"This is clearly the closest election result we've seen in Australian history."
- Antony Green, ABC's election analyst during an interview on Lateline.I am not entirely disappointed with a hung parliament in Australia after Saturday's election. At the very least, it means that neither side can claim victory. They both lost. There was indeed a swing against the ALP (-5.4%) and towards the Coalition (+1.9%), but elections are not won on swings. And indeed, if they were, then the Greens received a much larger positive swing (+3.7%). One significant factor in this was likely to be disgruntled ALP supporters registering their disapproval of the Rudd/Gillard failure of nerve on climate. It may have also been punishment for Gillard's move to the the right on asylum seekers, but Rudd's popularity started its precipitous decline when he announced the shelving of his carbon trading scheme.
In the Senate, before below the line and postal votes are counted (and below the line postal votes, like mine!), it looks like both major parties faced negative swings (Coalition -1.3%; ALP -4.6%) while the Greens are highly likely to have secured balance of power (+3.9%) and the most Senate seats of a minor party in Australian history. The DLP may have followed Family First's success in 2007 by gaining a Victorian seat with only 2.23% of the primary vote.
Earlier this year in the UK election, when it became clear that the parliament was going to be hung, there was a lot of misinformation peddled by politicians, pundits and certain sections of the media about what it was going to mean. Due to a busy weekend, I haven't been following enough Australian media to know if a similar pattern has been emerging there. So to clarify some issues that were muddied here and may be there, by constitutional convention, Gillard remains caretaker PM until the result becomes clear, the incumbent PM has first right to form a coalition or minority government, and there is no necessity for either side to have a formal coalition to govern. Having more seats (yet not a majority), having more primary votes, having more two party preferred votes: none of these are really relevant in determining who forms government (except insofar as they can be spun to provide some kind of moral weight).
That a hung parliament doesn't necessarily mean instability can be seen from a wide range of nations who regularly manage to get along with one. That they have been rare in the UK and Australia has led to a little hysteria (from what I've seen, not quite as much in Oz as there was here a few months back) about the dangers of no party having a majority. However, it ought to be remembered that neither the ALP nor the Coalition (!) are really a single party (the internal divisions within the ALP are famous, and were on display in paradoxical ways with the recent leadership spill) and so Australia has never really had a majority government. We've pretty much always had to get along with a cobbled together kind of political power, and that's not all bad. Yes, this might be a little more pronounced than usual, but I think that it could turn out to be healthy if it means some negotiations and compromises, with each issue needing to be argued on its merits and weighed against other priorities. That's how the system works. As long as one side can guarantee a majority who will pledge to avoid frivolous votes of no confidence and won't block supply, then a minority government is quite feasible.
To get there, both sides are now wooing the support of the three independents (Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott and Bob Katter) who have pledged to work as a bloc. Although they are all former National Party members, it has quickly become obvious that they can not simply be assumed to belong naturally to the Coalition. They have affirmed their desire to (a) stay independent, avoiding a formal coalition and (b) provide enough stability for a full three year term, enabling one or other side to form a minority government with some stability. I found this quote from Oakeshott interesting. Along with a single Greens member, there is likely to be a fourth independent, Andrew Wilke, a former Greens member, who was also a whistle-blowing intelligence analyst under the Howard government.
In addition to these five, it is also important to note (and few media outlets seem to have mentioned it) that the sprawling WA electorate of O'Connor (which covers a greater area that NSW), saw not simply a surprise defeat by the outspoken and controversial Liberal veteran Wilson Tuckey, but a victory by a member of the National Party of WA, who are affiliated with the national National Party, but maintain a distinct party structure from them. In particular, they do not recognise a formal Coalition with the Liberal Party and so just as the Greens member is likely to side with Labor yet not enter a formal coalition, so Tony Crook of O'Connor is likely to side with the Coalition, but not be a formal member for the Coalition. There is no love lost in WA between the Nationals and the Coalition and Crook has indicated he is willing to negotiate with the ALP.
Speaking of the National Party (and for a moment lumping the WA Nationals in with the rest), that they can gain seven seats with 3.87% of the national vote, while the Greens gained just one lower house seat with 11.39% does make one wonder about the relative merits of arguments for proportional representation. Of course, Australia already has PR in the Senate and so the Greens' balance of power there is an indication of their current popularity. Whether it is a short term punishment of the ALP or indicative of longer term trends towards a greater consciousness of ecological issues remains to be seen.
Whatever happens, despite (or perhaps because of) a deeply disappointing and cynical campaign in which both major parties ran very negative campaigns almost entirely devoid of any global or long term vision, Australian politics just got more interesting.