green in the House of Representatives). Each of the current (three)Independents – save for the final still being determined in Tasmania (fourth) – are experienced parliamentarians with histories in conservative parties, but with reputations as true independents. That is to say, it is not a foregone conclusion that they will support forming a government with the conservative Liberal National Coalition simply due to heritage. They each have their own policy agenda. One, for example, is passionate about the influx of foreign bananas.
We won’t know the final count for a week, some say ten days. In one seat there are at least 20,000 postal and pre poll votes still to be counted, another has a nine vote lead. In a nation of 14 million voters that is significant. At the current count the 150 seat House of Representative has no clear majority (76 for the arithmetically challenged). Various media outlets differ on the current seat numbers, however the Australian Electoral Commission says it looks like Labor (former government lead by Julia Gillard – Australia’s first female Prime Minister) has 72, and the Liberal National Coalition (lead by Tony Abbott) also with 72. There are three, possibly four, independents and one Green. Complicating this is that the National Party representative who defeated Liberal Wilson Tuckey (thirty years in parliament) in WA is saying he may also sit on the cross benches. At least two seats are undecided.
Such is the Australian voters’ disenchantment with current politics that they didn’t want either alternative enough to give them a clear majority. This has shocked the political class.
It is extraordinary that Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, who won the leadership of the Liberal Party by one vote (we assume his own) about seven months ago, has achieved this result with a great “on message” negative campaign. At the time of his succession the feeling in his Coalition Party was they would lose about 22 seats if an election were held then. What a comeback after losing the 2007 election to Kevin Rudd’s Labor Party so badly (Labor ruled with a 17 seat majority).
Without diminishing the formidable Abbott campaign, it can be said that Labor did this to themselves. Despite installing a popular woman in Julia Gillard as the first ever female Prime Minister, they ran a bad campaign beset by damaging leaks and a shambles of messages (they ignored boasting their superior economic performance until the last two weeks of the campaign) with ideology tossed out in favour of what the focus groups said would work. That they removed Kevin Rudd as PM only two months ago also damaged them, particularly in his home state of Queensland. However, commentators from both sides of politics agree that were he to have led the Labor Party at this election, the loss of Labor seats would have been considerably more. What damaged the Labor government was that it was a poor communicator. It promised much and was unable to deliver, mostly due to it not controlling the Senate. But it could never explain that well. There was a sense of talking too much and doing too little; many committees, summits and reports, and not much of substance to show. Even so, commentators have noted that the good economy, with better than world average growth, low interest rates and unemployment, and earning the prize as the standout economy that survived the GFC better than any developed nation, should have meant Labor was proudly re elected.
This was an election with no clear message for psephologists, other than the Greens prevailed while the conservatives did amazingly well. The vote bleed from ALP looks to have a number of components.
The first is the rise of the Left vote which has given the Greens double their parliamentary representation, including their first ever House of Representatives seat and control of the Senate. It has turned the once safe NSW seat of Grayndler from a 25% margin to one at risk from the Greens (it is now only 5%). The Greens will be asking for, amongst other policies, gay marriage, legalised drugs, a carbon trading scheme and a bigger tax on mining companies. The Mining Tax, poorly explained by then PM Rudd, mobilised the anti government forces in the past three months and was a major factor in Labor’s defeat in the big mining regions. The others are the Rudd factor (including anger from voters who wanted to be the ones who knifed him, as well as those who didn’t like him being so humiliated.) There was also the palpable fury voters have for two state Labor governments (in Queensland and New South Wales).
The following major policies might be worth watching:
- Broadband was a leading policy difference with the Labor government rolling out a very expensive ($A 43b) national broadband network, which the Opposition said they would scrap if they won. The national broadband network aims to deliver speeds of up to 100 megabits a second to at least 90 per cent of homes and businesses. Interestingly, at least two of the Independents could not contribute to the televised election coverage due to unreliable mobile phone and broadband services in their regions. This will be a key king/queen maker.
- Health. Always a top domestic policy priority with voters. The ALP neatly dovetailed health service delivery to people in remote and rural parts of Australia – where doctors and specialist services are reluctant to live and work – with the national broadband network and its plans for e-health (which the Opposition said it would also scrap). Global technology companies have been jockeying for positioning to be part of this.
- Food and Nutrition. The Greens campaigned for a 1.5 per cent levy on ‘junk’ food and alcohol advertising and clearer labeling including ”traffic light” labeling so shoppers can select foods based on green labels for healthy, amber for caution and red for unhealthy.
- Defence. The Australian government will build or buy 12 new submarines, which will replace the Swedish Kockums designed Collins Class submarines. It will also buy 100 Joint Strike Fighter planes. No change here, though the Greens will oppose such spending.
- Uranium. Labor said they would stick with the policy of not selling uranium to India. The Liberal National Party said it would change this. The Greens will block any uranium mining or sales.
- Immigration. Tony Abbott campaigned with a ‘stop the boats’ message. Australia receives less than one per cent (0.6 %) of the world’s asylum seekers, however the issue of illegal boat arrivals was a polarising issue with voters in marginal seats in the outer suburbs strongly against any sign of softening of policies in this area. The Greens were appalled at both sides’ harsh policies.
- Mining Tax. The controversial tax on the super profits of mining companies recommended by an extensive review of Australia’s taxation system dogged Labor (and was a major reason they got rid of Rudd) mostly because of the way it was communicated with little or no consultation. This tax angered voters in resource rich states (Western Australia, Queensland) and would have been scrapped by the Liberals. The Greens want a bigger tax and at least one Independent supports the tax.
- Environment. According to the former PM, Kevin Rudd, this was the ‘single most important moral issue’, but an emissions trading scheme was swiftly abandoned after the Greens and the Liberals joined forces in the Senate to block the proposal. The Greens wanted a more extensive policy, the Liberals didn’t want a carbon tax.
What is clear is that a minority government is not necessarily bad for business. Indeed, it could provide greater opportunity for views to be listened to and acted upon. A clear and precise understanding of parliamentary procedure is key, and fortunately an area Hill & Knowlton’s Public Affairs Team has a proven track record of success.