There are few certainties left in Australian politics. Two months ago, the Labor party moved to terminate its leader, Kevin Rudd – the first time a prime minister had been toppled by his own party before facing re-election. On Saturday, it was the turn of voters to overturn one of the general laws of electoral behaviour. It has been a long time since it last happened – namely, with the Scullin Labor government in 1931 – but a government has failed to secure a second term in its own right.
The result is disastrous for Labor. To be sure, a hung parliament means that Prime Minister Julia Gillard may yet form a minority government with the support of independent and Green MPs. But it is just as plausible that Liberal-conservative leader Tony Abbott may broker a minority government of his own. It may take several days, even a week, before either transpires. All this is unfamiliar territory, governed by nebulous convention. Australia hasn’t had a minority government since 1940.
Labor should never have faced this prospect. Under Rudd’s leadership, a Labor government had steered the Australian economy through the global financial crisis. Australia was the only OECD economy that didn’t experience a recession; unemployment peaked at 5%. It is remarkable that an Australian electorate would repudiate a government in such circumstances. Those who haven’t been following events in Canberra in recent months are entitled to be puzzled.
It was always a risk for Gillard to call an election last month after barely four weeks as PM. But after signalling from the outset that she would be seeking a mandate from the people before year’s end, Gillard gave herself little room to manoeuvre.
This created two problems for Labor. In the first place, Labor relinquished the advantages of incumbency. Gillard fought this campaign not as the PM but as an applicant for the office. Second, there was no time for the wounds inflicted by the June putsch to heal. Damaging leaks about Gillard’s opposition to an increase in pensions and to a paid parental leave scheme, which many believe were made by an embittered Rudd (or an agent of Rudd’s), undermined Labor’s campaign. For almost two weeks, Labor had to defend itself against the charge that a party that can’t govern itself can’t govern a nation.
Abbott, an enfant terrible of Australian rightwing conservatism, ran a disciplined campaign. He has dispelled doubts about his capacity to be prime minister. It has been a remarkable transformation, built on a series of shrewd strategic moves. Since deposing Malcolm Turnbull as Liberal leader, Abbott successfully cast Labor’s emissions trading scheme as “a great big new tax”, triggering a fall in popular support for climate change mitigation. His hardline stance on asylum seekers and attacks on rising government debt were linchpins of a relentlessly negative campaign effort.
However, Labor’s cannibalism and self-destruction represent the real story of this election. The palace coup against Rudd, engineered by factional powerbrokers, reflected a party increasingly dominated by a nihilistic, all-consuming party machine. In political terms, it deprived Labor of its most potent narrative. How could Labor run on the record of Rudd’s economic management when it had deposed him? This was a question Labor strategists were never able to answer convincingly.
This hung parliament brings to an end three years of Labor government characterised by gulfs between rhetoric and policy delivery. Nowhere was this more clearly demonstrated than with climate change. Rudd may have famously described climate change as “the greatest moral challenge of our time”, but when confronted with Senate opposition he chose to abandon his emissions trading scheme legislation (rather than dissolve parliament).
Labor might still manage to form a minority government. If it does, it will have had a near-death experience. If it doesn’t, a return to opposition would be punishment for a term of wasted opportunities and political incompetence.
Tim Soutphommasane, an Australian political theorist and columnist for The Australian.