The Australian Election: An Outsider’s Perspective

Australia has just voted in their 44th Parliament and as widely expected, Tony Abbott, leader of the National Coalition won in a landslide victory over the incumbent Labor party.

AP Photo/Rob Griffith

But the pressing question for me and for many looking in on this from outside Australia is: why? Australia has enjoyed what most countries would consider a satisfactory six years under Labor, and most of that with current Prime Minister Kevin Rudd at the helm. It has escaped relatively unscathed from the global financial crisis, not once falling into recession. Despite a rising cost of living, Australians are better off in real terms than they were when Labor came to power in 2007.

But in terms of policies, the two parties were very divergent. Rudd was proposing a carbon emissions tax. Abbott’s replacement scheme, a system of incentives for firms to voluntarily reduce their carbon emissions, has been proven by an independent study to be nowhere near effective enough to meet Australia’s targets under the Kyoto Protocol. In fact, Abbott is something of an environmental disaster waiting to happen. His transport policy relies on building more roads at the expense of improving public transport. His policies can be explained by his scepticism towards global warming, scepticism about as well founded as his assertion that carbon dioxide cannot be measured since it is (according to this great scientific mind) “weightless”. However the carbon tax had been hugely unpopular with the public.

Australia’s options are similarly divergent in social policy terms. Rudd’s support for marriage equality, although only recently expressed, is backed up by his passage of legislation granting equal financial rights to gay couples in civil partnerships. Abbott, meanwhile, not only opposes gay marriage but has also stated that he feels “threatened” by homosexuality. So strong is his support for “traditional” marriage that he has proposed making divorce illegal without specific grounds.

He is fiercely anti-immigrant, and unfortunately the general public’s opposition to the admittance of the “boat people” has made his hard line on asylum seekers popular. This has led to a general policy lurch in this direction by all parties, including Labor (despite Rudd’s earlier endorsement of a “big Australia”).

Added to all this is the simple fact that he is an outrageous misogynist, and if you haven’t already seen the video of Gillard eviscerating him for having the gall to accuse another MP of sexism then I would advise you to get on it right away. By contrast, Rudd nominated the first ever female Governor-General and filled his current cabinet with a record number of women. Abbott, while minister for health, tried to veto access to the abortion drug RU-486. Rudd supported the successful motion that removed this decision from the health minister’s portfolio.

All this, of course, may be working to Abbott’s and the coalition’s advantage. Australia’s reputation – or perhaps stereotype – as a laid-back and liberal country (women achieved federal voting rights in 1902) doesn’t at all hold true today. Australia has a long conservative political history. Australian aboriginal people did not receive full citizenship or voting rights until the late 1960s. The Australian government was still allowing church groups to effectively steal aboriginal children until 1972. It was in fact Rudd who delivered the first apology for these abuses when he was Prime Minister in 2008.

Abbott’s economic policy depends on cutting tax and cutting spending. The tax cuts focus on businesses (he plans to cut corporation tax by 1.5%), and the spending cuts will be around $40 billion over the next four years. The full cost of the coalition economic plans were revealed 48 hours before the election. This cut in government spending is significant and, while it probably won’t force Australia into a recession (as Rudd claims), it won’t balance the budget any sooner than Rudd’s economic plan; both predict a budget surplus in 2016/17. Labor’s economic success thus far has already been noted.

Why, then, do Australians think their best choice lies in the right-wing, environmental suspect, economically dodgy Tony Abbott? The media may be in a large part to blame; all but one of the major Australian newspapers have come out in support of the coalition, with only The Age endorsing Labor (the only major international news outlet to express a preference, The Economist, also supports Rudd). The continual infighting between Gillard and Rudd no doubt also served to drain confidence in the ruling party.

But to me the most likely cause lies in the compulsory voting system which is an integral part of Australian democracy. Those citizens who don’t care are forced to vote, and the ones who are forced generally don’t follow their country’s politics as closely as those who vote voluntarily. Yet these apathetic voters are the swing voters, the ones who may decide victory for either side. But then this still speaks to continuing conservative leanings, even latent ones, among the Australian populace.

So though outsiders might feel confused by the election of a man who has never been particular nationally popular and has always been polarizing this fits international trends following the financial crisis. This could have easily been any other country.

— submitted by Cathal O’Leary

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