Everyone has to vote in Australia, the law says, and the preference system drafts nearly all votes into the Liberal-National coalition’s bag or Labor’s, like outback merinos ready for docking or dipping.
Yet the government often still often does not get a majority. The Parliament has two chambers and in the upper House, the Senate, each state has 12 seats of which usually six are contested each general election under a semi-proportional system that virtually ensures small parties get seats.
This has put John Howard’s government in a minority in the Senate during his premiership and has thwarted some reform plans. The GST is a dog’s breakfast. Workplace law reform has been watered down. The Senate forced a change in the United States free trade agreement.
And that is without taking into account that the states often have governments of the opposite stripe from the one in Canberra. All states now have Labor governments.
Now stir in the preference system of voting in the single-member-electorates in the lower House. Voters have to say which candidates they choose second, third and so on if their top choice (and second and third and so on) preference gets few votes. Votes are redistributed from losers until one candidate gets 50%.
Independents or small-party candidates can — and do — win by getting a strong “primary” showing and picking up preferences from a major party candidate who comes third. In a tight election that could spell “hung Parliament”.
All of which makes radicalism in Canberra unlikely, whatever is said on the hustings — shades of MMP here.
For all that, New Zealanders have a vested interest in the outcome of the election in Australia on 9 October.
The election decides (or decided if you are reading this after 9 October) whether the Liberal-led coalition or Labor would head the government and whether it had an effective majority — and the general policy direction, though the detail may depend on the configuration of parties in the two chambers.
But it also decides another matter relevant to this country: how fast power will now pass from an older to a younger generation.
Labor’s Mark Latham is 43. He was born into the 1960s decade, which was marked by a “values revolution” that overturned much that the previous security-conscious generation held dear in favour of personal freedom in every sphere.
John Howard is 65. He was born as the second world war began. He grew up with and personifies the postwar values which were rejected in the 1960s.
But by election day Howard was within sight of becoming Australia’s second longest-serving Prime Minister and pressure was building for his replacement. And that will be by one of two people born just before 1960, deputy Liberal leader Peter Costello (47) or Health Minister Tony Abbott (46).
Howard’s generation was very much part of the old British empire in their youth, even though by then the empire had become officially a Commonwealth. This empire bound Australia and New Zealand, notably in wars involving large numbers of each population in a common endeavour. It was a bond of sentiment.
That broad-based war bond is not a factor for the next generation. To the extent the trans-Tasman exists now (and it does), it is no longer war-buddy-based. It is very much a practical matter.
Of course, Howard’s attitude to New Zealand has also been practical. He showed that by ruthless unilateral pursuit of a free trade agreement with the United States. But Howard is also an old-fashioned monarchist, a creature of empire.
Abbott is a monarchist, though of a modern conservative sort. He has taken little interest in New Zealand and would be an unknown quantity on matters such as the single market or immigration.
Costello is a republican, free of empire, and a practical Treasurer. He did, however, restart Australian action on the single market after Michael Cullen pressed him. He did that for practical reasons of Australia’s economic advantage.
Latham has seldom attended to New Zealand, though what he has seen, especially around Queenstown, he has liked and in March at a meeting with New Zealand ministers he backed the single market — again, on practicalities.
Which defines the future. Evoking Anzac, Gallipoli and such sentiment as a reason for cooperation across the Tasman on matters vital to this country’s future will not work once Howard has gone. It is one country to another now, close of course, but not blood brothers any more.