Tuesday, July 24, 2012

We agree on most things, right?

THE winner in Saturday's byelection was the party that didn't stand. The Liberals stood back to watch as Labor and the Greens fractured the alliance that is the alternative to them, with neither winning a real victory.

Labor held the seat, and with it came the end of the era when the Greens could expect preferences to favour them. Yet at the end of counting on Saturday night, Labor's vote was down 2.3 per cent on first preferences, and 4.8 per cent on the two-party-preferred vote. Melbourne was a safe Labor seat for 100 years, yet on Saturday Labor won just a third of the vote.

The Greens' vote rose by 4 to 5 per cent on both measures, but they lost again in an election they had expected to win. The results confirmed that preferences are now working against them. Without preferences, the Greens will not win lower house seats in future. Without seats, they will lose momentum. Without momentum, they will revert to the fringes.

It was a weird result. As of Saturday night, only 66 per cent of the voters had cast a vote, and 8.5 per cent of those were informal. In 2010, 84 per cent of Melbourne's electors cast a formal vote; this time, it will be around 64 per cent. One can assume that most of the absent 20 per cent would have voted Liberal: so had the Liberals stood, Labor's vote would have been lower still.

The Liberals must have been left chuckling when NSW Right powerbroker Sam Dastyari attacked the Greens his government's partners as loopy extremists akin to One Nation. The only thing voters can conclude from that is that the Labor-Greens alliance is a mismatch of enemies, an unstable partnership bound to fail.

All three parties need to step back and take a look at how they relate to each other. The Liberals dominate the federal scene, but their lead is brittle when the polls show half their own supporters want Malcolm Turnbull to replace Tony Abbott as leader. And while Ted Baillieu may have no plausible rival, his own polls are worrying for a first-term government that should be on its honeymoon.

Baillieu has enemies to the left and right, but fewer friends than he deserves when his government is mostly making sensible decisions. A prime example is its decision to reopen New Street, one of Brighton's main roads, by installing relatively cheap boom gates. It rejected the two bad options: to leave a main road closed, as Labor did, or to put in an expensive underpass, as some locals wanted. You just wish it would apply the same common sense by revisiting its excessive TAFE cuts and scrapping its wasteful policy to put two security guards on every railway station.

But, of course, Labor and the Greens can't praise any decision by the Baillieu government, because we seem to have a new rule that oppositions must oppose virtually everything a government does. The only Gillard government policy that Abbott supports is to send soldiers to fight in Afghanistan.

My thesis is that Australia, and Victoria, cannot afford the degree of political partisanship we now have. The centre needs to be strengthened. In reality, most of us agree on most things. We need political structures that reflect that.

There will always be partisanship: politics is a contact sport. But we need to create a second avenue, in which big long-term issues are dealt with on a bipartisan (or all-party) basis, so that business has certainty about future policy frameworks and can plan investments accordingly.

Last week I wrote on the impasse on infrastructure investment. We want better roads and public transport, but, egged on by whoever is in opposition, we oppose every means of paying for them: higher taxes, higher debt or user charges such as road tolls.

Past governments dealt with this by handing such issues to all-party committees to resolve on the understanding that they suspend hostilities on the issue and work for a joint decision, rather than split on party lines. It offers oppositions a partial share of power, so that decisions with big consequences are made by weighing up long-term costs and benefits, not short-term political ones.

Climate change is another issue on which a bipartisan approach is needed. Whatever system we adopt to tackle it, it will work only if business can trust future governments to honour commitments made by the current one.

The Liberal Party supported a carbon price under John Howard, Brendan Nelson and Turnbull as leaders. Climate change requires a long-term bipartisan policy so business can invest with confidence that the goalposts will not be moved. Kevin Rudd wasted his opportunity by trying to use the issue to divide the Liberals, ultimately causing his own downfall.

Australia deserves better. We won't get it from Abbott, who is partisan to the core. We won't get it from Gillard or Rudd either. But we could get it from Baillieu and Daniel Andrews. They could show the next generation of Australian political leaders the benefits of taking some big, politically difficult issues out of partisan politics to get the decision right.

Where would the Greens fit into this? In Tasmania and the ACT, they are working well in coalition or partnership with Labor governments, and accept compromise as normal. In Victoria, they seem to stand alone. Should they be islands of purity, or build bridges to become part of the main game?

Their model should be Germany where the Green "realos" (realists) wrested control from the "fundis" (fundamentalists) to became part of the Schroeder government which transformed the country and form state governments with both sides. Compromise is not a dirty word.