How the factional infighting over the ETS can renew Australian democracy
And so it went. Tony Abbot wins the Liberal Party leadership. Malcolm Turnbull and his supporters lose. The ETS is shot down. These are interesting and, extraordinarily, actually exciting for Australian politics. I was stuck in traffic late this morning listening in to Radio National 702 on the latest Liberal Party spat in Canberra. Of course, the perverse part in all of us onlookers just enjoys the drama as a way of exciting our mundane existence, and in this I am no different. However, as a non-partisan-aligned radical democrat, I think the other reason we might be thrilled by all this is that - disagree as we may with the Liberal Party - this is a whiff of the dynamism, uncertainty and indeed excitement of democracy as it should be. Radical democracy is premised on the direct and robust involvement of the citizenry in politics, and yes, this involves the agonistic struggle over all issues that may affect them. 'Normality' in this reckoning should be understood as 'plastic', i.e. temporarily moulded to suit the needs of the maximum amount of participants and always liable to be re-shaped as required by new contingencies. When I was in the shower today (the site of much thinking for me), I started seeing possibilities for the 'renewal' of Australian democracy in all of this controversy over a lame-duck Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). Of course, the following a fantasy sequence of events, but one that is now within the realm of the possible: 1. The ETS is blocked in the senate by the Liberal Party senators (who vote in the party room to reject the bill) 2. The Labor Party, frustrated by the second blockage of the ETS and sensing an opportunity to capitalise on Liberal Party disunity, calls for a double dissolution election. 3. The Labor Party, whose 'third-way' balancing act on the ETS has actually divided its own constituents - on the one hand, because of its generous concessions to big pollutors and overall weakness compared to the recommendations of Prof. Garnaut's report on Climate Change, and on the other hand, antagonising so-called 'working families' who don't want to cop the burden of increased power bills. This has effectively damaged their approval ratings (though still strong on a two-party preferred basis). 4. The bleed from the Labor Party will go to the Greens (who have actually increased in their popularity significantly during the course of this ETS kerfuffle) and some 'centrist' swing voters will go to the Liberal Party. 5. Meanwhile, the Liberal Party, being divided over the Turnbull-Abbott fight over ETS and the factional wounds between centrists (i.e. the Turnbull, pro-ETS) vs. the conservatives (i.e. the Abbott, anti-ETS) will be further disoriented by the blow of having to fight a sudden election. The results of this election, as is admitted by even Liberal Party sympathisers such as Gerard Henderson, is already clear: the Liberal Party cannot win and is likely to lose some of its overall support. 6. This loss will create a sharper antagonism within the Liberal Party between those from the 'centre' who would want to oust Abbott (including those who will blame him for ousting Turnbull and are pro-ETS, probably including the popular Joe Hockey) versus the conservatives behind Abbott and the Liberal Party's coalition partners, the National Party (who are by and large anti-ETS). This will be further complicated the influx of 'centrist' swing voters from Labor. 7. At the same time, the Greens will probably win a significant minority of seats from disaffected 'left' Labor voters. 8. An thus, what is effectively the result is a four faction (plus independents) parliament that is divided by a fuller spectrum of political opinion. This will re-invigorate Australian institutional politics and the tenuous balance of powers in the house might mean that ordinary people are more 'insecure' (in a good way!) about what occurs in parliament, thus compelling the electorate (including disillusioned youth) to be more active by way of paying attention to the latest factional struggles (like this one between Turnbull-Abbott) and with lobbying their local MPs. This will also serve to loosen the tendency at present towards a 'politics-as-usual' climate (no pun intended) between two parties who fundamentally agree on the main issues of principle and who argue only over administrative issues (e.g. should the petrol excise be 5cents or 10cents; should the tax cut be 2% or 5%, etc. These are of course important in their own way, but sad if it is the sum total of politics). Is this naive? Probably. Am I hopeful? Definitely.