The faithful face the unforeseen

Posted on August 22, 2010 by

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The crowd at ALP headquarters in Melbourne last night started out subdued and slowly turned tense. As the evening wore on and the hung parliament result became clearer, the mood settled into a kind of numb quiet, a limbo between the despondency of defeat and the rush of victory. Most of the crowd had a beer in hand and one eye on the ABC broadcast, projected 30 feet high on the wall above the stage.

The evening rolled on. A few moments roused the attention of the crowd.

Wyatt Roy became Australia’s youngest ever Member of Parliament, at age 20. More than one joker yelled for his parents to come and collect him.

One of the biggest cheers of the night came when the ABC announced WIlson Tuckey, the deeply conservative long-standing member for O’Connor, had lost his seat to the Nationals candidate, Tony Crook. Tuckey had held the rural Western Australia seat since it was first created in 1980.

The night stretched on, well past its nominal 11pm finish time. The attendees started to mutter. “When’s Julia coming on?” Conversations inevitably turned to what she could possibly say, when nothing had been decided.

First came Kevin Rudd, up on the big screen. As he addressed his supporters in his own seat of Griffith, those in the room shuffled their feet and coughed awkwardly. Presumably more than a few people were thinking about the nine or more seats Labor had lost that day in Queensland.

Finally, to a chant of “Julia! Julia!”, the Prime Minister walked onto the stage, seeming shrunk by the wide open space. A small core of supporters – notably those less formally dressed in attendance – crowded in front of her, cheering, clapping and calling her name happily. The suit-wearing types at the back of the room were notably less rapturous in their applause.

Gillard walked to the podium, all composure and reassuring smiles, and gave the speech of her Prime Ministership. That is, she gave the same speech she had given day after day since she first took over from Rudd two months ago. The words were new, but the delivery was heavily recycled. It was calm and steady, spoken with confidence but without passion or excitement. She talked about core Labor values, like the role of government in “protect(ing) that all-important right to work and get a job” and “the great tradition of the labour movement, a tradition that believes the healthcare of each of us is important”, as though seeking to remind her audience what they stood for. She spoke largely in platitudes, like: “Friends, as we know in our great democracy, every vote is important, every vote must be counted.”

Neither a concession speech or a celebratory speech, it was… just a speech.

Finally, after a determined call for optimism, and a brief hug with her partner Tim Mathieson, Gillard left the stage. The applause from the first few rows was enthusiastic.

“Wonderful,” said one older gentleman admiringly. “How could she ever be beaten?”

But few in the room were as positive. Many pinched faces could be seen as the crowd wandered slowly out. This was a loss, of sorts – certainly the speech subsequently given by Tony Abbott sounded like a victory celebration. And yet it was not a loss; there was no great sense of tragedy or fear for the future, just an anaesthetised curiosity. It wasn’t like the Other Bastards were going to run in and start trashing the place, not with the ALP and the Greens controlling the Senate. And yet the best outcome Labor’s supporters could hope for, if they were really lucky, was a Labor-led coalition government propped up on a splint of Greens and independent MPs, ready to hobble awkwardly through the next three years.

The faithful had come to witness the flip of a coin: the result of the election that was too close to call. They had hoped and expected for it to land in favour of the ALP. They had braced themselves against the possibility that it would land in favour of the Coalition. They had not prepared to see it come down on its edge.

Words – Fraser Allison

Image – ALP

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