Both in the U.K. and Australia, politics today is different from what it was just a few years ago…
For the past three months, like many of my fellow citizens in the United Kingdom, I have been observing with interest the efforts to get the coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to work smoothly in establishing a government. I suggested in my Cambridge Letter last month that its long-term survival is very much an open question.
Having arrived a few days ago in Australia on a visit to members of my family, I have a strong sense of déjâ vu. Just before my arrival, the Australian general election results were declared. They gave the Labor Party (which had formed the government) 74 votes — two short of the number needed for a majority in the House of Representatives — and the opposition Coalition 73. Everything depended on the small number of independents. By the weekend, two of these had declared their support for Prime Minister Julia Gillard, one for the opposition. With 76 votes Julia Gillard could claim a majority.
So far, so good. The tension of deadlock was replaced by a sigh of relief. The whole process, for a UK observer, was remarkably similar to what had been happening at home: the lack of an overall majority, the behind the scenes negotiations, the continuing uncertainties, and then, at last, a resolution.
There are, however, very marked differences. Most fundamentally, there is a great difference between a coalition between two parties, and a government whose majority depends on a few individuals. Tensions between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats in the UK are inevitable, and could lead the coalition government to collapse — but compromises are possible, and have been taking place, and provided they are sufficient to overcome the suspicions and disagreements between the two parties forming the government, the government will be able to survive. It is undoubtedly a fragile marriage, but it could well continue for many months.
The problem facing Julia Gillard is that the survival of the government that she leads depends not on achieving a compromise with another party, but on retaining the support of two individuals, who will not necessarily agree with each other, let alone with the Gillard-led Labor Party.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that Australia is a federation, where the different states have widely differing priorities. To take a couple of examples, the Labor Party lost its majority in Queensland (where I am writing this), with a gain by the opposition of nine seats out of 30. In Victoria, by contrast, the Labor Party reversed a majority previously held by the Coalition and now has 22 out of 37 seats. What these examples underline is the fact that any federal government has to be conscious of State issues, which will certainly require policy compromises to be made. (There is some – limited – similarity between this reality and the relationship that exists between the central UK government and the Scottish devolved government. Scotland's powers are limited, but the fact that the party balance in the Scottish Assembly is not the same as that in the central UK Parliament opens the possibility of serious tensions developing.)
I make no pretence of being an expert in Australian politics, but one does not have to be an expert to realise that the government that has just been confirmed in office here is resting on shaky foundations. Many commentators, and people with whom I have talked, are suggesting that a new election may be called within months.
The thing which militates against that is that Australia, like many other countries, is facing serious economic problems that demand strong action. If Julia Gillard's government proves itself able to provide such action without alienating the opposing States, and the individuals on whom her majority depends, it may confound the prophets. My guess is that few people would actually be keen to have a new election for its own sake.
In the same way, if in the UK David Cameron's government can introduce measures — which will certainly be widely unpopular — without driving the Liberal Democrats to leave the government, that government may survive longer than the prophets foretell. Here, too, my guess is that few people would actually be keen on a new election.
What there is no doubt about is that in both the United Kingdom and Australia the political landscape is very different from what it was a few months ago. Amid the many uncertainties, that certainty is a positive consequence of two closely fought elections, leading to major structural changes.
Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge, UK. Email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org