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The 2013 Federal Election: Festival of Democracy?

Elections are sometimes referred to as ‘festivals of democracy’: a reminder that the right to vote is precious and ought to be celebrated by those who enjoy it. What if the recent federal election really was a festival though?

In January, the 44th Australian Election Festival was announced for 14 September 2013 by festival organiser, Julia Gillard. The line-up included a host of festival-favourites spanning the genres of Labor, the Coalition and the Greens, as well as a record number of emerging artists, many of whom will play their chosen instruments for the first time. Some pundits questioned the timing of Gillard’s announcement, accusing her of trying to steal the limelight from another popular festival, the Ratings Festival.

Julia Gillard herself was scheduled to co-headline alongside Tony Abbott, the prominent Liberal artist whose performance at the 43rd AEF was only second to Gillard’s. However, in June, after a series of poor sideshow performances, Gillard was replaced by her predecessor, Kevin Rudd. Rudd was initially welcomed back into the limelight, until fans realised that, like Meatloaf, Rudd’s musical skills had deteriorated with the passage of time.

Fans pleaded on social media sites Facebook and Twitter for Tony Abbott to be replaced by Malcolm Turnbull, whose style is said to better compliment that of Rudd. No change was made to the line-up though. However Rudd stamped his authority on the festival by changing the date to 7 September 2013 to better suit his own fans.

At the festival, Tony Abbott easily drew the biggest crowd. Abbott performed a set of reliable classics, including the radio hit ‘Stop the Boats’ that features the dog whistle instrument synonymous with Liberal music. Co-headliner Kevin Rudd often abandoned his own personal style, shifting ever closer to Abbott’s. At other times, Rudd experimented wildly with new musical ideas, much to the chagrin of fans. The crowd was so unimpressed by Rudd’s performance that attendances at other Labor artists’ sets suffered also.

Like Rudd, AEF sophomore Jaymes Diaz also performed poorly leading up to the festival. In one bungled gig, Diaz forgot several lines to his own hit song, ‘Six Point Plan’. Video footage of the blooper went viral and Diaz cancelled all remaining appearances for the year. Fans were more forgiving of emerging artist Clive Palmer though. Despite several poor performances throughout 2013 and launching a racist tirade on stage, fans still turned out to see the festival newcomer in droves.

Before the festival had even ended, the 44th instalment of the AEF was already drawing criticism from fans. A scheduling error meant that Wayne Dropulich and Ricky Muir, two high school students that won a Triple J competition to appear at the festival, performed in front of thousands of fans on the main stage. Dropulich and Muir were “stoked” to play in front of such a huge crowd; however fans expressed their outrage on Twitter at being forced to listen to two “nobodys” (sic) due to the mishap. There will be pressure on incoming festival organiser, Tony Abbott, to take steps to ensure this blunder is not repeated next time around.

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Ok, enough of that. On a serious note, the recent federal election was anything but a ‘festival of democracy’. Interest among the Australian public was low, the two major parties’ policies were remarkably similar and, months before polling, the result was already a foregone conclusion. For young Australians, in particular, there is little to celebrate about the 2013 election.

At the time of writing, several House of Representatives and Senate seats are yet to be determined. The ABC predicts that the Coalition will win 91 seats in the House of Representatives, Labor 55, the Greens one and Katter’s Australia Party one, with the remaining two seats to be held by independents. Of the 40 Senate seats contested at the election, the Coalition will likely win 17, Labor 12 and the Greens four, while the remaining seven seats will be split between seven ‘very minor’ parties.

The upshot of all this is that the Coalition will have a clear majority in the House of Representatives. Remarkably, the Greens’ Adam Bandt retained the seat of Melbourne despite Labor and the Coalition’s combined effort to unseat him. Due to the Coalition’s clear majority, Bandt will not have the same power that he had in the hung parliament.

In the Senate, the Greens will retain the balance of power until July of next year when the newly elected Senators take office. From July, assuming Labor votes against the Coalition, the Coalition will need support from five minor party Senators to pass legislation. This support is likely to come from several of the very minor parties rather than the Greens.

