Post-Election I: Across the Threshold

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This is one of a planned series of short posts covering various aspects of the 2016 election.

Much remains uncertain following Saturday's poll, but it is apparent that Australia has moved across the threshold that had insulated its politics from the populist upheavals underway in the United States and Europe. The election foreshadows greater instability in the years to come.

A dull campaign managed to turn in to something exciting on Saturday evening, as it became clear that the size of the swing against the Turnbull government was bigger than most had anticipated. Now, three days later, we're still waiting for the result in those ten House of Representatives races that will determine which major party is likely to form government. The results of these races will probably not emerge until tomorrow at the earliest, and could take as long as a month according to the good folks at the Electoral Commission.

The uncertainty surrounding the election's ultimate result makes conventional political prognostication, regarding such issues as who will form government and leadership of the major parties, very difficult. However, the most important feature of the election is already evident: Australia's hitherto stable two-party system is under stress.

The major parties took a walloping in their primary votes. The counting that has been done so far reveals that almost a quarter of voters gave their first preference to 'other', rather than to Labor or the Coalition. This is the highest this figure has been in Australian political history. Despite Shorten's election night boast that "Labor is back", his party had its second-worst performance (after 2013) in the post-war era. Almost as bad, the Coalition's primary vote was so poor that it only managed to equal its showing in the heavy defeat of 2007. This has led to some embarrassing results for the major parties, with the Liberals losing the blue-ribbon seat of Mayo to the Nick Xenophon Team, and Labor threatened in the formerly-safe seat of Batman by the Greens.

The results in the Senate appear just as grim for the majors. Such a high proportion of voters opted for minor parties that it looks as though the upper house will be even more, ahem, diverse and less manageable than the previous one. The enlarged crossbench will include Greens, the Xenophon Team, Jacquie Lambie, Derryn Hinch, One Nation, and others. Taken together, the major parties lost around 1.5 million first preference votes nationwide.

This is what Chris Uhlmann has dubbed 'voter rage', and news.com.au, more colourfully, the "up yours vote". The political mainstream is being abandoned by a growing number of people and, as some of our more perceptive commentators realise, this is not a dynamic that will disappear anytime soon.

Without question, some of the anti-establishment feeling on display in Saturday's poll can be explained with reference to the particularities of this campaign. Most obviously, the disenchantment of the Liberal supporter base with the party leadership since the Turnbull coup, in combination with the lacklustre campaign run by party headquarters, contributed to the fall in the Liberal primary vote. However, it would be a mistake to attribute the dismal performance solely to 'the Turnbull factor' or particular campaign decisions. Despite what the nu-males of the IPA will claim, the problems faced by the two-party system go much deeper than individual leaders or the timing of the Budget.

Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi has presented a better understanding of the causes of Saturday's revolt than most journalists. In an interview with 7.30, he described the problem as "a crisis of confidence in politics", typified by his party's willingness to embrace "fringe issues" rather than those put forward as concerns by the Australian mainstream

such as immigration, such as our culture, such as preserving our way of life...All of these small parties that are speaking up for issues that many Australians feel very concerned about are gathering the votes from us because we haven't adequately been reflecting those issues.

Bernardi is correct to identify the major parties' tendency to prioritise the causes of the urban elite as a major input into the emerging populist sentiment, and he has been speaking on the subject for some time. A large cross-section of middle Australia feels itself as without a voice in the Parliament, and so is turning to alternatives.

Though enunciated in different terms, former Labor leader Kim Beazley also understands the strong cultural and economic currents eroding public confidence in the two-party system. On the back of his experience as our ambassador in Washington, where he saw the emergence of the Trump phenomenon first-hand, Beazley has glimpsed what the future has in store for us. He describes a popular resentment, mistrustful of the political and media establishment, that is beginning to take hold in this country. In combination with stagnating middle class wages, the housing affordability crisis and poor youth employment prospects, he believes that Australian politics is on the verge of being upended by a populist wave within a couple of electoral cycles.

Both Bernardi and Beazley are right. Saturday's result was only the foreshadowing of a populist backlash that will come to define Australian politics in the years ahead. As the major parties are further exposed as the captives of sectional interests and contemptuous of the Australian mainstream, we will see the rise of popular radical alternatives on both the left and the right. We have crossed the threshold into a new era.

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Giant Bean

An Enormous Legume

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