The dawning of grown-up Australia

Australia’s future now depends greatly on Labor’s next leader and a diverse group of powerful small-party senators. All must step up to avoid political quagmire.

Tony Abbott’s Coalition is to be congratulated for the sweeping electoral victory achieved on September 7, and those who popped champagne corks through the night deserve their sleep-ins while sore heads heal. 

But when the hangovers are gone, few will labour for long under the misapprehension that the victory is ‘decisive’ and ‘changes everything’. Rather, the nation faces a great peril – that the next three years of government will be like the last.

Australia just cannot afford that. 

Early on Sunday morning the best estimates put the lower house result at 89 Coalition seats to 57 for Labor, potentially leaving four cross benchers – most likely Bob Katter, who while remaining has lost most of the power he enjoyed in the 43rd parliament, Clive Palmer, Andrew Wilkie and Greens MP Adam Bandt.

Those cross benchers will get to raise numerous issues in the lower house that will embarrass soon-to-be-sworn-in Prime Minister Abbott.

But only Palmer and Bandt will be speaking with any real power. Palmer looks set to be backed up by the Palmer United Party’s sole Senator, former rugby league player Glenn Lazarus – and on some issues this vote may hold the balance of power. 

There was a hefty 3.1 percentage point swing against the Greens, but Bandt’s success in the seat of Melbourne is remarkable. Like Palmer, his words in the lower house carry with them a still-significant voting bloc in the Senate – though we are unlikely to know its exact size for some days. 

So Abbott has a strong majority in the House of Reps, and only a few difficult cross-benchers to shout down. 

But as flagged last week (Abbott’s pain will be no gain, September 5) a strong Abbott majority was a given. Australia’s future really hinges on how the Senate is composed, and how a diverse patchwork of senators behave. 

The Senate vote could still turn up a few surprises – Pauline Hanson is, at the time of writing, on a knife-edge to get a seat. There’s the Motoring Enthusiasts’ Ricky Muir, the Liberal Democratic Party’s David Leyonhjelm, and possibly another Greens senator joining the upper house. 

They, along with the easily re-elected Nick Xenophon and remaining DLP senator John Madigan, will exercise huge power in the 44th parliament, and could make Abbott’s life a misery.

So the Senate is where the real action will be. When Abbott stepped up to make his victory speech last night, a young man escorted from the podium by security staff before he could sabotage the speech was emblematic of strong anti-Abbott sentiment in sections of the community. 

Those who marched against the policies of John Howard, and those ‘true believers’ disgusted by Abbott’s cynical use of ‘boats’ and the ‘carbon tax’ to tear Labor to pieces in the 43rd parliament will be itching for revenge.

In the Senate they will see that opportunity. With Nick Xenophon already saying he will not vote down the carbon tax unless another carbon trading scheme is created to replace the Coalition’s ludicrous Direct Action policy, it’s clear that Labor and the Greens, with better than expected Senate numbers, can have their revenge. 

By blocking the repeal legislation and forcing Abbott to a double dissolution election, they could make the early phase of Coalition government a disaster.

But again, this is where Australian politics needs to grow up. Abbott is promising to deliver ‘grown-up government’, but if his government is treated to the same kind of childish, often baseless and petty attacks he levelled at Julia Gillard through most of the 43rd parliament, heaven help us all.

Labor set up the crisis of the Gillard years, but it was Tony Abbott moving for a suspension of standing orders in parliament day after day. It was Abbott’s team quoting out-of-context numbers to beat up the story of the ‘wrecking ball’ carbon tax. And it was Abbott himself and Christopher Pyne who ran like naughty schoolboys from the chamber to score a point against the ‘tainted vote’ of Craig Thomson.

If the next Labor leader stoops to these lows, the 44th parliament will become another vaudeville act, another lost opportunity for reform.

And then, to quote Paul Keating from 1986, “Australia is basically done for, we end up being a third-rate economy... Then you have gone. You are a banana republic.”

So in a strange way, the future of the nation depends on a Labor leader who can lead a united team, and show as much discipline as Abbott did in opposition, but crucially, a level of policy maturity that Abbott did not show.

Moreover, the next Labor leader will need to work hard to make sure Kevin Rudd never again regains the leadership to create the kind of havoc we’ve seen since he returned to power on June 26.

Watching Kevin Rudd’s concession speech last night, it was not at all clear that Rudd intends to lie down after this crushing defeat. Though saying he would not recontest for the leadership of the parliamentary Labor Party, he added, ominously, “You won’t hear my voice in public affairs of the nation for some time, that is as it should be.”

How about ‘never’?

There are four men in the frame for the role of opposition leader (and, err, no women). Chris Bowen, Jason Clare and Anthony Albanese are excellent performers, but all know that if they win a ballot in the days ahead, the cruising shark of Bill Shorten will be there closer to the next election to bite off their political legs.

It is extremely likely, therefore, that Shorten will not only win, but go about shoring up his support within the parliamentary party to ensure that he takes the ALP to the next federal election – be it a double-dissolution election in late 2014, or a normal general election in 2016.

Shorten made it very clear in comments to reporters last night (as did Chris Bowen) that Labor will not back down on carbon pricing. Whether than means Australia going back to the polls next year, or the forcing of a compromise deal such as the Frontier Economics-style model carbon pricing championed by Nick Xenophon, we won’t know for some time.

But if Shorten is opposition leader, he has a grand opportunity to unite the Labor Party and run a disciplined, responsible opposition. He can assist Abbott in delivering ‘grown-up government’ without giving the Coalition an easy ride. If he does so he will be giving himself and Labor the best chance of a comeback in 2016.

There are many damning accounts of Shorten’s personality, and his role in the instability of the last six years of Labor history is well known. But the country doesn’t need nice guys right now.

On both sides of politics, Australia need hard heads and discipline.

If Bowen, Clare or Albanese are put up as expendable opposition leaders with the threat of a Shorten attack looming constantly, Labor will be driven to desperation and cheap tricks to stymie Abbott. That would be an opposition of revenge, and all Australians would be its victims.

Abbott’s win gives the country a new chance to grow – a grown-up’s chance to turn the country around. But the difficult Senate, and the Labor Party, will have as much to do with the state of the nation in three or six years’ time as Abbott himself.