on an agreement

goatThe 2010 election delivered up a ‘plague on both your houses’ outcome that is still kicking out the occasional aftershock. To a visitor from Europe there would be nothing particularly remarkable about the idea of a multi-hued Parliament in which political parties and independents are forced to sit down and negotiate on the passage of laws. That, after all, is what Parliaments were designed to do. But there’s something in the Australian political culture, from the press gallery to the opposition benches, that refuses to understand or assimilate the reality of a minority government.

Like a snake that swallowed a goat, there’s the grudging understanding that this has to be endured and passed through somehow, an unwillingness to digest the reality, and an expectation that eventually things will get back to normal once the goat gets what it deserves.

The entrenched phase ‘both sides of politics’ sums up the sullen denial nicely, as though the somewhat more than 1.5 million people who voted greens and independents can be waved aside or baked into ‘two party preferred’ results that airbrush out the juicy reality.

The transition has been under way for a while. The Greens play a role in minority governments in the ACT and Tasmania, where there is a power sharing arrangement that extends to Greens holding cabinet positions. We’ve held or shared balance of power in legislatures in New South Wales and Western Australia.

If you read some of the more cheerfully unhinged sections of the corporate press, you’ll be told Bob Brown is running the country, commencing the transition to a deindustrialised socialist dystopia, or that we’re just living through a period of unparalleled incompetence.  The Federal ALP has played beautifully to this narrative by repeatedly punching itself in the face, a spectacle at once dismal and strangely mesmerising.

To her credit, the Prime Minister has proven adept at the art of the possible, steering through substantial reforms – private health insurance, the watered down mining tax, the NBN – while juggling the competing demands of a rowdy crossbench.

Tony Abbott’s strategy has been to hurl himself repeatedly at the fragile looking agreements of convenience holding the government together, with an expectation that they would fall apart under his bruising onslaught. No such luck.

What appears to be sinking in is that not only will the Government go full term, but this odd arrangement has proven remarkably resilient. For those who pay attention to such things, opinion polls show a slow but steady improvement in the Government’s fortunes since around last August. If the Government can keep itself from committing further acts of political self harm, at some point the blowtorch is going to be turned on the Tories. At the point at which it becomes apparent that victory is slipping away from Team Abbott, the deep, poorly concealed fault lines in the coalition party room may well awaken, with wonderfully messy consequences.

Kicking the crap out of the diverse alliances making up this minority government probably made sense for the first few months, but the strategy is looking increasingly empty.

The thing is, whoever commands a working majority in the House of Representatives gets to form Government. In 2010, Prime Minister Gillard stitched together just such a majority. Not only has it withstood Mr Abbott’s carnivorous style of scorched earth opposition, it has actually been a highly productive Parliament. Some of the highest profile achievements were foreshadowed in the agreement struck between the Greens and the PM the August before last: the carbon price, preliminary work on an east coast high speed rail line, recognition of prior Aboriginal occupation in the Constitution, the foundations of Denticare.

In exchange for progress on these policy initiatives and quite a few others, the Greens made a commitment to not arbitrarily crash the Government, either through blocking the budget or supporting a no confidence motion. Apart from that agreement, all options are open: we’re free to vote as we choose on the issues the other parties bowl up. Perhaps most significantly, we’ve been able to open up space for debating and passing our own bills – first Bob’s bill on restoring the rights of the Territories, then Adam’s on protecting firefighters.

Perhaps this is the bit that has the conservative commentariat the most foamy. The idea that a progressive political formation comprising only 10 members out of a Parliament of 226 could possibly have part of its agenda implemented – passed into law – is the indigestible goat.

Tasty, tasty goat.

First published in the Kings Tribune, http://www.kingstribune.com/
April 2012.