Modia Minotaur

Trawling the airwaves to spare you the agony!

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Balancing Power

Cross-posted on Larvatus Prodeo

In an extraordinary live interview on Friday's Stateline, host Quentin Dempster has challenged Peter Debnam to stand down in favour of his deputy, Barry O'Farrell, who is widely expected to take the leadership soon after the State election (notwithstanding the ridiculous suggestions that Pru Goward would, in an act that would exude desperation, be fast-tracked into the top job). Dempster's main charge was that Debnam's open concession of defeat was disingenous - nothing more than a late lunge for protest votes.

I think Dempster's was a fair assessment. The dynamics change in the final week, as voting intentions solidify, and the message behind this strategy is simple. Sure, we won't win - but you can help us give the government a bit of a knee in the groin (and perhaps get a few Liberals in marginal seats over the line to boot).

Poor old Debbers. Undoubtedly, he knows as well as we do that his lacklustre leadership is destined to expire in just over a week's time, and yet, for one more sordid week, he has to keep up the facade. It's not often that an election is regarded as so comprehensively unwinnable by one side or another, even though the government hardly enjoys the wide support it did at the time of the 2003 election. Protest votes certainly will occur, and while they won't decide the election, they could indicate to the government who represents the perceived cure to what such voters are protesting about.

In all likelihood, the Opposition will win some grudging protest votes, though not as many as they might have had their selection of candidates been more inspiring, and their leadership not been so uninspiring (come to think of it, agreeing to Dempster's suggestion might have been the only thing Debnam could have done to win a late surge of support). In calling the task to government on everything but offering little of substance as an alternative, protesters hardly have much to plump for.

I still maintain that the Greens will not do any better this year in the crucial Labor vs Greens two party preferred seats - and may even go backwards - though they could increase their vote in some suburban areas in which they have never previously been much of a force. This would be good for their primary vote, which has hovered at around 10% for years, but not for their prospects of a Lower House seat. Following the election, as I've already discussed, the Greens may face a wider malaise. Robbed of their key policy platform, they have already begun to move onto others, such as public education and workers' rights - issues on which Labor is on pretty firm ground.

And, of course, there are the Independents.

Much has been said about the cult of the Independent, and the possibility, given the large number of three-cornered contests at this election, of Independents holding the balance of power. There are two strictly divergent views on how good a thing this might be.

One view sees the Independent as the paragon of integrity bravely navigating the murky sea of party politics; the ones who make sure extreme legislation emerges without the spiky bits, and that their own proposals emerge with too-hot-to-handle spiky bits intact. This was, of course, the philosophy of the Democrats - and, as a moderate balance-of-power party, their philosophy worked quite well for a while (cut to today, and the best known policy of NSW's sole remaining Democrat, Arthur Chesterfield-Evans, is to cut NSW State Parliament to the nub and eventually abolish it altogether).

I've also heard a notion being propagated is that a hung parliament would be `more democratic'. Quite frankly, there is little that is less democratic than the elevation of single individuals to the status of parties which are collectively elected. Democracy dictates that the majority view ultimately takes prominence; instead, the opposite occurs, and a minority of only a few individuals may determine wider policy in a manner quite unrelated to their numbers or actual representativeness. Hence, situations such as, for example, the attempted ban of Adrian Lyne's film adaptation of `Lolita' - the only place when such a ban was even suggestsed - not because there was any genuine public groundswell on the matter, but because one particularly conservative Independent, Brian Harradine, had to be kept placated. A party whose policies are distasteful may be voted out; an Independent MP can only be voted out by the constituents of his or her own electorate. Even when not holding the balance of power, Independents receive inordinately generous treatment by governments who want to make sure they are onside, should they need their support in the future.

Certainly, many Independents are very popular - the safest seat in NSW is held by one - perhaps partially due to this phenomenon, but for other reasons, too. Independents often generate a significant personality cult around themselves - sometimes far more than any party could decently indulge in - and though they are not held to any party line, nor are they subject to the accountability processes party membership affords. (Peter Breen soon learned this during his brief time as a member of the Labor Party). Clover Moore, for example, is often described as a progressive MP, yet closer examination of her voting record shows that she votes with the Liberal Party far more often than with Labor. The mantra of the Independent - the party line, if you will - is `Trust me, as I'll make a better decision. I just will'. A voter who votes for an Independent is placing an awful lot of trust in that person's individual judgement on every issue.

There certainly is a good argument for `keeping the bastards honest' - again, the formation of the Democrats was a decent and genuinely more democratic idea - but I do think that seeing the people with such disproportionate power being seen as unimpeachable and their integrity beyond question, is one that certainly bears more discussion and debate.


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