by Rob Harding
Who’s the Australian prime minister?
Don’t worry if you don’t know. In addition to Australia being very far away, it’s rarely covered by either the British or American media unless someone’s found an entertaining new way of being killed by the wildlife. Even in the digital age, Australia is culturally and politically isolated from the Anglophone western world, marginalised by the sensationalised nightmare of American politics and Anglo-American cultural dominance.
The other reason you might not know is because Australian politics is a turbulent sea of leadership challenges and political manoeuvring. Since 2007 five different prime ministers have been in office — Labor’s Kevin Rudd from 2007 to 2010, was deposed by Julia Gillard, who led a different Labor government until 2013 when Rudd pushed her out again. The infighting was one of the reasons for the rise of the infamous Tony Abbot later in 2013, who ruled for two years before being booted out of office by Malcom Turnbull, the current Liberal Prime Minister, in September 2015.
Last week, a federal election began across the country to elect all 226 members of the Australian parliament.
This followed a brief eight-week campaign period which saw the far-right One Nation party (the BNP, but led by a woman) gaining enough ground to be mildly worrying and bringing the Islamophobic undercurrents in Australian society into the mainstream, out-polling the Greens in Queensland and gathering both the racist vote and in places the anti-government protest vote. Their leader Pauline Hanson is looking more and more like a southern hemisphere adherent of the Trump/Johnson school of political demagoguery, and as with their efforts it’s winning her party votes, although not enough to gain them much influence so far. It should of course be stressed that racism in Australian politics is nothing new (see their treatment of the First Australians, although that’s by no means the only outlet for Australian prejudice.)
Racists aside, however, the election has been a tense affair for the two major power blocs involved. The ruling Liberal (conservative)/Nationalist coalition under Turnbull looked set to lose its majority in Parliament, but the competing Labor party were unlikely to gain enough seats to form a majority of their own. Both parties began scrambling to form coalition governments, hoping to get some of Australia’s vast number of minor parties on side in order to form a majority government and avoid a hung parliament. Both major parties were somewhat unstable to begin with – Malcom Turnbull challenged Tony Abbot for the Liberal leadership in 2015 but won by only ten votes 54-44, while the Labor party is still divided from the Rudd-Gillard feuds of their previous time in office. Turnbull’s government had also instituted various changes to voting districts and procedure, a move endorsed by the Liberal/National coalition as well as the Greens and the independent Nick Xenophon Team.
Racists aside, however, the election has been a tense affair for the two major power blocs involved.
Nonethelesss, pre-election commentary has generally backed the existing Coalition government, with all of Australia’s metropolitan dailies backing them and almost all the Sunday papers. As reported in the notorious Northern Territory News, Malcom Turnbull won the (presumably vital) crocodile vote in late June.
Australian elections are different from British ones in several ways. For a start, Australia spans several time zones, resulting in voters in some areas sometimes knowing the result before they even go to the polls. Australia also uses the Alternative Vote system rather than First Past the Post, meaning that their elections take longer to resolve, especially with the low population density in many areas.
Voting is mandatory for all over-18s, meaning that Australian elections have some of the highest turnouts in the world, usually over 90%. Candidates are ranked in order of preference, and given the large number of candidates Australian ballot papers can become huge, with print becoming so small that Australian polling stations have begun purchasing hundreds of magnifying glasses to allow voters to read all the names. Compulsory voting means that politicians have to appeal to a wide range of people, especially given the number of single-issue microparties that exist across Australia. Severe inflation of political promises as candidates appeal to naked greed has also led to disillusionment with the Australian political establishment, although many on the Coalition side are adopting suspiciously Austerity-like claims that Australia must ‘Live within its means.’
Voting opened on the 2nd of July, and all declaration votes must be received by 6pm on the 15th of July, meaning that the race is ongoing at the time of writing. Initially the Labor party seemed to be pulling ahead, winning by 69 seats to 64 on the 4th of July. This initial lead subsided, however — some blaming later postal votes (which historically have favoured the right wing), and at present the Coalition are just three seats away from the 76 necessary to win a majority. Of the six districts still in doubt, two look likely to vote Coalition as well. The Labor party is trailing with 66 seats, and they are predicted to win 69. At present the third and fourth parties are the Greens and the Nick Xenophon team, with 9.8% of the vote and 1.9% of the vote respectively (both parties are predicted to win one seat), while all the other parties hold a combined 11.1% of the vote and a predicted three seats.
This initial lead subsided, however — some blaming later postal votes (which historically have favoured the right wing)
So at the moment it’s looking like a close victory for the incumbent Liberal/National coalition, and a return to power for Malcom Turnbull. What can Australians expect from their continued leadership? The Coalition are heavily economics focused, promising (among other things) 200,000 new jobs and planning to continue Australia’s steady economic growth, which has remained at 3% despite fluctuations in the far eastern markets. All well and good so far, but they are also lowering taxes by continuing to block a carbon tax introduced by Labor in their last government, and heavily investing in Australia’s military, including plans for ‘regionally superior submarines’.
Other plans include a section worryingly titled ‘Protecting our Borders’, which does start by mentioning the closing of detention centres that held migrant children but subsequently segues into condemning ‘people who arrive by boat’, as well as measures like ‘cancel[ing] welfare payments on security grounds’ and introducing ‘preventative detention protocols.’ So far, so small — Conservative, with a hint of UKIP immigrant scaremongering. They do promise various measures to tackle climate change, at least, presumably to attempt to earn the support of the increasingly powerful Greens.
Whatever happens, the new parliament should be in session by mid-August, after the votes have finally been counted and collated. Such a close election doesn’t inspire much hope that Australia’s turbulent political system will settle down any time soon, however, and the rise of the far right and the rejection of the mainstream in Australia bears disturbing parallels to the unpleasant shifts in British politics and the seething mess that is the US presidential race. For now, at least, she’ll be right, mate. No worries.
Featured image © Joe Castro/AAP