Rather than giving us the government we deserve, the August 21 federal election delivered an outcome the two old parties deserved.
Because both Labor and the Coalition focused on negative campaigning, sloganeering and scapegoating refugees and other minorities, a large number of voters decided to vote for alternatives with some vision.
A hung parliament with the Greens holding the balance of power in the Senate was only a partial reflection of this growing disenchantment with the two-party system.
Close to one in five voters showed their opposition to Labor and Liberal by voting for other parties.
Importantly, 11.4% of voters looked towards the progressive alternative posed by the Greens in the lower house, 14% in the Senate.
In a fairer electoral system, based on proportional representation, the Greens would have won not one but 17 of the 150 seats in the House of Representatives.
A further sign of discontent was an informal vote of 5.6%, unseen since 1987, and reaching up to 14% in migrant and working class electorates in western Sydney. More than 20% did not even bother to register or turn up.
With 80% of votes counted, 40% of votes have not gone to either Labor or the Coalition.
Julia Gillard, stealing a quote from former US president Bill Clinton, sought to downplay the discontent by saying on election night: “It’s going to take a little while to determine exactly what [the people have] said.”
In fact, the vote and the major parties’ post-election claims for “legitimacy” show neither party has a mandate.
The response from the corporate backers of these parties is also crystal clear.
Graham Bradley, president of the Business Council of Australia, wrote in the August 23 Australian Financial Review that any minority government requiring the support of independents and minor parties represented a “danger” to the “bold reforms Australia needs”.
Myers chief executive Bernie Brooks said: “Regardless who wins, it’s not good news for business at all.”
Australian Industry Group chief executive Heather Ridout said a hung parliament was a “worrying outcome for business” that could lead to “instability, uncertainty and short-termism in policy development”. What was crucial, above all else, she said, was that the independents commit themselves to “supporting stable government”.
The editorial in the same issue of the AFR read: “Regardless of whether the Coalition’s Tony Abbott or Labor’s Julia Gillard leads it, this is the worst possible outcome for stable government and the unpopular economic reforms required to reinforce the Australian economy against another global recession, the expiry of the resources boom and the challenges of an ageing population.”
Big business is not concerned about whether Abbott or Gillard runs the government, because it knows either would govern in its interest. Its concern for “stability” is really about parliament and the two parties restoring legitimacy — critical if either will be able push through unpopular attacks on working people.
Both parties agree, as their platforms indicate, on the need for neoliberal measures as the global economic crisis continues to bite. Australia is not immune to this crisis: its rising debt looks likely to rise further as the Chinese economy, which has buffered Australia from the crisis, starts to slip.
The election result also opens up cracks in the domination of the two old parties. Their ability, and that of the corporate media, to silence dissent will be much harder in this new framework.
But for different views to be better represented, we need far-reaching electoral reform that better reflects the will of the people and ensure that every vote counts.
It is also necessary for the progressive social movements to build on the 1.2 million-strong vote for the Greens. Undoubtedly a significant proportion of the Green vote was a protest vote, particularly against the rightward shift of the ALP, but for many it was a conscious vote for a new progressive alternative.
In Melbourne, the Greens won their second-ever lower house seat. The Greens candidate, Adam Bandt, won in the face of a ferocious campaign by Labor and the cravenly pro-ALP union bureaucracy, despite him being one of the most pro-union candidates with a chance of winning a seat.
Importantly, unions such as the Victorian Electrical Trade Union broke with the ALP to come behind the Greens in the seat of Melbourne and the Victorian Senate.
This, together with the Greens managing to turn the inner-west Sydney seat of Grayndler from the second safest ALP seat into a marginal seat, is a powerful message to millions looking for an alternative to the two corporate parties.
This is particularly true for the remaining rank-and-file ALP members who are disgusted by the direction of the party and who realise that the reason for Labor’s crisis is a lot deeper than a few cabinet discussion leaks.
With NSW Labor so on the nose, the Greens have a real chance of winning lower house seats in the 2011 March state election.
How the Greens move now to continue to build a third force in politics will be crucial to converting protest votes into a serious and lasting “new movement”, as Bob Brown put it on election night.
We need a political force that can continue to weaken the monopoly of the two corporate parties and work with the social and trade union movements to bring about real change.