Having secured the right to form government, Tony Abbott and his ministry were officially sworn in by the Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, on 18 September. Julie Bishop, who will take on the role of Foreign Affairs Minister, was the only female named in a cabinet of 19. This figure is a poor one by Australian and world standards. There were six women in Kevin Rudd’s second cabinet and there are currently two in the Afghan cabinet!

What makes the lack of women in Abbott’s cabinet inexcusable is that there was no shortage of women available for him to choose from. Despite the Coalition’s continuing poor record on female representation in parliament, it’s not like there’s no women in the Coalition at all.

Abbott named four women in his outer ministry and appointed one female parliamentary secretary. Collectively, these women have 52 years of parliamentary experience. Senator Mathias Cormann, Abbott’s newly appointed Finance Minister and easily the biggest winner of the cabinet announcement, has only six years of parliamentary experience. Why was there room for Senator Cormann in Abbott’s cabinet but no room for experienced female parliamentarians like Sussan Ley or Senator Marise Payne?

To top it off, Abbott named himself as the minister representing women’s affairs, albeit assisted by a woman, Senator Michaelia Cash. The irony of Abbott’s appointment is almost unbelievable when one considers that only 11 months ago Prime Minister Gillard delivered her famous misogyny speech.

Little solace comes from knowing that Abbott would have added another woman to his cabinet if Sophie Mirabella had won re-election in the Victorian seat of Indi. Of course that was not to be, as independent candidate Cathy McGowan spectacularly defeated Mirabella in a close contest.

Voters all over Australia watched closely the marathon vote count in Indi in the days after polling before the Abbott government officially took office. The voters of Indi had clearly lost faith in Mirabella, who was aloof at the best of times and disregarded her constituents at worst. But to left-of-centre voters everywhere, Indi carried symbolic weight. McGowan had the ability to deliver something of a parting shot to the Coalition on their behalf, by unseating one of the Coalition’s most hated figures.

Paradoxically, while Australians rejoiced in McGowan’s victory, we have not been as accepting of the record number of Senators elected from outside the Coalition-Labor-Greens paradigm. At the time of writing, the following very minor parties are on track to secure one Senate seat each: Liberal Democratic Party, Palmer United Party, Nick Xenophon Group, Family First Party, Australian Sex Party, Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party and Australian Sports Party. Several of the above parties received only a tiny fraction of the primary vote but achieved the ‘quota’ needed for election due to preference flows from other parties.

There have already been numerous calls for reform, to prevent parties with so little primary support from getting elected to the Senate in future. Even if one accepts that there is a problem to be fixed, the broad range of possible reforms will make the process of reform a lengthy one. Elsewhere in this edition, Monash University Senior Lecturer Dr Nick Economou urges would-be reformers to proceed with caution. According to Economou, it’s the vote and not the voting system that is to blame for having elected such a diverse Senate (see p.12).

Calls for reform of the Senate will no doubt be a constant while the incoming Senators remain in office. Whether this translates into actual reform is less certain though. A brief look at the history of electoral reform in Australia reveals that successful electoral reform only occurs when the party in government stands to benefit electorally. When the Hawke-Labor government introduced ‘above the line’ voting in time for the 1984 election, it did so to combat the high informal vote in the Senate, which had until then disadvantaged Labor. Australians should be sceptical of any proposal for Senate reform.

There is seemingly no end to the bad news stemming from this year’s election outcome. Tony Abbott’s cabinet will be the first since 1931 to be without a Science Minister, casting further doubt over Abbott’s already feeble commitment to deal with climate change. The Coalition’s ‘border protection’ policy and planned cuts to Australia’s foreign aid budget will go ahead, while a vote on marriage equality almost certainly will not. On the issues that matter most to young Australians, the 2013 federal election failed to deliver.

Former Labor Senator John Black, writing in The Australian recently, said that the 2013 federal election result was not an endorsement of the Coalition but a denunciation of Labor. Labor’s internal dysfunction and its failure to distinguish itself from the Coalition on important social issues – like asylum seekers – guaranteed early on that it would lose the 2013 election and that a conservative government would be elected instead. Not only can young Australians let down by Labor not celebrate in the election result, there was no incentive to join in the festival of democracy itself.

James Brooks

The author James Brooks

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