David Olney: The Federal Election was a Victory for Australian Democracy

It is the afternoon of 22 May, 2022, and it is not yet clear whether Anthony Albanese will lead a majority or minority Labor government here in Australia.

However, what is clear today is that yesterday’s election was a victory for Australian democracy. Rather than deciding which of the two major parties was the least worst on the day, and then resignedly voting for them, somewhere around one third of Australian voters took the decision to vote for what they believe in, instead of voting for the status quo.

A significant number of Australians chose to vote for Teal candidates who hold liberal values, rather than simply voting for a party with liberal in its name. A significant number of Australians voted for the Greens, because they want immediate action on social and environmental justice that the Labor Party is not prepared to deliver on its own. Thousands of Australians voted for One Nation and The United Australia Party, and, in doing so, made it clear that they know what they believe in and how they want Australia to be. And then there is Western Australia, which requires a blog post of its own.

If we are lucky, yesterday marked the end of Australia’s historical obsession with two party politics. We can vote for what we believe in, trust in our preferential voting system to provide a fair outcome, and then hold our representatives to a high standard of consensus building and sensible compromise within our Federal Parliament.

You might be thinking: “this sounds too idealistic and optimistic.” Yes, it is both things, and we should be both idealistic and optimistic. Otherwise, what is the point of living in and contributing to a democracy? Democratic governance is meant to provide a political path for manifesting citizens’ dreams and desires, and should be based on a culture of sensible compromise and consensus building, particularly when what we want does not have majority support within our society, or our Federal Parliament.

One of the ironies of Australian federal politics is that it hasn’t been a two party race for decades. The Liberals couldn’t rule on their own, and the Nationals couldn’t rule on their own, so they learned how to formalise an uncomfortable (and often ugly) alliance, because being in government is better than being in opposition. The Labor party had lots of experience working with the cross-bench while Julia Gillard was Australia’s Prime Minister. Whether alliances between parties are formal, or informal, does not really matter: what is significant is that citizens can see their beliefs and aspirations reflected in and represented by the candidates we vote for.

During last night’s election coverage, Simon Birmingham said that the Liberals will have to rethink who their core constituents are and what policy positions they want. I’m not sure if he was in shock, or disingenuous, but he should reflect on what he said. What he seems to have been implying is that the party should change to gain the support of people who didn’t vote for them. The Liberal party began its march to the right under John Howard in the middle of the 1990s, which kept them in power for the majority of the previous quarter century. They were in power, but in order to stay there they sacrificed their historical liberal values for mean-spirited neo-conservative and neo-liberal politics under a Liberal banner. It took until this year for Australians to say enough to this disingenuousness, and between the Teal wave and voter frustration Australia finally said no to our illiberal Liberal Party.

The Labor Party has also had a confused identity since Hawke and Keating forge-welded neo-liberal economic and moderate social policies together in the 1980s. What the Labor Party stands for has not been clear since then. In practice, the Labor Party has come to stand for moderate progressive politics: they are not as progressive as the Greens, and they won’t shake off their commitment to dysfunctional neo-liberal economics anytime soon.

Consequently what Liberal and Labor stand for today is very different to what they stood for in the 1970s. Of course, circumstances change over time, but there should always be continuity between what political parties believe and do, and what they call themselves. If voters can’t identify this continuity, and can’t confirm that this aligns with their own beliefs, then that party is eventually going to pay for their misrepresentation. Labor paid for their misalignment from 1996 until at least 2007, and need to remember not to promise everything to everyone.

Last night, the media made a big deal about how low the Labor Party’s primary vote was. Let’s look at this another way: maybe 31% of Australian voters recognised that Labor stands for moderately progressive politics, and that this is the kind of politics they want to vote for. Meanwhile, Australians who want more progressive politics voted Green, and Australians who want more liberal politics voted Teal. The lesson that can be drawn from this is that political parties should say what they are and be what they say.

Whether the Liberal Party should become more liberal, or just own their mean-spirited neo-conservative, neo-liberal beliefs is up to them. Based on the seats they lost last night, it is highly unlikely that they want to (Or can) become more liberal anytime soon. There is still a constituency who want what they are offering; it is just not a big enough constituency to keep them in government.

Over the next three years, we can expect politicians from across the spectrum to complain about how difficult it is to govern in a Parliament with more diverse representation. What I would like to say to them is: shut up and get on with it. The world is full of diversity, and people are similar and different to each other. Anytime there are more than two people involved in making a decision, there should be more than two perspectives, and people are capable of dealing with complexity and finding a sophisticated way forward. Australia has a chance to start doing better as of today, and doing so depends on our political parties knowing what they stand for and saying what they stand for, as well as on Australians having the courage to vote for what they believe in.

David Olney