My local paper is urging the independents and the big parties to make quick decisions, to get on with working out who is going to run the country. It’s a meme that’s being repeated in papers around the country: gotta move fast, gotta have a government, gotta keep the markets happy, MOVE FAST NOW!
Not so fast would be better. Gotta get this right. And we’ve got plenty of time to do that.
Government in this country is not just the elected pollies who sit in the House of Reps and the Senate. It’s also the public service. As it turns out, the public service will keep things ticking over for quite some time yet. Tax will be collected, services will be funded, the federal police and the High Court will keep on working, roads will be built, the country will be defended, we will continue to trade with other nations, our borders will be protected… the list goes on. And it is public servants who will ensure that all this will happen.
If the editorial writers had taken a little time to look across the Tasman before pounding away at their keyboards, they would have seen an instructive history about how government functions in the absence of pollies. In 1996, following the first MMP election in New Zealand, Winston Peters and his New Zealand First party held the balance of power, with 17 seats in the House. Neither major party held enough seats to govern in their own right – whichever party Peters decided to go into coalition with would be the government.
Peters spun out the coalition negotiations for a very long time. Over a month! So that made for four or five weeks of caretaker government before the election, and then another month when no one knew who the Prime Minister would be, nor which party would be the Government.
And the country just carried on. I have spoken to senior public servants who were there at the time. What happened was that the Cabinet Secretary, and the State Services Commissioner (head of the public service), met every day, and made what decisions needed to be made in order to keep the country functioning. After a few weeks, things started to get a little tricky: they needed some pollies in place to make policy decisions. But by and large, by being loyal servants of New Zealand, they managed to keep the whole place working. Police got paid, roads got built, taxes were collected, social welfare transfers kept on being paid… and so on. The institutions of government all functioned. A government was formed in plenty of time.
Like New Zealand, Australia is a robust liberal democracy, with well established institutions, a solid rule of law, an excellent judiciary, and above all, a highly professional and capable public service. Australia is probably even better placed than New Zealand, because the functions of government are split between the Commonwealth and the states. Things will keep on going quite happily for a long time yet.
There is no rush to form a government. There is no need for speed for the sake of speed. The editorial writers and hack pundits should back off, and stop demanding a speedy resolution. This is not a footy game or a soap opera or reality TV: it is a discussion about who should govern this country for the next three years. The process of working that out should take place calmly, not at a pace dictated by the headline hungry news media.