Posted Under: Elections,Environment,Immigration
Guest post by Roland Miller McCall
Australia went to the polls today after the most mundane election campaigns anyone can remember. Neither Labor nor the Coalition opposition has engaged with the big issues nor proposed a vision for Australia’s future. In recent days the debate has descended into high farce with the defining issue of a substanceless campaign being a debate about whether there would be another leader’s debate.
The Labor Government is led by Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who barely two months ago sensationally ousted Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Labor had spooked at Rudd’s declining popularity and without any warning the Parliamentary Party installed Gillard after a late night coup. The Welsh born Gillard, who is Australia’s first female Prime Minister is an unmarried, childless atheist (the latter being her most controversial attribute).
Her opponent Tony Abbott, also British-born, is the leader of the ineptly named Liberal Party of Australia (the Conservatives). Abbott is a macho, straight-talking, Rhodes Scholar, surfer and onetime trainee-Catholic priest. An archconservative from the right of the Liberal Party he is the ideological heir of former PM John Howard. Abbott is often called the ‘mad monk’ of Australian politics and is known for espousing such as that girls should preserve their virginity as a “precious gift” for the wedding night.
Yet despite much being at stake, including whether we elect one of the most conservative Prime Ministers we have ever had, it is a hard one to get enthused about. Immigration, largely at the behest of the Liberal Party has once again come to dominate the political agenda. Despite receiving a tiny fraction of Europe’s asylum seekers, the presence of several thousand refugees or ‘Boat People’ arriving on our shores each year is apparently something that keeps the ‘swinging voter’ up at night. Australia, at least in its marginal seats, seems unable to escape its xenophobic past. The Liberals are planning to use the Royal Australian Navy to “STOP THE BOATS”, while Labor is promising to process asylum seekers in East Timor.
Arguably, much of the blame for the dullness of the campaign and lack of progressive agenda rests with Labor. Unfortunately Australian Labor displays much of the ideological bankruptcy of its British counterpart. Indeed, many of Gillard’s key policies bear the hallmark of New Labour. A friend recently asked “why are we copying all the policies that tried and failed in the UK about five years ago…are these people in some drugged out timewarp?!” My reply was that this was hardly surprising when it is considered that Gillard’s key policy advisor and deputy chief of staff is Tom Bentley, a former Blair advisor. Ultimately, Australia Labor’s, like British Labour’s, lack of progressive agenda can be put down the reality it is now the party of the middle classes. Both parties have struggled to redefine their ideology after abandoning their working class roots.
Yet for all Labor’s failings, as someone who grew up during John Howard’s decade of conservative rule, the last few years under Labor have been a welcome change. Gone are John Howard’s Thatcherite policies of undermining workers rights and the slashing of public spending (he based much of his ideology Thatcher’s). Labor has begun righting many of these wrongs and delivered modest increases in health and education spending. Amongst its major achievements were delivering a long over due apology to a generation of indigenous children who had been removed from their parents. Labor also ratified the Kyoto Protocol, which John Howard had spent a decade refusing to sign.
Climate change is the issue on which Labor has been most disappointing. In 2007, it was the defining issue of a campaign that was referred to the “the world’s first climate change election.” Australian’s had grown tired of Howard’s continued scepticism and wanted real and decisive action. Rudd and Labor promised much but delivered little. In fairness, the emissions trading scheme that was the centerpiece of Labor’s policy was rejected three times by the Australian Senate. But much of the blame rests with Labor for delivering legislation that in trying to satisfy both environmentalist and polluter alike ended up satisfying neither. Much of the blame can also be placed on the Liberal Party, which negotiated a compromise with the government, before the climate denying wing of the party got the numbers and dumped their leader, Malcolm Turnbull. In his place they installed Tony Abbott; a climate sceptic once described climate science as “absolute crap.” Abbott immediately went on the attack against what he called a “Great Big New Tax”, which combined with the disappointment from Copenhagen saw Labor lose its nerve.
In March 2010, Rudd announced that any emissions trading scheme be postponed until 2013. Rudd’s willingness to abandon action on an issue he emphatically described as “the greatest moral challenge of our time” was terminal to his popularity, which instantly plummeted along with his political fortunes. As Fairfax columnist Peter Hartcher commented, “Voters, especially Labor voters, [saw] the surrender on the scheme as evidence of a Labor Party that doesn’t believe in anything, a self-perpetuating patronage machine no longer willing to fight for any cause.”
Climate change has now played a role in the demise of at least two Liberal opposition leaders and a Liberal and Labor Prime Minister. These politicians have been unable to reconcile the competing, if not irreconcilable demands, of some of the world’s largest resource companies with a population who wants action to reduce emissions. Gillard has attempted to avoid this political deathtrap by deferring action until there is “a broad consensus in the community.” To achieve this several weeks ago Tom Bentley devised a Citizens Assembly of 150 randomly selected people who would meet and talk climate change. Such a ludicrous policy instantly ended Gillard’s honeymoon period as people questioned what she and the rest of Labor stood for.
Whatever happens today, the one thing that is almost certain is that the Australian Greens will hold the balance of power in the Senate. They already have five Senators and are likely to gain two more. This will give them the power to block or amend legislation and potentially place them in a position to break the climate change policy deadlock. It will be their coming of age as a third force in Australian politics and whether they are able to meet the expectation of their supporters while reaching compromise on legislation with government remains to be seen. The Greens also have a chance of winning their first House of Representatives seat in the inner city electorate of Melbourne.
In the House of Representatives things are less clear-cut. At this stage it looks like although the Liberals inched ahead several weeks ago Labor appears to have clawed back a narrow lead. Although Labor is certain to lose seats in New South Wales and Queensland it looks like the party will retain power with a small majority on the basis of Greens preferences (Australia has a preferential system of voting). In all likelihood, hopefully the Gillard Labor government will be returned. Labor’s election slogan may be “Let’s move Australian forward’s” and despite there being very little indication about what this means, the one thing that is certain is that Tony Abbott and the Liberals would genuinely take Australia backwards. It’s going to be a long night tonight and while Labor may have its flaws it sure beats the alternative.