From the outside in, politics is rarely exciting. On the inside out, there’s never a dull moment. But there can’t be many people in Australia who are not enthralled by the twists and turns of an election campaign that has gone from a limp rhetoric to absorbing cliffhanger. The current narrative is more Reservoir Dogs than Lassie. And we still have no idea what the ending might look like.
Two weeks ago, it was very different. Tony Abbott, a man who’s gaffs, ears, choice of Speedos and rather non-magisterial standing, looked destined to play little more than a Joker-in-the-Pack role as leader of the opposition Liberal Coalition party.
In the red corner, Julia Gillard had everything going for her. Australia was one of only a handful of countries that had avoided a dip into the recessionary pool. Her government had borrowed heavily to fund a series of stimulus packages, but the multi-billion dollar debt that came from it paled into significance when compared to other Western countries. And there was an unspoken, almost Thatcheresk-fuelled national sentiment about her that suggested the popular vote was hers to lose.
And lose it she did. Two days prior to the election, Gillard was serving up right jabs, tackling the Opposition leader’s fiscal management skills. So Abbot did what any part-time triathlete would do and decided to go on a 36-hour, non-stop door knocking campaign. Which worked.
In a 140bpm heartbeat, the last full day of the election became an all night watch-a-thon in which Abbott played tennis, paced around night markets, spoke to any pensioner that cared to listen and ran the risk of losing his mind during live phone-ins. But he survived, said nothing particularly silly and, in the process, managed to dump any aspirations the incumbent government had of having a serious debate about serious politics.
From there, the Australian election has gone from odd to bizarre. The electorate booed Labour and buoyed the Coalition and the prospect of a hung parliament, with no one party achieving the 76 seats they need to form government, has forced Gillard and Abbott to court four Independent MPs who now hold the balance of power in their very sweaty hands. Given that one of them constructed an entire campaign around the importation of bananas, one outcome of this election campaign could be a surge in demand for apples. Only in Australia.
And then there’s the constitutional issue in which the Queen’s Representative, the Governor-General, may well have to play a referee role in sorting out the mess. Except that she’s in a bit of a pickle herself. In the recently acquired post of mother-in-law to a rising Labour Party star, there’s a valid question about her conflict of interest. Which means, quite possibly, the Queen herself might have to wade in – although that would put the entire nation on the fast track to Republicanism if anything did.
Years ago, a fight with some University vagrant, flogging Socialist Worker, meant I acquired a nonchalant pose to organised politics – that stuck. The political aspirations of the Student Union leaders seemed little more that a rather loose cover to organise legitimate raves that, so word had it, resulted in the arrival of at least one illegitimate child every year. But that has all changed in the past week (the position on politics, not illegitimate children), as I suspect it has for many people who live in this country.
Whilst voting is compulsory in Australia, the democratic isolationist bag that so many carry around has been discarded as a result of this election campaign. So too, I hope, has the protest vote that people appear to have thought wildly amusing on polling day, only to find that the person they voted for got in. Whilst there’s an adversion to the possibility that we could all have to go through this campaign again, there’s an intense interest in where Australia’s political script could take us next. What the country needs is stable government. What the country gets could be very different. Let’s just hope it’s not a Banana Republic.