Tom Nairn

The swagman he up and he jumped in the water-hole,
Drowning himself by the coolibah tree,
And his ghost may be heard as it sings by the billabong,
Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?

‘Waltzing Matilda’, A.B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson (1895)

Three weeks before the American presidential vote, the political right was victorious in the Australian federal elections of 9 October. On 12 October I went to a book launch in Melbourne at which suicidal depression prevailed. The mood matched the text being launched, Boris Frankel’s Zombies, Lilliputians and Sadists, a withering condemnation of socio-political non-progress over the past decade.[1] Australia has come to be run by zombies, who as they gain in confidence turn into four-wheel-drive, roo-bar sadists (‘roo-bars’ are the Australian version of ‘bull-bars’). Footling left-wing Lilliputians have failed to contest this shift, occasionally making things worse.

Just before our gathering, the zombie chieftain John Howard had delivered a refulgent message of thanks on TV, making it plain his new government would turn first to workplace legislation. The aim would be reform in the interest of small business – boosting enterprise by making hiring and firing much simpler. Though long nurtured by the Howard Liberal Party, this policy had not been prominent in the campaign. Now, it looked like an illustration of Frankel’s thesis of the general slide into sadism. The same evening, Shaun of the Dead opened for lively business: a black comedy in which the living dead, vexed by exclusion from globalising affluence, rise up and take over North London.

There has been no let-up in the despondency since then. One hears repeatedly of the ‘Saturday Night Massacre’ (Australians vote on Saturdays), and the Labor Party has obligingly fallen apart into Lilliputian factions. Even worse, the elder statesman of the Labor Party, Gough Whitlam, appeared to counsel patience on his protégé Mark Latham, who recently became the Labor leader. The gaffer prognosticated that a full two sessions of zombiedom might have to elapse before the progressives get another chance. Had not he himself had to wait 23 years before the turnaround of the 1970s? Though not actually employing the phrase ‘There is no alternative,’ he plumply concluded that the faithful have to put up with it: two-partyism remains the best of all possible systems, its miseries made bearable by faith in the inevitable change-over to come. In the meantime, let the zombies enjoy themselves.

I fled from doom the next day down to the Southern Ocean. Near Port MacDonnell there is a strand of weirdly eroded limestone, locally known as ‘the petrified forest’. It has a look-out point, though only whales and fish-poachers can be seen this side of Antarctica, 4500 miles away. The sou-wester that bore the First Fleet past in 1788 strikes it like Thor’s hammer. Most days, ten seconds of deep breathing here is guaranteed to clear brain cells of all content, including ‘in the meantime’ depression.

Back in the Café Malibu with a latte, the staff of Antipodean life, it was easier to reflect on how limited the massacre had actually been. Final figures are not yet in (the process takes three weeks) but the overall picture was already clear on the Sunday morning. The winning Liberal Party had 40.49 per cent of votes – less than a bare majority even if one adds the 5.9 per cent of its coalition partner, the National Party (a hinterland or country party with no UK equivalent). The swing from one main contestant to the other was only 2.08 per cent. The Australian Labor Party stood at 37.63 per cent, or 350,000 votes behind in an electorate of 13,000,000. But during the election campaign the ALP had been semi-allied to the rising Green Party, which won 7.14 per cent of the vote. It can thus be estimated that an informal leftist alliance received just under 45 per cent of first preference votes. This was more than Howard’s party, though a little less than the Liberals-plus-Nationals, who got close to 46 per cent. To that figure, however, one must add a bizarre newcomer: Family First, a Christian-values outfit that achieved more than 2 per cent. As well as bringing the zombies closer to an actual majority, Family First did surprisingly well in the elections for the Australian second chamber, the Senate (part of the Senate is renewed at each general election, as well as the entire House of Representatives). It is certain that responsible conservatism will next year control the Senate as well as the House of Representatives.

Australian politics has some unique features. But others remain direly familiar: the system essentially converts a minority of the vote into a safe majority of seats. Voters place a list of candidates-plus-parties in order of preference. The overall percentages mentioned above are for ‘first preferences’, or top-of-the-list votes – approximately, the parties Australians actually voted for. What they get is something different.

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[1] Curtin, 336 pp., $29.95, September, 1 920 73122 9.

[2] Profile, 192 pp., £7.99, June, 1 861 97739 5.

[3] Cambridge, 168 pp., £15.99, December, 0 521 60370 6.