Welcome democracy, welcome chaos.
I've been nothing short of a political junkie in the weeks leading to the election but now that 'it' is all over it seems the trip has only just begun. Like a lot of people I expected the Labor Party to win. Not by much, but to win. Basically it seemed like despite my various dissatisfactions with the government, it was inconceivable that most people could choose him.
I was raised in this political system, and despite the historical blips of splinter parties, minor parties, single issue parties and independents, it is and has always been a two horse race. A few senators, a couple of members of the lower house have never been, nor even implied, an alternative to the binary choices of Liberal and Labor. And like most people in this country I was raised in one of those two camps, and like the vast majority of Australians when forced to choose, I would elect to remain in my family tradition.
As the numbers started to come in on Saturday night I was stunned. And then I got cross. I felt cross with the people who let their frustrations with the government result in voting for a party who represent so many of the things I just can't sign up to, things they didn't want to sign up to just a few years ago. I'm cross that the 'issues' that dominated the campaign are at the heart of it pretty marginal to what makes or breaks good government, and that the really important stuff pretty much remained under the carpet.
But I felt even crosser, so much crosser, that the simple reality of the two party race seems to elude so many voters. One poll that was cited claimed that 25% of voters who had moved to the Coalition (or who shifted away from Labor, I'm not sure which) did so as a protest against the government but based on the belief that Labor would still win. In other words they voted for someone they didn't support to try and tell the party they do support that they were unhappy. I just can't get past how self defeating this is. The idea that you can vote in such a way as to say none of the above (even if in a two horse race you know exactly who you would back) denies the reality that someone has to mind the store.
I am not one who subscribes to the notion that the two major parties are peas in a pod. There are real and important differences between them, however much we may feel Labor has shifted to the right or the Liberal party has abandoned it's roots. Their failure to agree on super profit taxes or GP clinics in hospitals or computers in classrooms or broadband infrastructure are not insignificant. But politics only goes so far in writing the government's to do list. The biggest part of the agenda is taken up with stuff that's beyond politics, doing the best you can with the available knowledge, using measures and decision making tools that are largely accepted as the best for the most.
As someone who works in government, as distinct from politics, it can be very frustrating to feel that the everyday work of democracy (that would be running the country, paying the bills, employing the people who deliver the services, building the roads, assessing your tax return and so on) is held up, made inefficient and unnecessarily laboured by political shenanigans. The rights people have in a democratic country to make determinations about what should be done, and how, are often confused with the job of actually doing it. The importance of exercising your democratic voice to shape your community looms larger than the expertise to make good decisions.
How funding models for hospitals should work, or whether we should buy more ambulances or kidney dialysis machines, or whether we should have safe injecting rooms or if we should have a national high school curriculum or if teachers should get performance pay and if so how much and who should get it are all things any of us might have a view on. But do any of us know as much about any of these things as the people who have spent their lives investigating those questions? How do we balance the role of widespread engagement with policy issues and the need for the people who know the most about it to just get on with it?
And on Sunday morning I felt very much like quite a few people were saying, you know what? I would rather those decision just didn't get made than for them to be made by people who I don't think do a good enough job. And I'll be honest in saying I felt angry that so many who understand so little about what it takes to make this whole song and dance number work were blowing off the work of so many doing things that are invisible to most people. Yeah, I'm pissed off with Julia and the faceless men from the Right so heck, let's see what happens when we just shut it all down.
It's Thursday now and I don't feel quite the same way. I was lucky enough to catch the panel interview with 4 of the key non major party players at the Press Club on Wednesday and along with conversations with some of my more erudite friends I am thinking about it a little differently. What I found most interesting is that as well as challenging exactly which issues should be holding the floor, the very notion of two party binary opposition has been challenged. I was heartened to see that perhaps there was some scope for shifting the paradigm, because this is one of those moments when the fundamental differences between people can't be controlled with a party whip. Somewhere, somehow, these people are going to have to find some way to negotiate and move through disagreement, and not all of that will be hidden behind the caucus door.
And in case you think I'm going all third way I'll say straight off I don't see this as the death knell of the party system or the event horizon for honest or transparent of real politics. Despite welcoming a little debate and a more open access to the decision making process, at the heart of it government is too big, and too complex to be carried out in the sun. Managing diversity of opinion is a time consuming process, and no matter how healthy debate and engagement is, it has to be selective in what it chooses to give airtime to. At least a good portion of the time, people have to agree to let stuff go and only fight for the stuff they really care about. If you pull this right along the spectrum you reach the tight party organisation the independents so object to, you drag it up the other end and every issue that anyone cares about gets fought through like wrestling cats.
And let us not gloss over the fact that a very small number of people who represent a very small number of people will be holding a degree of power over the agenda that is highly undemocratic. Much of what's being said about genuine power sharing and honest deal brokering is a lot of bull, because 3 blokes in suits are calling the shots and making it all too clear that they won't be supporting anything that's not in the interests of their own constituents (regardless of how many other members will have to do just that in order to keep the alliances strong).
So I don't think I'm finished with this, not by a long shot. I see the future and it's full of murky water and perfect conditions for breeding all kinds of hazardous bacteria. But whatever happens, I'll be watching with interest.