The voter’s challenge

Compulsory voting in Australia helps build on our national cynicism, providing a healthy acceptance that the government might be a bunch of ratbags, but they are our ratbags.

The combination of compulsory and preferential voting means that, at least half of us put them higher on our voting ticket than any other bunch of sods. At some level, we said, “Go on, you have a go, you mug. See if you can run the place.”

The 2012 Queensland election result is an interesting case in point. Remember that 90% of the seats have gone to the conservative side of politics and that The Greens have none. Well may Barnaby note that the wheels have fallen of the ALP jalopy.

Loss of faith

I spent the Queensland election day on a booth, handing out how to vote cards, chatting to the other booth workers and talking to voters.

Most voters are there under sufferance. Most voters believe that the fundamental problem with politics is the stupidity of politicians. If they would simply get on with managing the day to day affairs of state there would be no mess for us to get out of.

The ALP fundamentally understood this after the heady Whitlam years, moved the economy to the core of its management policy and has thus successfully shared government with the conservatives for the last 25 years.

The program was initiated by Neville Wran in NSW and brought to national fruition by Hawke and Keating. Internationally it was adopted by Blair in England and Clinton in the US. Keating mastered the art of selling to the electorate the globalisation of the economy and the economic rationalisation of social welfare to the electorate and the trade union movement.

The medium term impact was to make Australia internationally competitive and a global trader of more significance than its population size would indicate.

The long term impact has been the de-unionising and hence casualisation of the workforce. The very cosy relationship with the top end of town has shifted large volumes of wealth from the public to the private sector. Most alarmingly, this includes the demutualisation of our insurance and superannuation sectors.

Having unleashed the genie that bought their soul, those once great social democratic institutions now founder. as genie calls in the favours.

Wayne Swan’s very public, but incredibly narrow, attack on the mega-rich was a callous and calculated attempt to publicly bite the hand that deals out the dog food.

Over the last six years Queensland Labor has lost 350,000 voters. The LNP has gained 360,000 and Katter’s Australian has gained 250,000. There are 200,000 new voters in Queensland now compared to 2006. The swing of 19% in this election campaign is more extreme than the 16% seen in NSW in 2011 or the 6% swing seen in Victoria in 2010 – both of which saw a change in government. The variations in the Greens and independent vote account for the difference.

We might estimate, then, that the anger at Labor is such that about 10% of the electorate who would not normally swing at the end of an electoral cycle is rejecting them as a government. This is consistent with the 230,000 additional people who changed sides compared with the 150,000 who changed sides between 2006 and 2009. Not only are these people angry, the fact that 250,000 went to Katter rather than the LNP shows that those people are not angry with Labor, they are angry with the status quo in politics. It is their story that must dominate any analysis of the political landscape in Queensland.

Deep divisions

One phenomenon raised around the world by commentators in many different fields is the increasing degree of separation between the progressive and conservative elements of society. Social mobility and increased choice in communication and consumption of information means that we can live in suburbs, visit doctors, employ tradespeople, watch television stations and engage in public entertainment with people who largely reflect our attitudes.

The simplification of politics to slogans, the hostility with which people deride “the other” are an outcrop of this phenomenon and it is accelerated by the militarisation of Hollywood and the political end-game around oil.

While that is a global phenomenon and requires philosophical analysis to be fully understood its impact can be seen on the ground in Queensland.

Bob Katter’s Australian Party has taken up the arms of One Nation following the very clever manipulation of Pauline Hanson by John Howard and the ensuing integration of the national and liberal parties in Queensland. The fiercely independent, mostly rural folk, who do not like big government and want to have sensible local control of the basics of life without too much philosophy, diplomacy or international interference have been political pawns of the right and are now keen to play their own game.

They are the redneck donk, the 182cubic inch Holden red motor, under the bonnet of the Liberal Party. These are the voters who respond to the three word slogans of Stop the Boats, No New Tax etc.

Once again, they have their own party which will influence the government on those issues where it can afford to be flexible. Where it cannot, such as when it comes to Coal Seam Gas, the government will desert its rural cousins as it has always done, “in the greater interest”.

One quarter of a million people – 11.5% of Queensland voters – put Katter’s Australian Party first on their ballot.

That is a far better indicator of the nature of the frustration in the electorate.

This is lower than the 400,000 Nationals vote in 2006, the last Qld election in which it was a party in its own right. The Nationals then fielded almost as many votes as the Liberals – 392,000 to 442,000.

It does not include many of the Family First vote which was 40,000 in 2006, 20,000 in 2009 and 32,000 in 2012. It does include most of the 10,000 One Nation voters from 2006 of whom only 2,000 remain.

This means that 240,000 Katter voters have presumably peeled off the flanks of the 1 million strong rural Nationals. Even without the many frustrated rural Laborites this 240,000 is much less dramatic than the Democratic Labor Party split in 1955 or the creation of the Country Party by old-man Page in 1920. It is more reminiscent of the creation of the Democrats, the Australia Party or One Nation.

The passion they bring to the electoral process and the response of the electorate to a seriously underfunded grass-roots campaign is the stuff of Green Dreams.

Limp Greens?

Given the ubiquity of Green philosophy in political slogans, magazine articles, corporate vision statements and so on, it seems counter-intuitive that The Greens have not been able to convert large numbers of voters to their cause.

The numbers in the previous three Queensland elections tell the story.

In 2006 the Green vote across Queensland was 180,000, around eight percent, in 2009 that climbed to 200,000 topping nine percent, this most recent election it is back to 180,000 which is now a little under the eight percent of six years ago.

A seat by seat analysis confirms that the trend is general. In Mount Cootha where the party thought it had the best chance and put large numbers of people on the ground to run an effective, modern political campaign, the result was …

All the commentators, looking at these figures, conclude that the Green march forward is in abeyance. The Greens seem to have hit the traditional plateau of the third party in Australian politics. The expectation is that they will stay there until they unravel or are kicked out by the next big thing.

If the Greens are to, as they have done in Germany, northern NSW and the inner-city suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne, reach the magic one quarter of the vote and lead a progressive partnership with the Labour movement, they have to break through this nexus, cleanly and soon.

The Queensland results show how hungry the electorate is for something different to believe in. The Greens need to fire up the little Green donkey and unleash the inner Green dragon. St Bob’s resignation creates an ideal opportunity for this.

The intense hatred felt toward the present Greens by Katter’s adherents is an important part of this analysis, that will be dealt with next.

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