The new majority government in the ACT

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 Three Saturdays ago the nation voted decisively for a Howard Government, giving the Coalition majority control in both houses. Yet two Saturdays ago the people of Canberra, voting for the sixth Australian Capital Territory Legislative Assembly, also returned a majority government, a unique achievement there. This time the vote went to Labor. Was this an early protective response to Howard’s absolute power, a buffer between leftish public servants and their imperial PM? Partly. Something else stirs: a pull away from diversity, a longing for the certainty of majority rule.

Here is the apparent contradiction. Despite swinging 5 percent to Labor, Canberrans also swung 3 percent to Liberals. It was the minor parties and smaller groupings that tumbled down. It’s been a process of agglomeration ever since the mixed first Legislative Assembly election in 1989. Where there were once Residents Rallies and Independent Groupings and eventually Greens and Democrats, now all that remains standing from that halcyon and undoubtedly crazy period is the ALP (probably with a groundbreaking nine seats out of seventeen), and the Liberals (most likely seven out of seventeen), and a solitary cross-bencher Green who, at 9 percent has retained a seat in Molongolo, but failed to touch Kerrie Tucker’s 16 percent Senate vote of the week before.

The final result can’t be known until the end of this week or early next. Like Tasmania, the ACT uses the Hare-Clarke system of voting, also rotating candidates’ names on the ballot paper. This gives voters enhanced power to choose their own candidates within party lists, but it makes predicting the final result difficult, even well into the count.

All the same, it’s certain Labor leader Jon Stanhope will be Chief Minister again, having scored two quotas in his own right. He and his party are building on his popular leadership since the traumatic 2003 bushfires. Like Howard, there is little theoretically to stop him from doing whatever he wants, except ACT is a more urbane and informed electorate, Stanhope has a record of integrity and transparency, and, of course, there is a caucus that will not be afraid to speak frankly to their leader.

As for the entire country the week before, it seems people are not so angry and disgusted at the two major parties that they won’t vote for them. Quite the contrary. Sometimes they’ll vote for both of them. One Green scrutineer pointed to a weird phenomenon in Ginninderra. In that seat, Labor has increased its vote from 27 percent in 1998 to more than 50 percent this time, a whopping increase of 23 percent in two elections. But quite a few ballots were marked for Labor, then preferenced directly to Liberal, where their numbering finished. Stopping early like this in the ACT’s optional preferential system simply dries up preference flows to minor parties. Going straight on from Labor to Liberal is as strong a signal of preference for a majority government as you’re likely to get.

Perhaps the incumbents in both federal and ACT elections were doing a good job, both of them, and they each were simply re-elected. But just for a brief moment, blame the war. Not that voters in the ACT gave a thought to Iraq or Al Quaeda when there are more prosaic issues like hospitals, police, water and freeway extensions to consider. But the general backdrop of war and fights against terror can be psychologically contaminating. Khaki elections diffuse vague fears, and resistance to difference. We prefer the decisive, to cling to the well-known rather than jump into the uncertain. Maggie Thatcher rescued her failing career in 1982 with the Falklands; Howard, too, well understands that the opposition to Iraq or prattling critique about a war on terror doesn’t matter once fear makes a home in people’s minds. His promises to keep us relaxed and comfortable are scripted answers to his own planted questions of fear.

Thus Howard is encouraging us to be risk-avoiders, to join the pack, to give more power to the majority. His majority. He doesn’t need to justify the unskilful war-making. Its very existence pricked our collective fears, to drive us to certainty and away from adventure. Howard is the gentler and unconscious face of fundamentalism.

On the other hand, Stanhope’s excellent result for Labor, and the simultaneous boost to the Liberals, may merely reflect the local population’s self-acceptance that the Legislative Assembly has come to stay, a maturing of their politics. The local bushfires, too, have burned away memories of time past. The capital is a changed place of identity, more self-confident, less vulnerable or cringing to criticism from beyond. Confidence may have led to a confident result.

For the moment, the new majority government in the ACT is thinking of increasing hospital beds, establishing a new prison, a convention centre, and a dragway. The Liberals will argue about the details. As lone cross-bencher, Deb Foskey, from the Greens will try to shift the debate from hospitals to community health, away from vague commitments to the environment towards practical measures for sustainability. There’s four years to work it all out.

But the question across the lake is there, more pressing, in a mirror reflection. How will unrestrained power know its own restraint? How long before our PM juts out his jaw, to insist that democracy is the rule of the majority, conveniently forgetting, as a simultaneous essential, his mutual obligation to protect minority interests from his own majoritarian tyranny?

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